’Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it
’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 words can never undo the fact that
we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what
we know is never settled.’
John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is one of the most stimulating and the
most influential books on art in any language. First published in 1972, it
was based on the BBC television series about which the (London)
Sunday Times critic commented: ~This is an eye-opener in more ways
than one: by concentrating on how we look at paintings ... he will
almost certainly change the way you look at pictures.’ By now he has.
’Berger has the ability to cut right through the mystification of the
professional art critics ... He is a liberator of images: and once we have
allowed the paintings ~o work on us directly, we are in a much better
position to make a meaningful evaluation’ Peter Fuller, Arts Review
’,The influence of the series and the book ... was enormous ... It opened
up for general attention areas of cultural study that are now
commonplace’ Geoff Dyer in Ways of Telling
Seeing comes before words. The child looks
nizes before it can speak.
But there is also another sense in which seeing
before words. It is seeing which establishes our place
rrotmding world ; we explain that world with words,
;an never undo the fact that we are surrounded by
relation between what we see and what we know is
Published by the British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books
The front cover shows The Key of Dreams by Rene Magr~tte (photo Rudolph E~urckhardt)
The Surrealist painter IV~agritte comntented
~resent gap between words and seeing in
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 words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by
it. The relation between what we see and what we know is
never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know
that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the
explanation, never quite fits the sight. The Surrealist painter
Nlagritte commented on this always-present gap between
words and seeing in a painting called The Key of Dreams.
notice how the.faculty of touch is like a static, limited form of
sight.) We never look at just one thing; we are always looking
at ~e relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is
continually active, continually moving, continually holding
thiugs in a circle around itaalf, constituting what is present
Soon after we can see, we are aware that we can
also be seen. The eye of the other combines with our own aye
to make it fully credible that we are p~ of the visible world.
~f we ac~pp~ that we can see ~ha~ hil~ over there,
we propose ~hat from that hiBI we can be seen. The reciprocal
~ature o~ vision is more fundamen~l than that of spoken
~ialogue. And often dialogue is an a~empt to verbalize this an attempt to explain how, either metaphorically or literally,
’you see things’, and an attempt to discover how "he sees
in the sense in which we use the word in this
book, a~l images are man-made.
The way we see things is affected by what we
kr~ow or what we believe. In the IVtlddle Ages when men
believed in the physical existence of Hell the sight of fire must
have meant something different from what it means today.
Naverthe|ass their idea of Hell owed a lot to the sight of fire
consuming and the ashes remaining - as well as to their
experience of the pain of burns.
When in love, the sight of the beloved has a
completeness which no words and no embrace can match :
a completeness which only the act of making love can
Vet this seeing which comas before words, and
can never be quite covered by them, is not a question of
mechanically reacting to stimuli. (It can only be thought of in
this way if one isolates the small part of the process which
concerns the eye’s retina.) We only see what we look at. To
look is an act of choice. As a result of this act, what we see is
brought within our reach - though not necessarily within
arm’s reach. To touch something is to situate oneself in
relation to it. (Close your eyes, move round the room and
An image is a sight which has
been recreated or reproduced, it is an appearance, or a set of
appearances, which has been detached from the place and time
in which it first made its appearance and preserved - for a few
moments or a few centuries. Every image embodies a way of
seeing. Even a photograph. For photographs are not, as is
often assumed, a mechanical record. Every time we look at a
photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the
photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other
possible sights. This is true even in the most casual family
snapshot. The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his
choice of subject. The painter’s way of seeing is reconstituted
by the marks he makes on the canvas or paper. Yet, although
every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or
appreciation of an image depends also upon our own way of
seeing. (it may be, for example, that Sheila is one figure among
twenty; but for our own reasons she is the one we have eyes
Images were first made to conjure up the
appearances of something that was absent. Gradually it
became evident that an image could outlast what it
represented; it then showed how something or somebody had
once looked ~ and thus by implication how the subject had
once been seen by other people. Later still the specific vision
of the image-maker was also recognized as part of the record.
An image became a record of how X had seen Y. This was the
result of an increasing consciousness of individuality,
accompanying an increasing awareness of history. It would be
rash to try to date this last development precisely. But
certainly in Europe such consciousness has existed since the
beginning of the Renaissance.
No other kind of relic or text from the past can
offer such a direct testimony about the world which
surrounded other people at other times. In this respect
images are more precise and richer than literature. To say this
is not to deny the expressive or imaginative quality of art,
treating it as mere documentary evidence; the more imaginative
the work, the more profoundly it allows us to share the
artist’s experience of the visible.
Yet when an image is presented as a work of art,
the way people look at it is affected by a whole series of learnt
assumptions about art. Assumptions concerning:
Many of these assumptions no longer accord with
the world as it is. (The world-as-it-is is more than pure
objective fact, it includes consciousness.) Out of true with the
present, these assumptions obscure the past. They mystify
rather than clarify. The past is never there waiting to be
discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History
always constitutes the relation between a present and its past.
Consequently fear of the present leads to mystification of the
past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions
from which we draw in order to act. Cultural mystification of
’~he past entails a double loss. Works of art are made
unnecessarily remote. And the past offers us fewer
conclusions to complete in action.
When we "see" a landscape, we situate ourselves
in it. If we "saw’ the art of the past, we would situate
ourselves in history. When we are prevented from seeing it,
we are being deprived of the history which belongs to us.
Who benefits from this deprivation ? In the end, the art of the
past is being mystified because a privileged minority is
striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify
the role of the ruling classes, and such a justification can
no longer make sense in modern terms. And so, inevitably, it
Let us consider a typical example of such
mystification. A two-volume study was recently published on
Frans Hals.* It is the authoritative work to date on this painter.
As a book of specialized art history it is no better and no
worse then the average.
of over eighty, was destitute. Most of his life he had been in
debt. During the winter of 1664, the year he began painting
these pictures, he obtained three loads of peat on public
charity, otherwise he would have frozen to death. Those who
now sat for him were administrators of such public charity.
The author records these facts and then explicitly
says that it would he incorrect to read into the paintings any
criticism of the sitters. There is no evidence, he says, that
Hale painted them in a spirit of bitterness. The author
considers them, howe~er, remarkable works of art and
explains why. Here be writes of the Regentesees:
Each woman speaks to us of the human condition with
equal importance. Each woman stands out with equal
clarity against the enormous dark surface, yet they are
linked by a firm rhythmical arrangement and the subdued
diagonal pattern formed by their heads and hands.
Subtle modulations of the deep, glowing blacks
contribute to the harmonious fusion of the whole and
form an unforgettab/e contrast with the powerfuJ whites
and vivid flesh tones where the detached strokes reach
a peak of breadth and strength. (our italics)
The last two great paintings by Frans Hals portray
the Governors and the Governesses of an Aims House for old
paupers in the Dutch seventeenth-century city of Haarlem.
They were officially commissioned portraits. Hais, an old man
The compositional unity of a painting
contributes fundamentally to the power of its image, it is
reasonable to consider a painting’s composition. But here the
composition is written about as though it were in itself the
emotional charge of the painting. Terms like harmonious fusion,
unforgettable contrast, reaching a peak of breadth and strength
transfer the emotion provoked by the image from the plane
of lived experience, to that of disinterested ’art
appreciation’. All conflict disappears. One is left with the
unchanging "human condition’, and the painting considered as
e ma~vellously made object.
Very little is known about Hals or the Regents
who commissioned him. It is not possible to produce
circumstantial evidence to establish what their relations were.
But there is the evidence of the paintings themselves: the
evidence of e group of men and a group of women as seen by
another man, the painter. Study this evidence and judge for
The art historian fears such direct judgement:
As in so many other pictures by Hals, the penetrating
characterizations almost seduce us into believing that we
know the personality traits and even the habits of the
men and women portrayed.
What is this "seduction" he writes of? It is
nothing less than the paintings working upon’us. They work
upon us because we accept the way Hals saw his sitters. We
do not accept this innocently. We accept it in so far as it
corresponds to our own observation of people, gestures, faces,
institutions. This is possible because we still llve in a society
of comparable social relations and moral values. And it is
precisely this which gives the paintings their psychological and
social urgency, it is this - not the painter’s skill as a ¯seducer"
- which convinces us that we can know the people portrayed.
The author continues:
in the case of some critics the seduction has been a
total success. It has, for example, been asserted that
the Regent in the tipped slouch hat, which hardly covers
any of his long, lank hair, and whose curiously set
eyes do not focus, was shown in a drunken state.
This, he suggests, is a libel. He argues that it was
a fashion at that time to wear hats on the side of the head.
He cites medical opinion to prove that the Regent’s expression
could well be the result of a facial paralysis. He insists that the
painting would have been unacceptable to the Regents if one
of them had been portrayed drunk. One might go on
discussing each of these points for pages. (Men in
seventeenth-century Holland wore their hats on the side of
their heads in order to be thought of as adventurous and
pleasure-lovlng. Heavy drinking was an approved practice.
Etcetera.) But such a discussion would take us even farther
away from the only confrontation which matters and which the
author is determined to evade.
in this confrontation the Regents and
Regentesses stare at Hals, a destitute old painter who has lost
his reputation and lives off public charity; he examines them
through the eyes of a pauper who must nevertheless try to be
objective, i.e., must try to surmount the way he sees as a
pauper. This is the drama of these paintings. A drama of an
¯ unforgettable contrast’.
Mystification has little to do wtth the
vocabulary used. Mystification is the process of explaining
According to usage and conventions which are at
last being questioned but have by no means been overcome,
the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of
a man. A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of
power which he embodies. If the promise is large and
credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible, he
is found to have little presence. The promised power may be
moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual - but
its object is always exterior to the man. A man’s presence
suggests what he is capable of doing to you Jr for you. His
presence regulates what is and is not "permissible" within her
presence may be fabricated, in the sense that he pretends to be presence. Every one of her actions - whatever its dire~t
capable of what he is not. But the pretence is always towards
purpose or motivation - is also read as an indication of how
a power which ne exercises on others.
she would like to be treated, if a woman throws a glass on the
By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her
floor, this is an example of how she treats her own emotion of
anger and so of how she would wish it to be treated by others.
own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be
done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice,
Ifa man does the same, his action is only read as an
opinions, expressions, c~o~es, chosen surroundings, taste expression of his anger, if a woman makes a good joke this is .
~ndee~ t~ere Js no~hing she can do which does not contribute
an example of how she treats the joker in herself and ~ ~.
~o ~e~ presence. Presence for a woman is so intrinsic ~o her
accordingly of how she as a jo.ker-woman would like to he
treated by others. Only a man can make e good joke for its own
emanation, a kind of ~eat or smell or aura.
One might simplify this by saying : men act and
women appear. P, flen |ook at women. Women watch themselves
social presence o~ women ~as deveJope~ as a result of their
being looked at. This determines not only most relations
between men and women but also the relation of women to
space. ~u~ ~h~s ~as been at ~e cos~ o~ a woman’s self being
themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the
spg~ Jn~o ~wo. ~ woma, mus~ continually ~a~eh ~erself.
surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and
most pae~icularKy an object of vision: a sight.
~e~self. Wh~s~ she is wa~ing across a room o~ whilst she
weepin~ at ~he death of her father, she can scarcely
she has been taught and persuaded to survey
~ ~nd so she comes to consider the ;,rveyor and the
surveyed within her as the ~o constituent ye~ always dis~inc~
e~eme,ts of her ~den~ity as a woman.
" She has ~o survey ever~hing she is and every~hin~
she ~oes because how she appears to others, and ultimately
how she appears ~o men, ~s of crucial [mportance for what
norma~y thought o~ as the success of her life. Her own sense
of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being
appreciated as herself by another.
~en survey women before treating them.
Consequently ~ow a woman appears to a man can ~eterm~ne
how she wi~] be ~eated. To acquire some control ove~ this
process, women mus~ contain it and interiorize ~t. Tha~ par~ of
~erse~f by herseff ~ons~u~es her presence. Eve~ woman’s
In one category of European oil painting women
were the principab ever-recurring subject. That category is the
nude, In the nudes of Europeen painting we san discover some
of the criteria and conventions by which women have been
d j dg
The first nudes in the tradition depicted Adam
and Eve. It is worth referring to the story as told in Genesis:
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for
food, and that itwas a delight to the eyes, and that the
tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the
fruit thereof and did eat; and she gave also unto her
husband with her, and he did eat,
And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew
that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves
together and made themselves aprons .... And the
Lord God called unto the man and said unto him,
’Where are thou?’ And he said, ’~ heard thy voice in the
garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid
Unto the ,,v:~rnan God said, ’ I will greatly multiply thy
sorrow and thy conception; in so~’row thou shalt bring
forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband and
he shall rule over thee’.
During the Renaissance the narrative sequence
disappeared, and the single moment depicted became~the
moment of shame. The couple wear fig-leaves or make a
so much in relation to one another as to the spectator.
What is striking about this story? They became
aware of being naked because, as a result of eating the apple,
each saw the other differently. Nakedness was created in the
mind of the beholder.
The second striking fact is that the woman is
blamed and is punished by being made subservient to the man.
|n relation to the woman, the man becomes the agent of God.
in the medieval tradition the story was often
illustrated, scene following scene, as in a strip cartoon.
Later the shame becomes a kind of display.
When the tradition of painting became more
secular, other themes also offered the opportunity of painting
nudes. But in them all there remains the implication that the
subject (a woman) is aware of being seen by a spectator.
She is not naked as she is.
She is naked as the spectator sees her.
The mirror was often used as a symbol of the
vanity of woman. The moralizing, however, was mostly
Often - as with the favourite subject of Susannah
and the Eiders - this is the actual theme of the picture. We
join the Elders to spy on Susannah taking her bath. She looks
back at us looking at her.
In another version of the subjeet by Tintoretto,
Susannah is looking at herself in a mirror. Thus she joins the
You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at
her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting
Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakednsss
you had depicted for your own pleasure.
The real function of the mirror was otherwise. |t
was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first
and foremost, a sight.
The Judgement of Paris was another theme with
the same inwritten idea of a man or men looking at naked
But a further element is now added. The
element of judgement. Paris awards the apple to the woman
he finds most beautiful. Thus Beauty becomes competitive.
(Today The ,Judgement of Paris has become the Beauty
Contest.) Those who are not judged beautiful are [~ot/~eautifu/.
Those who are, are given the prize.
The prize is to be owned by a judge - that is to say
to be available for him. Charles th ...
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