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Ways of Seeing Paper essay
← Define Environmental ChangeKarl Marx’s Concept of Mystification →

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“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak” (Berger, 7). In this phrase, John Berger notices not only the well-known verity about baby’s development, but the historically proved fact that people could see and draw pictures long before they could speak. Through vision people recognize the beauty and multiformity of the world and their original place in it, yet the words are necessary in order to identify, explore and explain the complexity of the world. Regardless of this historically proved fact, there is a controversial point between some things that people see and know about. The nature gives an example of modern people; they know that the solar system is heliocentric, but see the opposite. Actually, people have not always known about heliocentric solar system. Five hundred years ago, they knew what they saw back then and we see nowadays that the sun revolves around the Earth. Therefore, the seeing is an active process; what we see changes according to the accumulated knowledge and level of cognition. We also see not only what we look at, but how it relates to the surrounding world, and we understand that we can be seen by others, because we are part of the visible and apparent world. The conclusion is that everyone sees and understands things differently, so there are no two people in the whole world who understand and see the art in exactly the same way. “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe” (Bergen, 8). The same picture for different people will send absolutely different message. For instance, contemporary people see fire in a different way than those of medieval civilization who saw people burning at the stakes of the Inquisition and believed in the beingness of hell.

Massage that the Image Conveys

In the infancy of mankind, images were created to represent the unknown, that no one could see, incomprehensible things, and by acquiring a religious meaning they existed longer than original objects. With the growth of knowledge and cognition of mankind, the image became understood as the personal vision of an individual artist. Paintings are not only legacy of beauty but historical documents, and more inventive and peculiar the image, than more information descendents can apprehend about world experience of the artist. Nevertheless, the works of art from the past often cared quite vague meanings, and such mystification makes the images remote. Therefore, we have less extensive knowledge about history, which means that the understanding of the messages that old paintings convey will change with the lapse of time. It is always exciting to have an opportunity to take a look into past events and traditions; however, the mystification of the image prevents from truly understanding the epoch and the actual history.

Value of Paintings

The uniqueness of the painting no longer comprises its value (the images of the magnificent paintings are copied, and can be found all over the world); only the unique physical being of the painting represents its value nowadays. Thus, the value of the paintings depends not so much on the message they convey, but how rare they are and by whom they were painted. In other words, the art, today, is all about commerce. Regardless of those who responds by claiming that the fiscal value of the paintings reflects the artistic and spiritual value; it is obvious that religion and fine art are not the things that drive the modern society. What defines the value of an image? It is no longer quality of painting or its meaning, but it is the uniqueness of the image. Berger in his book tells about two paintings of the Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci, which are almost identical. The art historians’ of the National Gallery and the Louvre are genuinely concerned to prove the originality of their image. Similarly, some images become important only after their price increases.

Meaning of the Work of Art

There are a lot of reproductions in the world, which detaches the original meaning from a work of art. The part of any painting can be extracted and be transformed into a different image. A filmmaker can go even further; they extract and select parts of a painting that arrange them as they would like to see it. The painting is represented by itself the whole composition, therefore, when it is divided into parts and then arranged in a different way, so the viewer can apprehend it as a complete image.

The collocation of images, music and words also alters the meaning of the painting. The images of well-known paintings are often used in advertising and promotion. The image can receive the new meaning that than propagates into wide mass of the population. The mystification of art allows anyone who obtains a reproduction or new image to see in it something personal.

John Berger advocated a value of the original painting. He considers that work of art should be seen in the absolute silence. Nothing should distract from the contemplation the work of art, which has strokes of the great painter’s brushes; the connection between the painting and the viewer is created in silence, and the painting became close and understandable to the viewer. Berger considers that the painting needed a special approach to be seen as work of art. The art was once for the elite and priceless, but now reproductions of art are widespread and worthless. However, the paintings, located in Museums, are priceless historical legacy that fascinates people by its mystery and beauty.

Man versusWoman

Historically, men and women are represented differently in a social sense. Men are appraised by the power, which is represented in different forms, for instance physical, moral, social origin and economic. A man’s role consists in what man can offer to woman. In contrast to the man, woman’s role consists of what she can expect from the man. The woman is born to be kept , and her main and constant care is to survey herself. However, the woman not only surveys herself, man and the other women, she is constantly surveyed by the man and the other women. Woman’s sense of dignity is replaced by a necessity of being worshipped by others, especially, men.

The Nude in European Oil Painting

Woman is the main object in the nude category of oil painting in the Europe. Adam and Eve are the first nudes; they depicted in a series of images. There are two principal aspects of Adam and Eve story. First of all, they saw each other differently after they had eaten the apple. And second, the woman is punished and made subordinate to the man. During the Renaissance, it is shown only moment of shame from Adam and Eve story, but the shame is for the viewer's show, not for each other. The shame became a sort of display; the naked woman seems aware of being seen in all paintings, and it seems that she is not naked for herself but implicated male viewer. Berger cites several examples of young women looking at themselves in mirrors but surveying the implicated viewer; or being with a lover but surveying the implicated viewer. In reality, the woman’s role in the painting is just satisfying men’s lust to see her naked beauty. Often, woman in the picture looks at the implicated spectator. The nakedness of woman is not a reflection of her lust or feelings, but it is a reflection of the male viewer.

The Nude versus Naked

The evident contrast is observed in the paintings of non-European cultures; the nakedness in their pictures is not so one-sided and has some level of sexual equality between man and woman. Woman is not depicted as available but she is rather unavailable for spectator.

 Berger created the book and series “Ways of Seeing”, the most advanced and authoritative work of the nude was well-known Kenneth Clark’s study “The Nude”. Clark entered difference between nudity and nakedness. He considers that someone is naked if he or she is simply without clothes, and it has no connection to the art. The nude is a different matter; it is an art manifestation. The painting can depict naked people, but only the way how they are depicted makes them nude. Berger supported and developed the distinction between nude and naked. Berger suggested that the leading character is never depicted in the oil painting of the nude; this main character is the male spectator who pays for the painting. Berger demonstrates his point with the Love by Bronzino and the Allegory of Time. The picture appeals to the sexuality of the man who is not present in the painting. The image agrees with another European direction; it was not acceptable to paint hair on women body. Body hair represented passion and power; therefore, the male spectator does not want to see on woman body indicators of his prerogative, which are power and passion. The whole scene must be understandable, and the woman’s pose must be ordinary.

Humanism with its intense sense of the individuality had essential influence on European way of thinking during that period; however the nude openly refused the individualism and sense of dignity of the portrayed women. The reason was in the mutually exclusive interests of involved parties: the patron who paid for painting, the artist, who painted, and the model who was depicted. The spirit of individuality permitted particular artists to solve this mutually exclusive interests of involved parties, but not the tradition in general. Regardless of the notion that idea of nude is altered by the realism, the uneven relationship between man and woman are still strongly enclosed in culture and influenced the way of thinking about modern women. Today, the unequal relationship that was marked by the nude is openly advertised and promoted in the mass media. The patron, who is also a spectator, is still male, and the woman is still the image designed for his satisfaction and pleasure.


Images and messages that they convey are immensely powerful. They include conceptions that cannot be described in words. The mystery is the thing that intrigues the viewer the most. The painter is actually the only one who can know exactly what he depicted in the painting and why. The composition of the painting creates the unity, colourfulness, contrast and harmony that capture the viewer’s eye. In the period from 1500 to 1900, the traditional oil paintings were valued because the painters were the only available magicians who can capture a life moment and save it forever. It changed with the invention of the camera, which gave a possibility to capture not only life moments of ordinary people, but to make reproductions of works of art. With the appearance of reproduction, the authentic works of art are still having great fiscal value, but they lost their unique image’s value. On the one hand, art is available for millions of people who can see and enjoy the work of prominent artists; on the other hand, well-known works of art are appropriated for advertisement in a way that does not favour to their purpose of facilitating the cultural development of the population. 

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