Ways of Seeing, Redux
Woman Weighing Gold, Johannes Vermeer, 1662-1663
by Patricia Emison
I came to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing through the back door. About a decade after the four-part series on the BBC (1972) had excited attention as a scrappy response to Kenneth Clark’s staid Civilisation (1969), I read the book because the title was so often cited. I confess that I was left wondering what all the fuss was about. It was a little, murkily grey book that seemed to make rather obvious points about how the Old Masters had reinforced orthodoxies to which we no longer subscribe. I put the fame of Ways of Seeing down as one of life’s minor mysteries; surely, it must have been felicitously timed. Now, however, the original is available on YouTube, and finally I understand. As a corollary, I now suppose that Benjamin’s oft-cited “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” owes some of its fame to Berger’s generous tip of the hat in its direction – though Berger’s point is specifically about the effect of good quality color reproduction, a much stronger point than contrasting the visual cultural of reproductive engraving with that of black and white photography.
For once, the book is a lesser manifestation than the film. John Berger’s clothing and hair may be sorely out of fashion, but his voice and the expressivity of his face would suit any decade. Eminently thoughtful without being the least pretentious or sententious, deeply subversive without being even a touch hysterical or desperate, he offers choice company. Life, which he likes to remind us provides the ultimate source of value, rarely offers a companion of such astuteness and intellectual honesty.
Perhaps I read the slight book cursorily, but I had not gotten the full force of the various theses of those four half-hour television programs: that color reproduction (there were none in the edition I read) has irrevocably changed the meanings of works of art by making them, as well as details of them, ubiquitous; that Kenneth Clark’s nude versus naked distinction might more usefully be applied specifically to women’s unclothedness, the presented, the made-up self versus the private and more individual; the strange clash of science (apprehending the world as tangible, as suitable to analysis) and religion (the work of art as unique, mysterious, the object of fanatical love) in the rise of oil painting and the exaltation of ownership, both when the pictures were made and in the fantastic – even mad – prices currently (forty years ago) paid for oil painting; and lastly, that advertising in our time is to the tradition of oil paintings as envy (specifically, envy of the glamorous people shown to us by advertising) is to complacency (the self-satisfaction of art patrons).
Nor had I grasped from the book Berger’s genuine love of select, great oil paintings – laced with a prophetic phrase, hinting at fundamental changes in patterns of interpretation soon to come: the great paintings (in particular, Vermeer’s Woman Weighing Gold, Rembrandt’s Kenwood Self-Portrait) “turn tradition against itself,” they undo the norms from within and make oil paint about something quite other than materiality and possession. Berger offers us newly unblinkered eyes with which to examine – critically – the museums we might otherwise have mindlessly admired, to interrogate the history about which we are usually urged blandly to boast. An iconoclast with a canon, someone who can speak urgently of the importance of the silence of paintings, and a man who listens publicly and attentively to women talk about images of women: that heady combination I had missed in the book, as well as the delightful ingenuousness with which the presenter urged those listening to be skeptical of all that he has said. Would that I had seen the real, projected Ways of Seeing decades ago, rather than its pale shadow in book form. And if only the BBC had had the sense to commission a follow-up, an intensely serious Berger on twentieth-century art, rather than the silliness of the Sister Wendy phenomenon and the endless complacencies of Andrew Graham-Dixon. Berger gives us a history of art from which worship has been expunged, a history of art wide open for debate (note the plural in the title), a history of art pervious to technological change. Ways of Seeing remains well worth seeing.
About the Author:
Patricia Emison is Professor of Art History at the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of Leonardo (2011), The Shaping of Art History: Meditations on a Discipline (2008), The Simple Art: Printed Works on Paper in an Age of Magnificence (2006), Creating the `Divine’ Artist from Dante to Michelangelo (2004), Low and High Style in Italian Renaissance Art (1997), The Art of Teaching: Sixteenth-Century Allegorical Prints and Drawings, (1986), as well as the self-published Growing with the Grain, Dynamic Families Shaping History from Ancient Times to the Present (2005). She is also the recipient of recent essay awards from the Johnson Society of London and the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain. Her most recent book is The Italian Renaissance and Cultural Memory.