Ways of Seeing

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by John Berger

Based on the BBC series 'Ways of Seeing' - BBC (1972). First published in 1972, reissued by Penguin in 2009 under their Penguin Modern Classics series.

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Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.
But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.

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Ways of Seeing / BBC Documentary

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each part runs for 30 min

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PART 1: Draws on ideas Walter Benjamin developed in his essay 'The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction (originally published in 1935, edited and final version published in 1939). It poses the question of how we see and understand art in an age where we can reproduce it. 

PART 2: What is the difference between nudity and nakedness? In this episode, John Berger proposes that almost all European nudes are built around the male fantasy. Woman are shown, naked, in repose, without agency. They are there to be observed. 

PART 3: Details the evolution of oil painting, and it's long tradition, starting in the 16th Century and ending near the beginning of the 20th of depicting valuables, on their own, draped across their owners, or surrounding them. Portraying what can be bought and owned. And, the strange thing of the paintings themselves ending up as valuables, for what they represent.

PART 4: Draws parallels and contrasts between the portraits and still-lives commissioned by the nobility throughout Europe. With the paintings implying: 'This is what I have', whilst advertising tells you: 'This is what you need to be happy, to be fulfilled, to be beautiful, to be attractive, etc.' It points out the juxtaposition of journalism and advertising within magazines, how one page shows you a tragedy, and the next is selling you a 'better you', a 'better life'.

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Though the show came out over four decades ago, the questions and ideas it poses are as relevant today as they were when the series first aired.


Banner image: La Trahison des Images (Ceci n'est pas une pipe) - The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe) by the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. Painted in 1948.

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