Ways of Seeing – John Berger

26th June 2013

This book was set as discussion work for a workshop meeting of the OCA Tames Valley Group on 29th June 2013.  Having read the book and watched the YouTube programmes only eight months ago, and reviewed them here, thinking I’d made a pretty good job of it then, I wondered what I’d find new to say about it now, if anything; surprisingly I found there was a lot more I’d missed, or I thought I needed to reinterpret after this reading and viewing.  In fact this time I reversed the process of taking in the work and read the book before I watched the video, which gave me a very different take on things.

Until the advent of the camera, art was available only to the wealthy, the church and other institutions that could afford to be patrons of what was, and still is, a long-term project when making pictures with oi paints.  Photography lowered the cost of making pictures, and whilst still expensive by today’s standards, it brought the medium within reach of the less well off and it became de rigueur for a family to have their portrait made by a photographer, even if the relative cost was about one months salary, so it was still quite elitist.

Oil painting had presented images of places and things that most people of the time would never see or experience and so were a way of displaying the wealth and importance of the patron.  But who to?  Unless the patron had guests visit, the only people who would see these artistic delights would be the patron, his family and his servants, so what other purpose did they serve?  If one visits a stately home in England, and probably in any other European country, you’ll more than likely see many rooms where the walls are covered with oil paintings of various sizes, quality and dates.  A great proportion will no doubt be portraits of the previous owners of the house, their belongings at various points in time and landscapes of their lands.  This is one of the purposes they served, showing future generations where they’d come from, what they’d owned, how the family had developed and anything else that proved the importance of being wealthy and important.  It wasn’t until I’d read the book twice and seen the videos twice, that I recognised the reproductions of paintings showing collectors with their objects that I realised that oil paintings in earlier centuries weren’t displayed as they are nowadays in  museum, where each work of art is given sufficient room to breathe and be seen as an individual picture, they were in fact more like wallpaper, they were used to cover the entire wall space and overwhelm.  Berger does point out that the museums have collections of lesser works arranged in storage much like I’ve just described previously.  Today we only get to see the best of the best, the masterpieces and the works that maybe don’t necessarily match up to the quality expected but are examples from the master, in this case we see them because of their rarity value, as if that embellishes the work to the point of making us in awe of it.  Many, many artists produced pot-boiler works that mimicked a style in order to make a living, no one of them more outstanding than the other, which is the case today with photography.  Here photographers create pictures in a certain genre because it’s chic, but do not match the quality of the master of that style or genre, but because digital photography has reduced the cost of photography to such a low point, there are many, many more pot boilers than masters.

5 Responses to Ways of Seeing – John Berger

  1. Catherine says:

    You obviously had a searching in-depth discussion around these very challenging questions and I think you’ve argued the points well from your perspective .

  2. Eddy Lerp says:

    Will do Catherine

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