On January 2, 1972, the Sunday Times broadcast a short preview of a new documentary. “If you’re the least bit interested in art,” he began, “get your set tuned and be ready to have your eyes peeled by John Berger in the first of a stunning new series.” Ways of Seeing aired on BBC Two at the unpromising time of 10:05 p.m. on a Saturday night, alongside Match of the Day. It had a modest following and few critics, yet the anonymous reviewer was right. This idiosyncratic documentary, made on a shoestring budget, has been an eye-opener for half a century.
Ways of Seeing has inspired generations of writers, artists and curators, spawning scholarly lectures and tribute programs. According to novelist Ali Smith, who watched it as a child, “even its title put me on a path where I knew there wasn’t just seeing, there were… ways to get there. “. It reached a new slice of readers last year through American model Emily Ratajkowski, who opened her memoir My Body with Berger’s quote: “You painted a naked woman because you liked looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and called you the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nudity you had painted for your own pleasure.
From the very first scene, in which Berger brings a knife to a Botticelli, it was clear that Ways of Seeing was an assault on thoughtless reverence. He used the European tradition of oil painting as a means to investigate political ideology, unearthing overwhelming evidence of an entrenched and exploitative system in the fine works of Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci. One of the reasons the series is so enduringly influential is because Berger empowers the viewer, transforming them from passive consumer of high culture into detective, tracking down revered artifacts in search of the master key to patriarchal capitalism.
These paintings, he told his audience, may seem beautiful or timeless, but they were in fact produced for the wealthy and high-born, to celebrate and solemnize their status. A landscape was not innocent, any more than a lobster, even less a nude of Venus. All were commodities. It was their property that was exalted, not their intrinsic existence. As for the dry-as-dust interpretations in museums, they were designed to mystify the ordinary viewer, lest he grasp the sleight of hand that had been performed.
Berger wanted to break these chains, and to do so he performed his own enchantment. In 1972, Berger was a well-known and often controversial art critic, novelist and animator, then in his forties. For minutes at a time, he stands alone in front of a blue screen, speaking urgently and persuasively into the camera. With his curly hair and chainmail, he looks like a cross between Patrick Swayze and Jim Henson’s StoryTeller, the charisma of his preaching style blending a bit poorly with the incisive message of debunking.
The counterpoint is a parade of images constructed by director Mike Dibb, which constructs a perhaps more subtle argument. The camera swings between famous paintings (filmed after hours at the National Gallery) and real-life footage, uncovering often startling parallels. In the nude episode, he jumps from pin-ups and street images of real women to the classic beauties of Titian, Ingres and Cranach, demonstrating how women are trained to become the passive object of the male gaze. It was this argument that Ratajkowski found so compelling, even though not everyone at the time liked the politicized argument. Clive James wrote to The Listener, complaining about “Mr Berger’s attempt to redeem the Western artistic tradition for the liberation of women”.
Berger himself later explained that he relied on pre-existing work by feminists, although he certainly could have made that clear. In the second half of the nudes episode, a group of five women politely discuss their reactions to their film. None are officially introduced, although their names are given in the credits. Most were deeply involved in the nascent second-wave feminist movement. One was Eva Figes, whose 1970 book Patriarchal Attitudes is an indisputable precedent, while the bespectacled articulate woman is Jane Kenrick, one of five who had just been tried for protesting the Miss World contest of 1970. An academic and workers’ rights activist, she died in 1988 at the age of 42. His work should not be forgotten.
Other inspirations are more carefully attributed. The first episode is a reworking of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which had only recently been translated into English. What Ways of Seeing has really done is act as a vehicle to spread these electrifying new ideas into the mainstream. She is inevitably described as influential, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that she arrived just in time, conveying a new attitude or approach to culture that was soon to disperse around the world, in postcolonial studies, queer and feminist, in Marxist readings of Jane Eyre, in media studies courses and art school reading lists.
The same cannot be said for the way it was made. Ways of Seeing represents a zenith of creative freedom at the BBC, only glimpsed now in the work of Adam Curtis, which also combines a seemingly radical message with an oddly didactic narrator. Berger may have been the face of the show, as well as the most well-known partner, but the show’s creative process was unusually collaborative. It was one of Dibb’s first outings as a director, and interference from above was non-existent.
Berger had already left England for a farm in the Alps, and draft scripts were posted for months. The subject of the final episode was not decided until long before filming, when Berger became fascinated by commercials while traveling on the subway. It’s this risky, on-the-job way of working, with its sense of experimentation and discovery, that gives each episode its sparkling energy. BBC electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire provided the ambiguous and open soundtrack, enchanting Dibb with her habit of smoking while they worked.
But how has Ways of Seeing been viewed? Broadcast in the pre-VCR, pre-digital era, the program itself was quickly inaccessible. It was repeated once in 1973, after winning a Bafta, but was not screened again until July 30, 1994. Unless you used this new technology, the video recorder, like the did some prescient teachers, it was the companion book that gave Ways of Seeing its longevity. Lifetime sales in the UK alone currently stand at 1.5 million, making it one of the most widely read art books ever published.
The first edition cost 60p. “We wanted it to be the cheapest art book ever made,” says Dibb. “We tried to do everything an art book wouldn’t do.” Although it’s often treated as a pure Berger production, it was also a collaboration, this time with a crew of five. Graphic designer Richard Hollis was responsible for the distinctive look of the book, including putting the first six and a half sentences on the cover, alongside a painting by Magritte. The text itself, printed in stunning bold type, was a smoothed and tightened version of the film’s script.
Both versions represent the else Berger style: both poetic and didactic, fluid and rigid. Sternly, he points to the perverse ideologies locked up in the painting, the grotesque display of capitalism, profit, property in Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews and Holbein’s The Ambassadors. In a swoon, he shows how light falls into a Vermeer. Sometimes it’s like two people talking, and in fact Berger was at a crossroads in his own work. As Ways of Seeing carried theory out into the world, it moved away from it, devoting itself to an artistic view of politics, not a political view of art.
Part of what makes viewing so fascinating now is Berger’s fascinated immersion in the culture of images itself. Take a single photo from episode two. Against a close-up of dresses in bright pink and sea-foam green, we hear her dreamy voice say, “The faces of women in so many European paintings are like the faces of swimmers in seas of silk and satin.” No other critic had this kind of loving and uncanny vision, the ability to see the grid of forces in which we are trapped while conveying the ravishing, temporal power of the painting.
While his style of analysis has become commonplace, Ways of Seeing retains an ability to stun new viewers with its revelations, even though today’s wealthy are more likely to invest their money in NFTs than Rembrandt. The episode most relevant to our own digital age is the last one, on advertising imagery. Berger reveals a dream world we all constantly traverse, a visual bombardment designed to evoke deep feelings of inadequacy and longing, the long seduction of capitalism over its unfortunate subjects.
This spell only grew in power over the decades that followed. Today we inhabit a universe of disembodied images, constructed by mysterious forces that we cannot quite glimpse or understand. Berger identified this process of mystification and known it as the pickpocket device. Breaking it starts with understanding what you see and realizing that seeing is an active choice. Art is not separate. It’s part of how reality is constructed – or for that matter remade.
Olivia Laing’s latest book is Everybody: A Book About Freedom.