Project 1 – Research point: John Berger – Ways of Seeing / The naked figure

In the reading list of this course was mentioned the book from John Berger, that was based on a four-part TV series broadcasted on BBC on the same topic. The book is from 1972, but I think some aspects are still valid today some may be even more important nowadays with images free flowing through social networks. Berger is mainly looking at the tradition of european oil paintings and its influence till today through other visual arts (photography, TV, publicity etc.) with some remarks rather politically phrased.

The book is divided into four parts with in between parts of collection of artworks (all b/w).
1. Essay on how we see and what is visible, the ‘loss of authority of artworks’ and the replacement by modern reproduction methods into a ‘language of images’.  Reproduction broke the link between the artwork and its place and context. After the invention of the camera the viewpoints changed, the single eye perspective of the viewer and what can be seen become less important (Example: the cubists depicted several viewpoints into one picture and made by that  more visible). Berger took great reference to an essay from Walter Benjamin (german philosopher) named ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction‘ from 1936
2. Depiction of men and women in art history and the way the viewer as a spectator is looking at the image.
3. Oil painting as a way of articulating wealth through possession by depicting the precious objects of a wealthy class and as a way of increasing the self-esteem of the ‘spectator-owner’.
4. Publicity today as a visual medium and its reference to oil paintings as way of making ‘glamour’ to be desirable and become enviable in the future for the ‘spectator-buyer’.

In the context of the course and part 4 I am going deeper into part 2:

The european tradition: Berger raised the point that in the art world the assumption was made that the ‘ideal’ viewer is male. By that the relationship between women and men were determined in such a way that the ‘women appear’ and the ‘ men act’. Men look at women, they are surveyors. Women are been surveyed but at the same time are surveyors of themselves. Berger differentiates between ‘nakedness’ and ‘nude’. Nakedness by itself is not rated and ‘pure’ as such. Only with the feeling of been naked due to an existing spectator it becomes a ‘nude’ as an expression of art. Here the naked person, still mostly women, are on display. The viewer of the image is the main spectator. also if some other figures are depicted in the same picture.

Berger sees some exceptions here: when the artist’s vision is to overcome ‘nude’ and depicts the women as they are and where the viewer is no longer a spectator but becomes more an outsider.

Interestingly is this way of looking at it different in other cultures: e.g both sex are depicted in an active role, mostly during the act of sexual love.

At the end Berger raised the question: What does it do to the way the viewer is seeing an image when the depicted naked woman is replaced by a man in same posture? Will this transformation raise disturbance to the viewer and his assumptions?

For me some questions:
– What is the contemporary view of a male and a woman viewer/spectator of figurative and naked pictures?
– How can I influence through my mark makings and context the way I perceive and the way other people are perceiving the figurative work?

I think it starts and continues with constant practice, experimentation, and feedback from others.


– Berger, John (2008) ‘Ways of Seeing‘, London: Penguin Books Ltd., reissued from 1972 ed.

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