John Berger’s Ways of Seeing #1 (1972)

Notes on Episode 1

How we look at painting in the 2nd half of 21C says something about ourselves and the situation we are living in. Ways of seeing relates the history of western oil painting (1400-1900) to the way we see today.

A large part of seeing is based on habit and convention. This means the European perspective is leading. The eye of the beholder.

That eye was -before the rise of photography- on a unique location in the world. The human eye could only be in one place at a time. People would travel to the image. The camera made it possible that appearances could travel across the world. This perspective makes the eye the cuter of the visible world [1’41’’] The painting can only be in one place at one time, the camera reproduces it. Making it available in any size, anywhere, for any purpose.

Context and situation-driven > by reproduction meaning becomes transmittable 

[4’40”] “Originally, Paintings were an integral part of the building for which they were designed. Everything around the image is part of its meaning. Extreme example is the icon: it marks the place of meaning. Behind its image is god, before it its believers. Now the image travels to you and the meaning no longer resides in its unique painted surface. This results in that meaning has become transmittable.

On authenticity (real/fake), how we talk about art

Example of drawing of Leonardo [Da Vinci] presented behind bullet-proof glass and as a ‘relic in holy shrine’ [8’26”] Nearly everything that we learn or read about art encourages an attitude rather like that [one of a sense of awe, religiosity and mysticism of the genuine and extreme valuable nature of the original]. “Only if art is trapped of the false mystery and the false religiosity that surrounds it. The religiosity usually linked with cash value but always invoked in the name of culture and civilisation, is in fact a substitute for what painting lost when the camera made them reproducable. The camera by making the work of art transmittable, has multiplied its possible meanings and distorted its unique original meaning.”

[18’45”] As soon as the painting becomes transmittable, this meaning is liable to be manipulated and transformed. 

When painting are reproduced they become a form of information. Which is transmitted and so they have to hold their own against all the other information which is jostling around them.

Example of showing children painting of Carravagio’s Jesus: with an open mind one sees easily the ambiguity of the gender identity of the Jesus-figure. Most girls see a female figure, most boys a male figure.

[28’05’’] “…I [Berger] am going to try to relate the experience of art directly to other experiences, and to use the means of reproduction as though they offered a language as though pictures were like words rather than holy relics.


About John Berger (1926-2017) Writer, painter, critic, television producer, essayist, theatermaker, poet, filmer. While drafted for military in 1944 he refused to become an officer and was send to Northern Ireland, where he first met contemporaries from a working-class. He was art teacher and painter but mostkonwn as a critic (work o.a. for New Statesman). His vision on art was much influenced by his outspoken marxist worldview. 

From You tube channel of tw19751: “Ways of Seeing A BAFTA award-winning BBC series with John Berger, which rapidly became regarded as one of the most influential art programmes ever made. In the first programme, Berger examines the impact of photography on our appreciation of art from the past.

Ways of Seeing is a 1972 BBC four-part television series of 30-minute films created chiefly by writer John Berger and producer Mike Dibb. Berger's scripts were adapted into a book of the same name. The series and book criticize traditional Western cultural aesthetics by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images. The series is partially a response to Kenneth Clark's Civilisation series, which represents a more traditionalist view of the Western artistic and cultural canon.”