The Sunday Times published a sneak peek at a new documentary on January 2, 1972. “Have your set tuned and be ready to have your eyes opened by John Berger in the first of a stunning new series,” it started.
Ways of Seeing aired on BBC Two at the unappealing hour of 10.05 p.m. on a Saturday night, just before Match of the Day. Even though it had a small viewership and few reviews, the anonymous reviewer was correct.
For half a century, this eccentric documentary, filmed on a shoestring budget, has been cracking people’s eyes wide.
Ways of Seeing has sparked academic conferences and tribute shows, inspiring generations of authors, artists, and curators. “Even its title set me on a road where I knew there wasn’t just seeing, there were… ways of it,” says author Ali Smith, who saw it as a youngster.
Last year, American model Emily Ratajkowski used Berger’s quote to open her memoir My Body, saying, “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 nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”
Ways of Seeing was evident from the opening scene, in which Berger takes a knife to a Botticelli, that it was an attack on mindless adoration. He investigated political ideology via the European tradition of oil painting, discovering scathing evidence of an entrenched and exploitative system in the exquisite works of Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci.
Berger empowers the audience, converting them from passive consumers of high culture to detectives following revered items in pursuit of the master secret to patriarchal capitalism, which is one of the reasons the series has lasted so long.
These paintings, he said to his audience, may seem to be lovely or timeless, but they were created for the affluent and well-born to commemorate and celebrate their position. A landscape, like a lobster, was not innocent, and neither was a Venus naked.
Everything was a commodity. It was their ownership, not their inherent existence, that was being praised.
The dry-as-dust museum interpretations were created to mystify the average observer, lest they catch on to the sleight of hand that had been perpetrated.
Berger wanted to free himself from such shackles, so he created his own spell. Berger was a well-known, frequently divisive art critic, author, and broadcaster by 1972, when he was in his mid-forties.
He stands alone in front of a blue screen for minutes at a time, speaking aggressively and convincingly into the camera. He looks like a mix between Patrick Swayze and Jim Henson’s StoryTeller, with his curly hair and chainmail shirt, the charm of his preaching style sitting uncomfortably with the trenchant message of demystification.
A procession of visuals created by filmmaker Mike Dibb serves as a contrast, constructing a maybe more nuanced statement. The camera pans between renowned paintings (shot after hours at the National Gallery) and real-life pictures, frequently revealing striking connections.
It swings from pinups and street video of real women to classical beauties by Titian, Ingres, and Cranach in the naked episode, revealing how women are socialized to be the passive object of male gaze. This was the argument that Ratajkowski found so convincing, despite the fact that the politicized argument was not well received at the time.
Clive James wrote to the Listener to express his dissatisfaction with “Mr Berger’s attempt to redeem the western artistic tradition for Women’s Liberation.”
Berger subsequently acknowledged that he was relying on feminist work that had already been done, but he might have made this clearer. A group of five ladies respectfully discuss their responses to his video in the second part of the nudes episode.
None of the characters are given a proper introduction, however their names are mentioned in the credits. The majority of them were active in the embryonic second-wave feminist movement.
One was Eva Figes, whose book Patriarchal Attitudes from 1970 is undeniably precedent-setting, while the eloquent lady with spectacles is Jane Kenrick, one of five women on trial for opposing the 1970 Miss World pageant. She was a worker’s rights activist and professor who died in 1988 at the age of 42.
Her contributions should not be overlooked.
Other sources of inspiration are credited with more care. The first episode is based on Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which was just recently translated into English.
Ways of Seeing was essentially a conduit for bringing these enthralling new concepts into the public. It is invariably described as influential, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that it arrived just in time, conveying a new attitude or approach to culture that would soon be disseminated globally, in postcolonial, queer, and feminist studies, Marxist readings of Jane Eyre, media studies classes, and art school reading lists.
The same cannot be said about the manner in which it was created. Ways of Seeing reflects the BBC’s pinnacle of creative freedom, which can now be seen in Adam Curtis’ work, which mixes an apparently radical message with a strangely didactic narrator.
Berger may have been the series’ face and better-known partner, but the series’ creation was unusually collaborative in nature. It was one of Dibb’s first films as a filmmaker, and there was no intervention from above.
Berger had already left England for a farm in the Alps, and they had been exchanging draft scripts for months. The last episode’s topic was not selected until late in the production, when Berger grew attracted with advertisements while riding the tube.
Each episode’s fizzing vitality comes from this daring, on-the-fly method of creating, with its feeling of experimentation and new discovery. The vague, open-ended soundtrack was produced by Delia Derbyshire of the BBC, who enchanted Dibb with her habit of smoking snuff as they worked.
But how did Ways of Seeing become noticed in the first place? The show, which was broadcast in the pre-VCR, pre-digital era, quickly became unavailable.
It was shown once after winning a Bafta in 1973, but not again until July 30, 1994. Unless you used that new technology, the video recorder, as some foresighted instructors did, Ways of Seeing’s durability was due to the accompanying book.
The book has sold 1.5 million copies in the UK alone, making it one of the most widely read art books ever.
The initial edition of the book was 60p. Dibb explains, “We wanted it to be the cheapest art book ever made.” “Everything an art book didn’t do, we tried to do.”
It was also a collaboration, this time with a crew of five, despite the fact that it is typically seen as a solely Berger effort. The book’s striking look was created by graphic designer Richard Hollis, who included the first six and a half phrases on the front beside a painting by Magritte.
The text was a smoothed and tightened version of the film’s screenplay, written in eye-bending bold font.
Both versions are true to Berger’s style, which is both lyrical and didactic, flowing and stiff. He criticizes Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews and Holbein’s The Ambassadors for their terrible ideals encased in paint, as well as the obscene exhibition of capitalism, profit, and property in Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews and Holbein’s The Ambassadors.
He illustrates how the light falls in a Vermeer in a swooning way. It seems as though two persons are conversing at moments, and Berger was at a crossroads in his own work.
He moved away from theory as Ways of Seeing brought it into the world, consecrating himself to an artist’s opinion on politics rather than a political take on art.
Berger’s deep engagement in the world of pictures itself is part of what makes it so intriguing to see today. Take a look at a single scene from the second episode.
“The faces of the women in so many European paintings are like the faces of swimmers in seas of silk and satin,” his dreamy voice says against a closeup of garments in dazzling pink and sea-foam green. No other critic could perceive the grid of forces in which we are caught while also communicating the exquisite, time-stopping power of paint with such a compassionate, estranging perspective.
Despite the fact that its manner of analysis has become standard, Ways of Seeing maintains the ability to wow new viewers with its insights, even if the affluent are now more likely to invest in NFTs than Rembrandts. The final episode, on commercial images, is the most pertinent for our current digital era.
Berger depicts a dreamworld that we all live in, a visual barrage meant to elicit profound sentiments of inadequacy and want, capitalism’s lengthy seduction of its unfortunate people.
In the decades afterwards, the spell has only become stronger. These days, we live in a world of disembodied pictures created by enigmatic forces we can’t see or comprehend.
Berger used the term “pickpocket’s device” to describe this process of mystification. Understanding what you see and realizing that seeing is a conscious decision are the first steps in breaking it.
Art does not exist in a vacuum. It’s how reality is constructed – or, for that matter, recreated.
Thanks to Olivia Laing at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.