JOHN BERGER – WAYS OF SEEING, EPISODE 2

In the second episode of his series ‘Ways of Seeing’, Berger begins to discuss the female form and the way it is seen by both men and the world.

He starts by detailing the way that traditionally, men and women have different standings of social presence. Everything a woman does contributes to her social presence, and she is ‘taught and persuaded from adolescence to survey herself continually’, surveying ‘everything she is and everything she does’. The ‘way she appears to others and how (more importantly it seems) she appears to men is of crucial importance, for what is thought of the success of her life’.

‘She is born into the keeping of men, and from childhood is taught to survey herself, with the result that her being is split into two, the surveyed and the surveyor. Her own sense of being is replaced by a sense of being appreciated by others – ultimately men.’

Going back to early European oil painting, we can begin to see the ‘principal, ever occurring depiction of women’ – the nude. We can begin to also see the ‘criteria and conventions of the way women were judged and seen by the ‘male gaze’.

IDEAS ON ‘THE NUDE’

  • ‘being naked is simply being without clothes’ – Kenneth Clark (The Nude) 
  • ‘a form of art’ – ‘but also has to be seen as an object’
  • ‘to be naked is to be oneself’
  • ‘to be nude is to be seen naked by others, yet not recognised for oneself’

Early European oil painting does not take for granted the aspect of nudity as in more ‘archaic art’. Nudity within early art is just depicted as it works within the story – Adam and Eve in the story of Genesis. After Eve eats the apple, she is punished and made subservient to Adam, therefore the way that she is seen is different – ‘nakedness is in the eye of the beholder’. The same story is told throughout later work, presented in Medieval art as a ‘comic strip’ with the story being expressed through multiple moments, but we find parts of the bodies covered. Within the renaissance art, nudity is used to express the ‘moment of shame’, but instead of a depiction of fame to each other, (Adam and Eve) the shame is held in the spectators eye. This then starts to show nudity as a way of a ‘judgement’, perhaps we start to see the beginnings of the taboo nature of nudity?

Being ‘nude shows an awareness of being ‘seen’ by the spectator – they are naked as you see them’, this bringing thinking into the realm of being nude for a purpose. ‘Sees herself first and foremost as a sight – a sight for men.’
This idea of ‘women seeing herself’ brings both a literal and metaphorical meaning. A literal – a mirror. As discussed in the documentary, we start to see the mirror as a symbol for the ‘vanity of women’; “paint a portrait of a woman because you enjoy looking at her, put a mirror in her hand, call the painting vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you have depicted for your own pleasure”. This in turn, returning/repeating the biblical example by blaming the woman (Eve is blamed).

The documentary then turns to a discussion between a group of women, various ages and from different backgrounds.  I found this discussion progressive for the time, the views and opinions that were brought up and the relevance of these covering a wide range of options. This was the most informative and relevant part of the documentary, I found it really interesting to have more opinions introduced to the mix.

DISCUSSION

“we all have a visual image of ourselves’ – we start to ask ourselves how much the stereotypical European oil painting has influenced this, even now so in the 21st century. We are introduced to this perception of beauty through nudity, but also accompanying this comes the perception of nudity through the mans eyes, as the majority of more famous artworks are predominantly painted by men.

” I can’t identify with them (nudes in oil paintings), they fasten onto some secondary sexual characteristics – ‘big breasts, big bottoms, they’re just not ‘real!’ – I can admire them as paintings, but not to connect within myself”. I find this comment very relevant to even modern-day practices of advertisement and the representation of the female form within popular culture. The modern face of this is changing slowly, with the rise in more ‘body positive’ views and ever-increasing with the new wave of feminism that now includes such issues. I find the phrase ‘secondary sexual characteristics’ an interesting one; when applied to such an artwork as a nude, you can to become detached from the subject matter, instead of seeing something that might resemble you (for all nudes resemble the human form in one shape or another), you begin to see an object – a copy, an observation of a form, that is seen as something to ‘gaze upon its beauty’ and this is its main purpose.

“I identify myself with the photographs, as this is the way my body has been presented/advertised to me – I find the paintings unreal’.

(the nudes) ‘Have no information, it is how someone sees you and that is all – it is simply laid upon you’. The idea of the nude within portraiture underlines this exact statement; unless painted with a specific and very recognizable story within the frame, the information about the model is simply make-believe; something to construct in your mind that is relevant to the appearance of the woman depicted. The idea that the information is ‘laid upon you’ is a phrase that struck me as being quite strong, but with further thinking it does make sense – the artist/photographer has complete control over the representation of the female form within their artwork, however this is depicted contains connotations, further semiotics that reveal either everything, or nothing.

‘Nudity is a kind of disguise, it isn’t real and ‘free’, it’s just another garment to wear; worse than a garment in a sense, as you can’t take it off; (women) are always dressing up, playing a part, putting on a uniform, when more so than men, to show the ‘characters’ they are, to represent themselves – nudity is another uniform; ‘I am ready for sexual pleasure’ – so you can’t connect nudity with being ‘free’. The idea that being naked is being free is discussed here, or more so, the idea that naked does not equal ‘freedom’. While the connotations of clothes come from how little, how much or what you wear, the connotations of a naked body seem to appear much the same. The idea that society requires us to place our worth within the ‘uniform’ that we wear means that we are constantly ‘playing a part’ (maybe more so at the time the documentary was made). The notion of nudity being a garment ‘worse than clothes’ is brought up, and here is where I somewhat disagree, because by saying this, the woman speaking almost hints that she is ashamed at her nudity, perhaps the views at the time catching up here, as this changes today, more and more women embracing nudity as a part of ‘womanhood’ and also embracing the idea that sexual pleasure etc. can also be linked to nudity in a positive way.

(woman in discussion mentions a book) ‘woman reduced for sexual pleasure of the man she is in love with to a complete object – women should always be available – the stance – waiting for other people – ‘availability implies passivity’. This point of view, again, becomes slightly dated, as the idea of a woman being dependent and ‘waiting for other people’ to call, to interact, to maintain the feeling of being ‘wanted’ is perhaps something that gets more buried in the sand in the modern world of communication? In the sense of ‘always being available for men’ again, this view changes, as the woman no longer ‘has to’ be anything (in Western culture predominantly speaking).

‘men and women are very narcissistic, very different ways, cut off from each other? women’s image is derived directly from others, mans image is derived from the world, acts in it, as a centre of activity and worth – centres of narcissism are different, women’s essentially open to the other person, they are in a much more passive place than the man’.

‘men have more of an identity than women – narcissism is linked to identity, women jealous of the way men have a ‘sense identity’, they have something in them which is important, other than what others think of them’.

‘am conscious that I’ve never looked in the mirror and seen who I am, I always see the way I want to be’

‘painful part of narcissism is the (feeling of) inadequacy’

‘from adolescence, I have seen myself as a ‘nude’, not as ‘naked’ – comes from exposure to art galleries as a child – ‘this is culture, this is ‘Beauty’ – with a capital ‘B’ – you think the female body is beautiful, ‘ I am a beautiful object, if not I can do something about it”

This episode was particularly helpful to start opening up some questions and opinions about the representation of the female form. I know I wont necessarily be photographing my models nude, but as a female shooting women, I thought it was important to start to recognize where the thoughts, and early beginnings of the depiction of women’s forms come from. By interacting with the discussion and perhaps some older opinions and views on the topic, I can begin to pick apart the way I would like to represent my women in the portraits, taking into account centuries of work before it.

 

http://v5.books.elsevier.com/bookscat/samples/9780240516523/9780240516523.PDF – transcript of book/ episode

 

 

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