A Quick Analysis of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

La Grande Odalisque By: Ingres (1780-1867)

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.

Sussanah and the Elders by: Tintoretto (1518-1594)
Sussannah is looking at herself in a mirror, thus joining spectators of herself.

 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.

Vanity By: Melming (1435-1494)
The mirror is hypocritically painted as the symbol of the subject’s vanity

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.

Bacchus,Ceres, and Cupid By: Von Aachen (1512-1615)

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.

Sexuality is used as a mean of successfully marketing this alcohol

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.

Thanks for reading, if you like what you read you can follow me on  Twitter at DemelioU or  you can subscribe  to my RSS feed the little orange button in the left hand menu.

Demelio U.

Signing OFF


10 responses to “A Quick Analysis of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

  1. This is a great post! Great connection made between women and commodities in the advertising world, but also the objectification of women through the eyes of male consumers (capital consumers as well as just how men “consume” women visually).

  2. Your style is unique in comparison to other folks I have read stuff from. Thanks for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I’ll just book mark this site.

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  4. this was soooo helpful! especially since i didn’t buy the book, and no where is it spark noted. haha you did an amazing job of analyzing this!!!!

  5. Pingback: Ways of Seeing by John Berger | gwilymphotography·

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