What Can You Learn from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing?

John Berger’s influential television series and book Ways of Seeing demonstrated that the way we look at images and art depends on various factors.

Mar 25, 2023By Stefanie Graf, MA in progress, BA in Art History

what can we learn from john berger ways of seeing


In his series Ways of Seeing, John Berger asks some important questions related to art. For whom are paintings made? Who is supposed to look at them? Who is supposed to enjoy them? Where, when, and under which circumstances was an image looked at and how does that influence the way it’s perceived? The series Ways of Seeing introduced important topics such as feminist art theory. It also discussed theories on how painting related to ownership and advertising.


Who Was John Berger?

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Portrait of John Berger by Jean Mohr, via Whitechapel Gallery


The art critic, novelist, and poet John Berger was born in London in 1926. After studying at the Central School of Arts and Crafts (now known as Central Saint Martins), serving in the British army during World War II, and studying art at the Chelsea School of Art, Berger finally began working as an art critic. He wrote pieces for publications like the New Statesman and New Society. He also wrote several novels. In 1972, the BBC produced his television program called Ways of Seeing. A book by Berger was later published under the same name. In 1974, he moved to a small town in the Alps, where he lived for 40 years. In 2017, he died in Antony, France at the age of 90.


What Are His Ways of Seeing?

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Book cover of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, via Internet Archive


With Ways of Seeing, John Berger wanted to challenge the elitist and mystified status of art that neglected the political, social, and ideological aspects that shaped the ways in which we look at art. In 1972, the BBC produced Ways of Seeing as a series consisting of four 30-minute episodes. Based on the television series, it was later published as a book containing seven essays. While three of the essays only include images, the other four use images as well as text. The book was co-written by Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox, Michael Dibb, and Richard Hollis. It became an essential work for art historical education. The television series has been described as groundbreaking for its time by Tom Lubbock in The Independent and has influenced artists, writers, and curators ever since it was broadcasted. Read on to see a summary of each episode of the famous television series.


Episode 1: Context and Time

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Lamentation by Giotto in the Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy, 1305-06, via Britannica

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The first episode starts off with John Berger cutting out a woman’s face from a painting. His action anticipates the topic of the episode which revolves around how changing the context of a painting, viewing reproductions of it, and only showing sections under certain circumstances influence the way we see an image. There are a few factors he touches upon in the episode which are supposed to change the ways in which we view art. Time is one of those factors. We now see paintings differently than people in earlier centuries.


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Lamentation by Giotto, 1304-1306, via Wikipedia


Context and location are also significant factors. Wall paintings in churches, for example, had a different effect on people who only saw them on-site and in combination with the entire interior of the church, a building with a highly sacred connotation. There is a difference if we look at Giotto’s Lamentation as a digital reproduction on the internet or at the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy in person. The invention of the camera led to the possibility of creating reproductions of art, which could then be viewed at any time and any place in the world.


Berger also mentioned how the meaning of art can be manipulated by movement and sound. Zooming in on the face of an allegorical figure, for example, can make it into a representation of an attractive face, which can be used for other purposes. If images and paintings are taken out of context and are made into reproductions that we can display in our homes their meaning can change entirely. According to Berger, the meaning of an image can also change according to what television program we saw before or after looking at a painting. A serious program changes the tone of the image just like a lighthearted one can. At the end of the episode, he reminds the viewer that he, John Berger, is controlling the use of images shown and discussed in the program, so he encourages the viewers to be skeptical.


Episode 2: The Female Nude and the Male Gaze

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The Birth of Venus Alexandre Cabanel, 1875, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The second episode of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing was perhaps the most influential one. Based on existing works of feminist authors, Berger talked about the objectification and sexualization of women in art history, especially through depictions of female nudes. He distinguished between the term naked and nude.


To Berger, being naked means to be oneself but being nude means to be seen naked by others as an object. In numerous depictions of female nudes in art history, the portrayal of female sexuality is non-existent and the bodies of women are reduced to passive objects for male pleasure. This idea was further discussed by Laura Mulvey in her seminal essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Mulvey coined the term male gaze, which has since been frequently discussed in feminist theories.


In the second half of the episode, we see five women talk about the topic. Instead of showing women as passive and mute objects, Berger intended to include their voices as active agents. Most of the women who participated in the discussion were part of the second-wave feminist movement. One of them, Eva Figes, wrote a book called Patriarchal Attitudes in 1970. Another woman who participated in the discussion was the academic and workers’ rights activist Jane Kenrick.


Episode 3: Buyer’s Influence

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Archduke Leopold Wilhelm and the artist in the archducal picture gallery in Brussels by David Teniers II, 1653, via Christie’s


The third episode of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing argues that oil paintings were often used to showcase the buyer’s wealth. The oil painting itself was a valuable object that only certain people could afford, but depictions of valuable objects and materials emphasized the owner’s affluence. One example of this attitude towards oil painting is the work Archduke Leopold Wilhelm and the artist in the archducal picture gallery in Brussels by David Teniers II. The archduke is shown next to his court painter David Teniers II in his gallery filled with an abundance of valuable paintings. The image shows how he can physically own and sell oil paintings, which distinguishes them from poems or music.


John Berger also connected the need to possess something with colonization which was characterized by a desire to conquer, own, and sell things and human beings. Still-lifes served as a representation of expensive food, animals were reduced to a depiction of valuable life stock, depictions of buildings served as representations of property, and landscapes were shown by painting the landowners in front of their land. According to Berger, buying a painting also meant buying the representation of its subjects. Oil painting, therefore, served as a way to celebrate private property.


Episode 4: Art and Advertisements

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Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol, 1967, via MoMA, New York


In the fourth and last episode, John Berger talked about commercials, publicity, and consumerism. Commercials create glamorous images. According to Berger, the models seen in these advertisements have replaced goddesses. He argues that the idea of glamor is new. It is also a result of social envy. When the status of people is determined by what family and environment they were born in, less envy exists. Berger explains that envy is a product of a society that did not reach real democracy.


Under these circumstances, everyone can be wealthy, famous, and part of the upper class in theory. But in reality, this is only true for very few people. Andy Warhol’s depiction of Marilyn Monroe can be seen as an example of this. Monroe represents an exclusive lifestyle and appearance that people were supposed to desire and envy.


John Berger also compared commercial imagery to oil paintings. Advertisements often imitate paintings, their atmosphere, settings, and poses. Commercials also use oil paintings to generate a prestigious appearance. Another similarity between advertisements and their use of color photography and oil paintings is that they make objects seem tangible. While oil paintings illustrate the wealth the owner already enjoys, color photography shows a lifestyle that the viewer should aspire to. Both don’t show the exploitative and not-so-glamorous ways through which affluent people acquire their wealth.


The Impact of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

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The opening credits of Ways of Seeing, via the Guardian


According to Olivia Laing, who wrote an article about John Berger’s Ways of Seeing for The Guardian, the program brought new ideas to a mainstream audience. The feminist and post-colonial ideas that John Berger briefly addressed are now an essential part of how we regard and talk about culture. In his article for The Independent Tom Lubbock described the show’s content as groundbreaking. He wrote that Berger’s discussion of topics like the representation of the female nude, commercial imagery, and how painting relates to private property and power have set a cultural agenda that is now almost the air we breathe.

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By Stefanie GrafMA in progress, BA in Art HistoryStefanie is completing her bachelor’s degree in art history at the University of Vienna, Austria. She will commence her master’s degree next semester. She has a passion for modern and contemporary art, architecture, and art theory. Interested in researching and reading about the impact art has on the viewer and on society, Stefanie believes that art can change, question and shape the way we think and live.