Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Berger’s recent death has made me do what I have been meaning to do for some time – sent me to youtube to find his 4-part “Ways of Seeing” TV series from 1972. It was an antidote to the idea that Great Art Masterpieces exist solely in aesthetic terms, independent of their production and socio-economic background.

Part one focussed on how modern reproductions and presentation of an oil painting change or remove its original meaning and purpose; part two on how women – the “nude” – were portrayed; part three on oil painting as a way of capturing and displaying your wealth; and part four looked at how modern publicity re-uses the images of art history to sell us aspirational life styles which were once reserved only for the wealthy, and how the proliferation of such images does not distinguish between a glossy advert and a photo report on refugees from East Pakistan.

It was interesting, and I wish I had seen it when it was first broadcast. Instead, I was in my mid-thirties before I came across these theories. Berger was an earnest and entertaining presenter, and the programmes didn’t shy from giving you time and silence to look carefully at images.

One other layer of meaning  about watching “Ways of Seeing” 45 years after its creation is that I also watched it as a primary source of social and cultural history. Those people, streets, cars, fashions, habits . . . they are now quite as fascinating as the series itself!

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