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					Karina Sembiring HUA 289.1199 Essay 2

Ways of Seeing “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it speaks.” This quote opens up the introduction of the first chapter of John Berger‟s Ways of Seeing. As the title implies, the book mostly talks about the importance of sight on the art world, and he dissected the significance through many aspects, be it through history, techniques, means, objects, et cetera. The opening sentence quoted basically offers us the idea that humans are capable to understand something merely by vision, and words are just means to express the ideas with others. Furthermore, Berger also suggested that by seeing, one situates oneself with the surrounding and by doing so approves his presence in it. However, the relationship between visual and descriptions are fairly abstract. There is a gap between one‟s knowledge and the notion of seeing. In the book, an example is set by differentiating the idea of knowing and seeing a sun setting. Even when one knows the process behind the setting of the sun, the experience of seeing the event is quite extraordinary compared to the knowledge. There is something missing and intriguing about sight that creates the gap between knowing and seeing. To further understand this concept, it is important to also realize that “the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.” A nice example can be seen in a painting by the Surrealist Magritte featured in the book. The painting is divided into four sections as if it is a window, and the viewer is looking into the objects behind each of the panels. There is the image of a horse, a clock, a jug, and a suitcase. However,

Magritte named each object not accordingly (a horse is described as „the door‟, for example). What is the meaning behind this? One should look back to the concept of seeing. The perception on an object depends on the viewer‟s understanding. Each object has characteristics unique to itself that enables one to relate the appearance to one‟s knowledge, and thus produce a word or an idea of what the object is, making sight a significant experience. However, it seems that Magritte wanted to challenge this concept. What if it is true that a horse is „the door‟, and a door is not a rectangular object with a knob that connects a room with another like we know? This can be the idea suggested by the painter, and it also can be looked upon as a play on the mind or just an attack on the thought of sight. However someone wants to look at it, Magritte‟s painting surely makes one think on ways of seeing. History always has been an important part of art. An artwork is not only comprised of just an image, but it also must have a history or a background to it. Such consciousness of incorporating history into a painting can be traced back into the beginning of the Renaissance. During that period, many artists were commissioned by the few privileged people to create artworks that are either a self-portrait, a still life depicting the commissioner‟s wealth, a landscape, or certain events for the purpose of documentation. Berger found history to be vital not only because it helped creates the present, but also because through paintings, history is more effectively preserved than in literatures. This notion goes back to the significance of visual presentation. Literatures consisted only of words, and even though written documents are no less important than imageries, paintings are able to provide a more direct and visible shape of history itself. In a way, through paintings the viewers are more likely to be able to situate themselves

according to the painter‟s point of view, and also into the place and time in which the painter would be at that moment. Besides history being a part of an image, Berger also stressed out that history “mystifies” the meaning of the image. According to his essay, mystification can be described as “the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident.” History is never portrait accurately, and that is indeed true. History, as Berger stated in his book, draws the connection between the past and the present. What people know about the past is consisted of many assumptions derived from descriptions offered in either documents or artifacts. We recognize such is evident in works of art. Thus, through this point of view, history can never give us an exact meaning of a work of art. In other hand, it obscures the meaning, blurring what might actually be obvious. Viewers are drawn into a history the artist wants them to see, or to assume, despite the true background. That is what Berger called history mystifies an artwork. Artworks have come a long way since the dawn of man, and such also implies on how man views works of art. In the past, people actually believe that paintings place the viewer in such a way that the surroundings are no less significant than them. However, ever since perspective was invented during the Renaissance, suddenly the way one perceives an artwork was totally transformed. Perspective put the eyes of the viewer as the center of everything. The environments collapse into a point of infinity, which is level to the eyes, making the spectator the single most important recipient of the image. And then the camera was invented, and soon enough perspective had another change in meaning. In paintings, there is a sense of timelessness when perspective is used. We look at a painting, and we can wonder the many possibilities of what is beyond that point of

infinity, and the time and space the artist was in when he created the artwork. It is just the imagination evoked by paintings. The camera, however, forced a person to produce an image that erases such quality. When a photographer took a picture, he took it according to the time and space he was in. This causes the imagination part to disappear, part of it because in paintings, perspective is used to put the viewer as the unique center of the work, whereas in photos, it is not the viewer who is significant, but solely what is seen through the camera lens. This development provoked artists to come up with movements to counter such transformation. The most notable category is Cubism. Cubists introduced the concept that perspective many not be the sole point of view allowed in artworks. Instead, Cubists distort perspective by creating an image that is viewable from many angles at the same time, so the uniqueness of a single standpoint is no longer there. Cameras have also enable the reproduction of artworks. This affects the art world in both a good and bad ways. The pros of mass reproduction of artworks is that now they are available anywhere for people to enjoy. Before, one was required to visit the place where certain artworks are displayed in order to enjoy them. But ever since cameras were invented, people can just browse through magazines, catalogues, art books, and many other means in order to experience looking at different pieces. The cons of creating copies of artworks does not lie so much on the act of reproducing them, but rather it affects the real purpose of the creation of the work itself. Artists produce works with certain meanings behind them, and usually they are specific. Spectators are hoped to witness not only the image of a painting, but also the meaning of which the painting is based upon. Reproductions, unfortunately, eliminate such experience. When an artwork is duplicated, it becomes a common sight and people no longer consider the true purpose of

its creation. People would just see it as what it is: an image. Furthermore, even when one wants to put a meaning into a copy, it no longer holds just one importance. Everything depends on how the individual wants the image to be presented. “Its meaning multiplies and fragments into many meanings,” as Berger put it. Ways of seeing an artwork not only implies on the entirety of a picture, but it also concerns the subject within it. One example of a popular subject that has been used for many centuries in the art world is the female figure. Women have been favorite subjects for many paintings, especially the ones involving the art of nudity. One might ask why women? Berger believed that women present themselves differently from men. With men, they are judged by their power and what they can do for others. The stronger the presence a man emanates, the better the attention people would give him. In contrast, women are viewed as how they present themselves to others. Unlike the outward gesture of a man‟s influence, a woman‟s is more inward and personal. Women have to constantly look back on themselves in order to understand their own importance to others. Furthermore, there is also the submissive quality of women that attracts many artists into depicting them in an artistic manner. All of these characteristics combined have inspired many artists to use women as their subjects. And to top it all, what is a better way to depict those values than through nudity? The significance of nudity has not changed much between the past and the present. It still portrays women as submissive and also as objects for the viewing pleasure of the observer (who is usually considered to be a male). The women themselves have no power whatsoever upon the situation. They offer their bare bodies to compliment the needs of the viewer, not because of their own cause. Thus is also the reason on why many

nude pictures required women to be positioned as if the viewer is present with them. The circumstances of women in nude pictures between the past and the present are also still strikingly similar. The subject would usually face the observer, expressing their willingness to offer their femininity. Even when their faces do not make contact with the spectator, their bodies would still speak for itself. The face helps to emphasize their submission, but the body is the main attraction. The only difference between the nude today and the one in the past is the availability in which we can witness such tradition. In present, people are able to view nudity through different media because of the advancement in technology. Throughout art history, oil painting probably can be considered as one of the biggest, most influential kind of painting. The term oil painting does not represent the media used to make a painting, but more on the technique utilized. Oil based paint is thought to be more durable and easier to manage than tempera or fresco. Between the 1500 to the 1900, European artists developed a traditional theme typically used when creating oil paintings. This tradition was for artists to create images depicting the wealth of the rich. The idea of possession relates to the suggestion of only the wealthy were able to afford oil paintings, thus the subject of the work should also correspond to the commissioner. The quality of oil paintings also varies widely, although in reality the amount of average works was thought to overrun the better ones. Demands for oil paintings were very large at the time, causing artists to create works that were often done hastily, reducing the overall quality of the paintings. Oil paintings also have different categories, including paintings of the edible, of livestock, of objects, of buildings, and historical/mythological images. Even with these various categories, they all still hold on

to the very basic tradition of oil paintings, and that is the illustration of wealth. Of course some painters ventured into the world of the so-called „low life‟. In a sense they deviate from the tradition, creating images of the poor instead of the nobles. This particular type of oil painting was called the „genre‟ picture, and sadly it did not strive much in the art world during that period. The tradition of oil painting had bound artists in extreme that it was difficult for one to completely stand out from the other. In order for one to be exceptional it was necessary to struggle against the norm built around the tradition. Berger paid particular attention to Rembrandt‟s effort in achieving such goal. He compared two of Rembrandt‟s self portraits, one which was done during his younger days, and another that was produced later when he was much older. In his first painting, all the quality of a traditional oil painting is evident. Rembrandt, portrayed along with his bride, was joyous, healthy and rich. At one look this self-portrait seems like any other oil paintings during the time. Then compare the first self-portrait to the later one. In the second painting, Rembrandt painted himself as who he was at the time; old and fragile. He had directed all the norms of the traditional oil painting against the tradition itself, presenting his current state in a very humble yet somber mood. Rembrandt‟s self-portraits are the few evidence of the use of oil paints successfully expressing something outside the realm of the noble and prosperous. In many respect, I consider John Berger‟s book to be compelling and challenging simultaneously. His essays are very elaborate and thorough, and the explanations for each of the point are pretty reasonable. I agree with many of his ideas, and some newly discovered ones are also quite amusing. Ways of Seeing is not an easy read, but one can learn a lot from what is written in it.


				
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posted:11/24/2009
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