John Berger’s Ways of Seeing #2 (1972)

Notes on Episode 2: the portrayal of the female nude

“Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamed on.”

The portrayal of the female nude is an important part of the tradition of European art. Berger examines these paintings and asks whether they celebrate women as they really are or only as men would like them to be.

The nude in European painting convey some conventions in the way women were judged, in how they were seen (in society run by men).

What is a nude?

Kenneth Clark: “Being naked is being without clothes. The nude is a form of art.”  John Berger: “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object in order to be nude.”

Naked and shame — Shame towards to spectator: that the one who shames them. — Nude an awareness of being seen by the spectator. — Mirror symbol as vanity of woman.

Most female nudes in Western art history have been lined-up by their painters for the pleasure of the male spectator/owner who will assess and judge them as sights. Their nudity is another form of dress.

Passiveness: In western oil paintings, nakedness is a sign of submission and not of active sexual love. Often looks and body posture is directed towards the spectator and is addressing his sexuality and not her sexuality. Same with body hair (represent power…). They are there to feed an appetite not to have one on their own. Being available and waiting for somebody.

Ideal nude as a humanist idealism. Celebrate women or the male voyeur? Nudity as a garment and a uniform that says: i’m ready now for sexual pleasure.


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. 

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.