Consider this famous painting The Key to Dreams (1930) by the Surrealist Rene Magritte.The painter sought to emphasise that images can take on unusual symbolic values in theminds of different people. However, Berger draws upon it to make a related but more basicpoint about the relationship between words and images. He says, “Magritte commented onThis always-present gap between words and seeing [...]. The way we see things is affectedBy what we know or what we see. In the middle ages when men believed in the physical existence of hell the sight of fire must have meant something different to what it means today.”What links can you draw between the painting and the quote?
ADZ4999 12/13 - Study Skills SessionAims1) To consider how John Berger examines the way in which seeing is socially structured2) To examine the ways that Berger thinks the act of interpreting visual images depends upon Convention, by giving close attention to what he calls “learnt assumptions”.3) To link Bergers discussion to Roland Barthes examination of visual culture Mythologies
Link these quotes from pages 8 and 9 of Ways of Seeing to the images abovePeter A. Juley, Barnett Newman and an unidentified Robert Frank, Drive-in movie—Detroit,1955viewer with Cathedra in Newmans studio, 1958. 1) We only see what we are looking at. To look is an act of choice.
Antoine Coypel, The Error, 17022) [...] what we see is brought within our reach – though not necessarily withinarms reach. To touch something is to situate oneself in relation to it.
Lola Guerrera, Smoke Signals, 2012 Auguste Renoir, Gabrielles with Renoirs Children, 1892-943) Soon after we can see, we are also aware that we can be seen.4) If we accept that we can see that hill over there, we propose that from that hill we can also be seen.
Palmolive Soap, Magazine, advert, 1944 Edouard Manet, Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère, 1881-82 5) The reciprocal nature of vision is more fundamental than that of spoken dialogue. And often spoken dialogue is an attempt to verbalise this – an attempt to explain how, either metaphorically or literally, you see things.
Ways of Seeing – On Frans HalsWatch the clip from Ways of Seeing where Berger discusses the workof Frans Hals. Read the questions watch the film and review the questions in your groups. Part three 7mins to end.On Frans Hals1) What is the assumption in art historical writing that Berger criticisesin his analysis of Hal’s work?2) What is the historical problem being mystified in the discussion ofHal’s ‘personal vision’? How is an understanding of 17th and 18thcentury Dutch history integral to de-mystifying this argument? Frans Hals, Regentesses of the Old Men’s Alms House, Haarlem, 1664.
Ways of Seeing – Art’s ContextualisationRead the questions watch the film and review the questions in yourgroups. (Part two 4mins or 7 mins – Part Three 3 mins)On Van Gogh1) How does your experience of the Van Gogh work differ when Bergergives additional biographical information about the work.2) How does this relate to Berger’s statement ‘... The meaning of animage is changed according to what one sees immediately beside itor [by] what comes immediately after it’?Art’s contextualisation1) How do the different kinds of music and camera work change howyou respond to the Caravaggio?2) How do the examples set around the Goya painting emphasise thispoint?
Consider the array of images we have laid out.In your groups choose a learnt assumptionfrom Bergers list. Firstly, in your group try todefine the term. Secondly, choose images towhich you think the term is applicable.Finally, stick your images on the wall and usethe post-its to rationalise your choices.
Ways of Seeing Jeff wall, Mimic, 1982Look at this picture by Jeff Wall. What does it depict? What do you think about thedifferent people in the photograph? How do you think the image was produced?Did these events really happen, or are these people actors? Is Wall drawing ourattention to a social issue or is he also making a statement the status ofphotographic images? What learnt assumptions is the image exposing, or howdoes it embody a way of seeing? Think about your own reaction to the image, whatways of seeing are you exhibiting?
Let us see what Jeff Wall himself has to say of the work. “When I was doing dramatic pictures like Mimic, for example, I was interested in a certain type of picture, one I identified with painters like Caravaggio, Manet, and Velasquez. In that kind of thing the figures are in the foreground, they are life-size, they are close to the picture surface, and the tension between them is what is central. Behind them there is a lot of space, a background. That is a very traditional type of picture I think. (Jeff Wall, Interview, 1993) “Mimic was made in 1982, and it was a picture in which I concentrated a lot on a typical kind of gesture, perhaps a micro gesture, but certainly a small gesture of race hatred. The question of gesture relates to another problem that I am tied up with the notion of typology or typicality. These people are identifiable or not identifiable depending on many, many things through typology, which is sociological, racial and national.Caravaggio The Incredulity of Edouard Manet, The Balcony, Diego Velazquez, Old Woman CookingSaint Thomas oil on canvas 1868-69 Eggs,1601-02; Oil on canvas oil on canvas (1618)
In his book Mythologies Roland Barthes extends Bergers engagement with the history of Art toconsider how learnt assumptions, or what he calls myths are communicated through manydifferent forms of image production. Consider this quote from the books preface. What do youthink Barthes is saying here, and how does it relate to Bergers analysis.The starting point for these reflections was usually a feeling of impatience at the sight of theNaturalness with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up reality, whichEven though it is the one we live in is undoubtedly determined by history. [...] I wanted to trackDown, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in myView, is hidden there.
Roland Barthes – Myth TodayIdeology is not just generated by what culturalproducts say, it is produced and communicated byhow they say it. Attending to the structure of thesemessages can reveal the cultural assumptions thatUnderpin cultural products. By introducing the termmyth Barthes provided an analytical tool thatenables us to consider how the form of culturalproducts communicates ideology. Roland Barthesargues that careful and close attention to formshould help the reader/spectator better understandthe social constitution, and historical characteristicsof cultural products. Consider Barthess commentson The front cover of Paris Match (p. 115)illustrated below.Work in groups and examine the image.What does the image represent. What is it a pictureof?What additional meanings does it suggest to you?How do these correlate with wider socialpolitical issues in France?
Further ReadingJohn Berger Ways of Seeing (Penguin, 1972/90), especially chapters 2, 3, 5 & 7.Rolsand Barthes, Mythologies, (Vintage, 1972 / 93) Focus on the essayMyth Today. Offers a full semiotic analysis of how the connotations of imagesthe kinds of learnt assumptions Berger discusses.Walter Benjamin, Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, reprinted inArt in Theory: 1900 – 2000, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwells2003).Raymond Williams, Key Words, (London: Fontana, 1976), entries on Beauty, Truth,Genius, Civilisation, Formalist, Status and Taste.