Let's talk about John Berger's 'Ways of Seeing' Episode 1

John Berger has incredibly contributed many incredible art criticisms, paintings, and novels that questioned a whole idea of perception in the art world. 'Ways of Seeing', is one of his most notable works in art criticism history. This series was first intended as a response to Kenneth Clark's 'Civilisation', which will be discussed in future blogs. This series did not only speak up as a response but did change the meaning of perception. I am writing this blog on the series's first episode where Berger talks about reproduction and cameras.

In this first episode of ‘Ways of Seeing’, 1972, John Berger begins with cutting out Venus’s portrait from one of Botticelli’s famous paintings 'Venus and Mars' 1483, which of course was a reproduction and not the original. He then demonstrates the use of these reproductions where the public will get to see these reproduced images of the painting very up close.

Berger uses clips from 'The Man with a Movie Camera', 1928 by Dziga Vertov to support his point. The point that struck me the most is that the camera shows us the things, the way it captures things. And not the way we would perceive it the way we wanted to. For instance, I would not see Da Vinci’s 'Mona Lisa' the way you see it, or anyone really would. Because my thought process to look at a painting will certainly differ from yours, and no matter how you explain the painting to me; it certainly will not change my first experience of that perception. The same goes with the cameras, whereas it does a great job capturing moments, expressions, and whatnot, however, I think it is very difficult to capture that feeling of looking at things for the first time. Which, I think this is what Berger was trying to tell us.

Berger says, “The painting on the wall, like a human eye, can only be in one place at one time. The camera reproduces it, making it available in any size, anywhere, for any purpose.” It has become more convenient today to reproduce any image or painting at any level required. Berger goes back to his first action where he cut Botticelli’s 'Venus and Mars' and explains, paintings hold unique value as they were only allowed to be viewed in one place at a time, that is where they were displayed. They lose some value when they are reproduced completely or in sections. It allows people to think in different ways to prevent them to actually visit cultural places to view and understand their taste in art. It is a different experience of looking at a painting in a gallery/museum, where you are in a room with people who are looking at works as you are. You are automatically drawn to the painting you want to look at, and you are concentrating on your thoughts to perceive its story. To put these paintings in different forms and places, imagine looking at Goya’s ‘Third of May 1808’ in a café, restaurant, gym, or on your phone? The difference here has shifted drastically because you are not participating in looking at it as a big large painting hung on a museum, you will not view it in the same way. This statement can be different for everyone, as today there are many possible ways to display paintings. But, to turn this understanding around, in the sense of buying a painting, not everyone can afford millions and billions of dollars to buy original artworks or travel thousands of miles to look at them, reproducing them as souvenirs and museum merchandise have fulfilled fan service for the viewers.

Berger believes reproductions have manipulated our thoughts to look at paintings. There is of course a reason for ‘Mona Lisa’ to be behind bulletproof glass with immense protection, a painting that can shake the world up. How will it be to look at it as a reproduction on a book or a mug? It is impossible to view it as you would at the Louvre. ‘The reproduction has increased the possible meanings of paintings, which has destroyed the original meaning.'

I am not sure where I am with this thought, but I do know that I always enjoyed looking at paintings in a gallery or a museum. It makes me wonder what actually paintings lost when they were made reproducible? Berger in this episode has wonderfully demonstrated many explanations behind his arguments, which can be both agreeable and not. But I believe it did help me understand that beauty can only be appreciated when it is in a place with utter focus. This view can be different for everyone who is reading it, but I cannot picture myself looking at a painting in a gym and expect to understand its story. Of course, there is nothing right or wrong to put a painting in a place you want to, but to view it by its story and make it a public viewing place, can be challenging. What do you think?

I was also wondering, what would Berger think about Pinterest?

Link to John Berger 'Ways of Seeing', 1972 Episode 1:


So much art & So little time!


© 2021 by, Aishwarya Kulkarni

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