Seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world.
Marxist art critic John Berger’s “Ways of seeing” peels through the layers of meaning in these oil paintings arguing that paintings project the painter’s (or patron’s) assumptions of beauty, truth, civilisation, taste, class and gender.
Take this painting of the”Ambassadors” I saw at the National Gallery, London last year.
Who are these people being painted ? How do they look at the painter or at us (spectator/owner)?
What were the relations of such men with the rest of the world?
“Centuries later, we can interpret the objects on the shelves according to our perspectives. The scientific instruments on the top shelf were for navigation. This was the time when the ocean trade routes were being opened up for the slave trade and to siphon riches from other continents into Europe and later supply the capital for the take-off of the Industrial Revolution. “. A class of people, convinced that the world was there to furnish it’s comfort.
Man and nature. And Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews as proud landowners. Why did Mr and Mrs Andrews commission a portrait of themselves with recognizable landscape of their own land as background.
Consider the category of nudes in paintings. In them all remains the implication that the subject (a woman) is aware of being seen by a spectator. Is it merely a celebration of the human form? Or a depiction of the painter’s experience, turning desire into fantasy.
Women are depicted in quite a different way from men – not because the feminine is different from the masculine – but because the “ideal” spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.
The claim of the theme is made empty by the way the subject is painted, writes Berger. He compares 3 different paintings of Mary Magdalene of the Bible in different levels of undress. Mary Magdalene was depicted in the bible for her love of Jesus and transformation of her life by her repentance. The way her pictures are painted contradicts the essence of her story. (A naked Mary Magdalene certainly does not evoke images of religious piety in the spectator regardless of how the painter chooses to name it.)
Next time you look at a painting or a advertisement, look at the devises (Berger):
The gesture of models and mythological figures
The poses taken up to denote stereotypes of women: serene mother (madonna), sex-object (Venus, nymph surprised)
Materials particularly used to indicate luxury: furs etc
Equation of drinking and success
Gestures and embraces of lovers, arranged frontally for the benefit of the spectator.