Ways of Seeing

Saturday 24th September   

Memory plays funny tricks, doesn’t it?  I had wanted to write my daily blog about an old series of programmes on BBC2, way back in the early seventies, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it might have been called.  I racked my brains for days, I couldn’t even remember the presenter’s name, and he was more than a presenter, he was an iconic art critic.  Then when I was waiting for a coffee in Raouls, Maida Vale, it suddenly came to me.  Of course, it was Ways of Seeing by John Berger, and I had watched it with Adrian in that wretched flat in Hackney, how could I have forgotten the name.  I scrabbled in my bag for my notebook, but I didn’t have a pen with me, a rare omission.  Then later on the very same day, I couldn’t remember it again, so I resorted to the internet and found it.

The point of the programmes was to make you see Art in a totally different way.  At the time I remember Adrian was more enthusiastic about it than I, he even bought the book, but a couple of years later some of Berger’s comments kept coming to the surface of my mind, especially when I was looking at paintings, so I then bought the book too.  Each programme had a different focus, but it was mostly about understanding the context in which the paintings had originally been painted; and now, as they are viewed in a different time, and mostly in Galleries or in reproduction, we see them totally differently from the way they were intended.  One in particular made me almost jump with realisation.  It was about the female nude; I had obviously seen paintings of nudes on many occasions, and not really thought much about them, except that historically it would seem, plumpness was far more desirable than it is today.  The revelation to me was that the men who had painted these women so many years ago had done so from the male point of view, reflecting male desires and ideas of perfection, hence the abundance of flesh, the obvious lack of bodily hair, and the easy availability of nudity itself, as if the woman was naked for his gratification, for the approval almost of the male viewer.  Women were not, or were very rarely painted for their own sake, or just as being themselves.

This had never struck me before, this idea of ownership, and it still goes on in ‘girlie magazines’ and of course the ubiquitous page three of the tabloids, where girls, almost always in their late teens, are displayed in various stages of undress with ridiculous smiles on their faces, as if their only reason for existing was to titillate men.  Maybe it is; they are well paid for their efforts apparently.