John Berger’s BBC documentary Ways of Seeing (1972) is one of the most influential art documentaries ever made. The book that accompanies it is required reading in a number of universities worldwide. This evening I realized that the entire documentary is available to watch for free on youtube.
It is a very 70s style documentary, and there are some things I would definitely disagree with. So the evening was spent with me chatting back to John Berger. It was great. The really important thing about this documentary, however, (which relates it to all the best documentaries) is that it makes you challenge the preconceptions that you have. You may or may not agree with what it suggests, but you’ve definitely started thinking. And that’s the whole point.
I started watching this hoping that it would count as reading the accompanying book, but I think I will probably add it to my reading list anyway…
So here’s why you should watch John Berger’s Ways of Seeing
- He encourages you to be as childlike as you can in your encounter with art. Trust the evidence of your eyes.
- He finds the treatment of the female nude in Western art inherently problematic and invites a panel of women to talk to him about how they feel about it.
- He wears an incredibly 70s shirt and says some incredibly 70s things…
- He emphasizes the importance of context on how you perceive a painting– and illustrates this by making you watch an execution of political prisoners before showing you Goya’s 3rd of May
- He features some absolutely bizarre 70s adverts, as examples of the dreams that advertising is selling…
- He seems to be encouraging pinning reproductions of famous paintings on corkboards next to childrens’ drawings. I love the idea.
- He suggests that the entire tradition of oil-painting was created as a way to flaunt one’s material wealth. Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (one of the paintings, which he uses to illustrate this tendency) has a massive skull hidden in it – a symbol of the vanity of all earthly possessions. Berger never mentions this skull (and now we discuss why and whether the skull is important or not…)
Have you seen John Berger’s Ways of Seeing? What did you think of it?
Screenshots of the youtube film
Rokeby Venus: By Diego Velázquez -The National Gallery, London. Retrieved on 25 June 2013., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=984326
The Third of May By El_Tres_de_Mayo,_by_Francisco_de_Goya,_from_Prado_in_Google_Earth.jpg: Francisco de Goyaderivative work: Papa Lima Whiskey 2 – This file was derived from El Tres de Mayo, by Francisco de Goya, from Prado in Google Earth.jpg:, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18777858
The Ambassadors By Hans Holbein – bQEWbLB26MG1LA at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22354806