An oil painting depicting the mythological Fortune, her wheel underfoot, scooting down the steps of a circa-1900 building that might be a stock market. One businessman within a crowd notices her and looks on in amazement as she passes, showering gold with one hand. On her other side, a cowled and shadowed figure sits, slumped, on the stairs.
This painting is La Fortune Passe (“Fortune goes by”), by Albert Maignan, circa 1900. Not necessarily emblematic of the artwork discussed in Ways of Seeing, but nonetheless among the oil paintings I discovered through this book, and used as illustration here because it makes me laugh. “Wheeee!”

Didn’t know about this 1972 book — with John Berger’s name alone on the cover, but a Berger-led committee of five credited within — before discovering it quite by accident while killing time at a downtown bookshop. That stands to reason, I suppose, because I’d never seen the TV series upon which this book is based, and I hadn’t heard of that prior to Berger’s death two years ago. Seemed a good a prompt as any to finally dive in.

Ways of Seeing suggests, in four essays, methods and vocabularies for examining art in ways that reach beyond the content of the frame. Using oil paintings as a focal lens, Berger challenges readers to consider not just a work’s surface subject matter and composition, but the social context in which the work was created — including who painted it, and for whom, and why. Steeped today in Twitterish wokeness, this all seems par for the course now, but I get the impression that a half-century ago this book’s core theses came across as downright provocative. I found them to still pack a punch, today.

The first essay lays down this groundwork through the central example of a 17th century commissioned portrait of some upper-class Dutchmen, one by an elderly and impoverished painter who found himself utterly beholden to the subjects’ ongoing charity. Berger challenges scholarship, contemporary with the book, that study of this painting must focus only on its composition and color and lighting and so on, and not allow informed speculation about the artist’s attitude towards his benefactors to cloud one’s perception.

This essay did not explicitly evoke “death of the author” arguments from literary criticism, but brought it to mind for me nonetheless, and my own ever-changing relationship with it. The article further asks us to consider the meaning — the baggage, really — of an original, historically preserved work of art in an age where reproductions of it can appear anywhere with relatively little effort. Berger had television in mind when he wrote this, and he offers his own book as another example. Given the low visual fidelity of both TV and mass-market books in 1972, and the ultra-high-resolution reproductions of that same art that I can now literally summon into my hand whenever I wish, the article still feels very relevant.

The other three essays form a thematic trilogy regarding what I, a layperson to art criticism, might try to cleverly call the object of a work — given that the subject is the thing depicted. The articles ask to whom certain works of art are addressed, and what sorts of assumptions the work itself might make about the flesh-and-blood people gazing upon the oil-and-pigment people who, in turn, aim their own attention right back out.

The first of these addresses role of the nude as a genre of oil painting, and — startling to me, reading this nearly 50 years on — an introduction to the now-common idea of “the male gaze”, albeit prior to the coinage of that particular tidy label. The true subject of a nude, says this book, is the assumed man standing outside the painting, gazing for as long as he wants at the naked lady-or-ladies who are arranged specifically for his gazing-upon, and posed to allow for easier imaginative access. Berger draws a distinction between nudes and paintings which, though they also feature naked women as their subject, dresses them in some amount of agency or purpose other than self-objectifying presentation to the viewer — and therefore exclude themselves from this category.

This essay also contains the source of a quote I know I’d seen paraphrased many times before: a summary-indictment stating that the male gaze doesn’t merely wish to see an image of a lovely naked lady, but also wants to feel superior while doing so, so it presses a mirror into her hand and titles it Vanity.

After this comes a study of the social context that oil paintings existed in, and the practical purpose they served, during the handful of centuries that saw them as the dominant art-form in the western world. How paintings were “not so much a window as a safe”, displaying to the viewer a catalog of the commissioner’s possessions, either literally or allegorically. The vast bulk of work painted during this period served this boastful and utterly pedestrian purpose, Berger asserts, and the work that has survived and continues to have relevance today all represents subversion of the form, artists using the tools and techniques developed specifically for stroking the egos of rich patrons and turning them in wholly unconventional directions. I felt like I received a nice little art-history education from this chapter alone.

Finally, the book studies how advertisers of the 20th century brought the visual language of oil paintings into their own service. This use also subverted the ancient form, but for a grindingly capitalist purpose: where the commissioned work of the renaissance displayed the patrons’ wealth back to themselves, modern advertising instead displays to its viewer a visions of the wealthy, glamorous, and desirable person that they could become, in the future, if only they buy the thing depicted.

As an artifact in itself, the book reminds me in format of McLuhan and Fiore’s The Medium is the Massage. Both books are dense but compact paperbacks originally published by Penguin in the neighborhood of 1970, and both with an interest in the power of images and their modern dissemination. As such, both make heavy use of illustration.

But where Medium makes a masterful juxtapositional funhouse of itself, its photographs and other graphics filling entire pages, Seeing limits its visuals to little thumbnails that politely share the page with the text. Printed in monochrome, and not at a resolution higher than one might find in a newspaper of the early 1970s, the reproductions surprised me with their humility — especially when found in a book about art appreciation. I did take advantage of one side-effect of my reading this book in 2019, never hesitating to look up every intriguing gray smear on my phone. (Every reproduced work has full attribution in the book’s endnotes, allowing for exactly this treatment.)

I forgive the book this aspect, since it’s ultimately about its own text, but I can’t help but imagine a new edition that would use newer printing techniques, letting the book have the modern typesetting and larger, full-color reproductions it clearly wants. In its essays, the artwork serves as simple illustration for its text, not as intentional and precisely laid-out collage, as in Medium.

All of which is to say that I did love that text. This book remains a great little volume and I feel fortunate to have crossed paths with it.

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