The whole book is based on the premise that the way we see things is affected by our knowledge and beliefs. An image is a sight that has been recreated or reproduced. It is a set of appearances, which has been removed from the place and time of its first appearance. Between 1500-1900 the oil painting was main medium of visual art, from 1900 onwards the photograph became the main medium of visual art. In parts of the book Berger addresses the way the portrayal of a women’s body in art (painting and photographs) has changed over time from the Renaissance onwards. This is the portion of the book I will be focusing on in this blog post. It is noteworthy to mention that at times Berger is really blunt and sexist, but almost everything he says is true when you take into account the historical context that he is referencing. Also, bear in mind that Berger is generalizing when he is grouping certain types of art together to draw conclusions.
According to Berger, conventions have established the social presence of a woman as different from that of a man. A man’s presence is dependent on the power that he embodies, while a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself and defines what can and cannot be done to her. A woman’s presence is a manifestation of her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, and taste. A woman is forced to be self-conscious, eventually resulting in conceitedness and vanity.
Men look at women, while women watch themselves being looked at. In other words, the man is a surveyor of the woman and consequently the woman is surveyed, thus turning the woman into an object of vision, a sight. Pritty much what Berger is getting at is the historical objectification of women by men.
In one group of European oil painting, the nude, women are the principal recurring subjects. In all nude paintings like the one above it is apparent that the subject (a woman) is aware of being seen by a spectator. The nude subject paints the female subject wit a mirror in her hand as a symbol of her vanity. This of course is very hypocritical of the painter considering the fact that the painter, usually a man is painting a naked woman for his own enjoyment and pleasure (he is getting a chance to view the woman naked). Of course, due to fact that this statement is a generalization this perspective conveniently forgets to acknowledge the fact the painter may be homosexual. In contrast, non-European traditions (Indian, Persian, African, and Pre-Columbian art) the nakedness of the woman is rarely portrayed in a passive way. Moreover, the nakedness usual portrays mutual sexual attraction amongst a couple and the woman is shown to be just as active as the man.
Berger then goes on to distinguish between nudity and nakedness. Defining nakedness as being seen as oneself, while nudity is being seen by others and recognized as an object instead of oneself. Looking at photographs and paintings distinguishing a nude from naked portrait gets tricky. In the traditional European oil painting, the nude, the principal protagonist (the painter) is never painted, but what does gets painted is a result of what appeals to him sexually. Therefore a woman’s body hair and fat dimples is never painted, since it is not sexually appealing to the painter. Moreover, when a woman is depicted with her lover, her attention is rarely painted as directed towards the male lover if one is present instead it is directed toward the spectator—the painter. Most Post-Renaissance European oil paintings with sexual imagery are frontal, literally or metaphorically. Of course there are exceptions, let’s not dwell. The oil-paintings of this era feature stark nakedness.
The second half of his book discusses the ubiquity of imagery in modern 20thcentury life. He discusses in detail the concept of publicity, which we accept as a normality of everyday life since we are exposed to them on a daily basis. Today the female shopper is targeted as the ideal client desired by an advertiser. Advertisers find material products like jewelry, clothing, and beauty products are far easier to market to women than they are to men. Women are more encompassed by glamour the false appeal created by an advertisement. Advertisements suggest to the client that the purchase of this product will produce happiness, satisfaction, and most importantly the envy of peers.
In photographs women are depicted in the following ways: serene mother, busy secretary, perfect hostess, or sexual object. Advertisements make very use of sexuality and suggestive false product outcomes. Lastly, Berger makes a fine distinction between black and white photography and colored photography.
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