Posts Tagged ‘art history’

John Berger: Ways of Seeing

July 23, 2022

     This seminal work is now half a century old, and still incredibly valid and relevant. As Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media opened our eyes to how print media actually work on us, this short book takes the lid off how works of art operate on the viewer over time, and how we see, consume, interpret pictorial/ representative art, as well as the factors in its production: nothing is innocent, particularly the interaction between viewer and object. We make assumptions, and in the case of many works, the past comes between as well.

So art, too, inevitably, is political, wherever we find it and look at it. Berger deconstructs the sexual politics of art, too, and the objectification of women in art, particularly though not exclusively, through the nude in art. Art was, and to a large extent still is, something for the wealthy to possess and give value to, more stuff for them to squirrel away with their other ill-gotten gains, and oil painting especially was capitalist art par excellence, shown by the period in which it developed, what ii represented, and what it symbolised.

In our day, art has become publicity – advertising – manufacturing glamour and promoting consumption. In exactly the same ways as in earlier days, art creates dreams: you are what you have, what you can afford to have and show off. For Berger the difference is that in the past, art was saying “This is mine, this is what I possess”, whereas now advertising is saying “This is what you can be, in fantasy if not in reality”.

This is succinct and trenchant analysis that is as relevant today as when it was written. It’s very approachable, with one serious caveat: the production of the book, through numerous editions, has become very poor quality, with the reproductions of the various works of art, in monochrome only, so small and fuzzy as to be almost useless as an adjunct to following Berger’s theses. You need the illustrations, and I found that the way to get the best from the work was in fact to watch the original four-part TV series which went with the book, and can now be accessed online.

A tour of my library – part three

August 10, 2019

61TD2aaM3XL._AC_UL436_SEARCH212385_ It’s only relatively recently that I’ve begun to take a serious interest in art, and it’s a pretty eclectic one, given that I have no formal training or study of the subject: it’s a bit ‘this is what I like’, really. I’ve long liked photomontage, having come across the work of John Heartfield when I was quite young; I fell in love with the romantic visions of Caspar David Friedrich, and actually went off to Rügen to see the famous chalk cliffs which he painted: they are quite stupendous, although have not survived in the same configuration today. Turner I came to like when I went on spec to a major exhibition of his paintings of Italy in Edinburgh about ten years ago; since then I have sought out other exhibitions and acquired books of reproductions of his watercolours too. If there’s a particular movement I really enjoy, it’s Expressionism. The one book I will rave about is actually the catalogue from an exhibition I visited in Berlin a few years back, which set great works with similar themes and subjects from the impressionists and the expressionists side-by-side. It was an absolute eye-opener and I spent hours, completely engrossed.

Currently there is a shelf in my study dedicated to Poland and things Polish, including a good number of history books, particularly those of Norman Davies. I have also collected a number of memoirs written by Poles who underwent similar experiences to those of my father during the Second World War, as well as diaries of writers and other cultural figures from that period. The most interesting and curious book in this collection I inherited from my father, who was presented with it on a visit to Poland in communist times, and it’s a very odd book for them to have allowed to be published: a facsimile of – I translate – Index of the Names of the Gentry, originally published a couple of centuries ago. Our family name is listed and we have (had, rather, for one of the first acts of the reborn Polish state in 1919 was to abolish the gentry) a coat of arms! What you need to know, contextually, is that it was the name that mattered, not wealth, status, social standing… you could be a poor peasant family (like us) or stinking rich with an estate.

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I gave up the study of history after O Level, taking up English Literature instead, telling myself I could read as much history as I liked when I liked, and have done just that. My reading hasn’t been structured or systematic. Particular interests have been ancient Rome, the Reformation, the Soviet Union, Poland and modern history generally. Roman history I studied at school, and it’s such an important part of the background to European life and civilisation it’s hard to avoid; I also remind myself that the Roman Empire lasted for far longer than the British or American ones… The interest in the Reformation links back to my Catholic childhood and the cultural vandalism that was the English Reformation, as well as my current interest in theology, as I attempt to make sense of my existence. And Polish and Russian history – well, that’s obvious.

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