BOOK REVIEW: Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This book challenges one to not just look at what’s in a picture, but to reflect upon the nature of seeing and what it tells one about the deeper meaning of a painting or photograph. For example, who is seeing – i.e. whose perspective would the picture be from and what might the artist be saying about such a person? Also, what are the subjects looking at, and what does that convey (e.g. come-hither, lost in thought, etc.)

The book’s seven chapters alternate text + picture chapters (the odd chapters) with ones that are only pictorial (i.e. the even chapters.) The first chapter lays out the concept of ways of seeing, and subsequent chapters consider how those ideas can be applied to specific questions. Chapter three, for example, discusses what the differences between how men and women are depicted says about inherent societal biases. Chapter five explores the relationship between possessing and seeing, and also how everyday people begin to be rendered in art. Chapter seven investigates what the author calls “publicity” and how pictures are used to evoke dissatisfaction with what is and desire to be something else. Here one sees how advertising and marketing exploits these concepts.

The picture-only chapters are intriguing. One can see the commonality in the pictures and practice discerning what the author is trying to convey. One of the book’s central ideas is that seeing precedes reading, and that we learned to extract information from images before we did so from words.

The book has strange formatting, employing bold text and thumbnail art. The font didn’t bother me. I don’t know whether it was used to raise the page count on a thin book, or what. I will say that the thumbnail art can be a little hard to make out, even in the Kindle edition where it can be magnified somewhat. Most of the paintings can be internet searched quite easily, but the advertisements that are used to show how art is applied to marketing, not so much.

I found this book to provide excellent food-for-thought, and would recommend seeing / reading it.

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POEM: Questions of The Night Watch

What creates more and bigger monsters…

fear or drink?
boredom or loneliness?
Hell or High Water?

And when the Captain points the way…

How does one know that one has put the monster to the fore?
What lurks in the shadowed archway, behind?

Who charges forward to the tune of,

“Lead onward, oh ye of the pointy stick!”



And why does yonder illuminated woman carry a chicken?

It’s a snack too raw for the Night Watch,
but too small to distract a monster.

DAILY PHOTO: Miniature Paintings of Udaipur

Taken on November 23, 2018 in Udaipur

This post requires some explanation. First, miniature paintings, as a style of Indian art, aren’t necessarily small (though they can be.) Rather, the “miniature” refers to use of fine detail and the use very fine brushwork. (Sometimes involving one hair-width brushwork.)

The historical basis of all these paintings in Udaipur was that they used to be used to adorn houses involved with weddings. Not only did they lend festive decor, but they also made it easier to find the right house.

Paintings Through a Writer’s Eyes: 6 of my Favorites

Let me begin by being forthright; I know almost nothing about art. If you’re thinking this post might offer you insight into what makes for a good painting, you’re in the wrong place. A few years back, I did get a couple books on “art for philistines”  (…isms: Understanding Art and 50 Artists You Should Know) Being fascinated by just about everything, I immensely enjoyed both books. However, my objective wasn’t to develop any great expertise, but simply to not be a clod. I wanted to be able to tell Monets from Manets from mayonnaise. And I did learn some nifty lessons, mostly about what art wasn’t. Did you know that Neo-impressionist art is NOT art that makes a new impression on one, as contrasted with paleo-impressionist art that makes one feel their inner-caveman. Secessionism was NOT the art of the Confederate States. Neither sensationalism nor naturalism necessarily involve nudity, darn. One the other hand, Pointillism is exactly what it sounds like, paintings made of little pointills.

As a writer, the story that I see in a painting has a lot to do with its appeal to me. That’s why there aren’t any Jackson Pollack’s or Mark Rothko’s on my list. I’m sure their work is aces in aesthetics, but I don’t get much out of it.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, 1510

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, 1510

I usually don’t care for paintings that are as busy as The Garden of Earthly Delights, but I find it fascinating that an early 16th century artist could produce so much wild surrealism. I didn’t even know they had LSD in the Netherlands back then. Today we have decades of monster movies to help us think up weird and bizarre images, but Bosch had only his imagination.

There are an infinite number of stories packed into this tri-sectional painting. A question being the root of a story, a world in which some people have flowers and berries blossoming from their heinies, makes for a lot of fodder. However, the first thing that strikes the eye is that God is the only one wearing clothing. (Lets avoid a tautology. One could say that the only reason I know that that’s God is that he’s wearing clothing. If he were naked too, the viewer would just assume that he was a perv trying to horn into a menage a trois. I would say the world’s first threesome, but if you look in the middle section, you can see that about everyone is getting their freak on.) So why is God wearing robes?  We can assume that it’s not that he has shame. He’s God, you can be sure he’s sporting the perfect specimen of masculinity (if he cares about such things.)  Is it drafty in heaven? If so, doesn’t his omnipotence extend to the heavenly thermostat, or is it that the Holy Ghost likes to crank the AC? I see tension, and tension is the root of a story. (I realize that I said that a question was the root of a story. Live in the moment.)

The Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich, 1823

The Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich, 1823

Sea of Ice, also called The Wreck of Hope, at first looks like just a landscape. However, if one directs one’s glance to the right hand side, one can see the stern of an old sailing ship. As the alternate title suggests, it’s about a shipwreck. A shipwreck in the sailing age in the Arctic Ocean makes an outstanding setting for a story. Those men are all going to die, but not with the suddenness of drowning. They will freeze to death over the course of hours. If they can start a fire, they may have many hours, but they are not going to be rescued and they cannot walk to home. The tension between wanting to survive and knowing you are just extending your misery is good stuff for story-telling. If this image doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, nothing will.

Olympia by Édouard Manet, 1863

Olympia by Édouard Manet, 1863

Olympia was a scandalous painting when Manet first revealed it. Nudity has been around for ever in paintings, right? Certainly, but it’s the context that enraged people. Society was used to characters of classical mythology being nude, e.g. Venus. They were also used to Biblical nudity (see Garden of Earthly Delights above.) However, Olympia made them think of the Parisian prostitutes that they didn’t visit, but somehow knew exactly what they looked like.  There are several stories to be told here. The one that springs to mind is why the servant is about to try to suffocate Olympia with a pillow. Will she, or won’t she, go through with it? If she does, will she prevail? Olympia looks like a fighter. If she doesn’t, will the cat?

Impression: Sunrise by Claude Monet, 1872

Impression: Sunrise by Claude Monet, 1872

In Impression: Sunrise two boats are out on the water, even though the sun has broken over the horizon.  They are rivals. The early bird got the worm, and the other will have to fish with fake lures.

Lighthouse Hill by Edward Hopper, 1927

Lighthouse Hill by Edward Hopper, 1927

Lighthouses make good settings for tragedy. They are remote. Ships depend upon them to avoid the rocky shoals. This lighthouse keeper’s family left because they didn’t like living in the middle of nowhere with a drunk. Now it’s just a man living in a big house alone. He runs out of Jack Daniels, and drives off to town at dusk. Being on the other side of the hill, he can’t see the lighthouse when he briefly glances into his rear-view mirror and wonders, “Did I turn the beacon on?”

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí, 1931

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí, 1931

The Persistence of Memory, a.k.a. Melting Time, is a dream state. It makes no sense. Nature is ordered into square edges. Watches are the only evidence of humanity’s existence. There is one creature living, or once living, that looks like the Thalidomide abortion of a three-way mating between a donkey, a Portuguese man of war, and Dalí himself.  The story is about being trapped in a dreamscape where time has become stuck.  Our protagonist must seek the wisdom of the Portuguese man-o-Dalí.