Recently passed John Berger did a four-episode segment with BBC television, prior to his text titled, “Ways of Seeing.” This was an interesting take on the view of the gallery in comparison to the view of a reproduction, comparable to that of Walter Benjamin and his ideas and concepts of aura and reproducibility. Berger in the episodes touches on the ideas of perception of an original painting versus the reproduced, for example a digital image, a photograph or a view of it on a television screen. As he describes, paintings were originally commissioned as pieces of buildings to embellish the concept of the structures of memory, and history, essentially they were meant to confirm or consolidate the meaning of the building. For example, churches, churches have huge masterpieces of stain glass windows and in Europe there are huge frescos that tell the story of Jesus.
Berger had this way of presenting paintings in a way in which they are meant to be physically experienced. Going to a gallery taking in the atmosphere, the lighting and environment is much different then simply looking at a photograph. A photograph is a reproduction of an original, a simple image that does not accompany the physicality that a painting does. Berger in the first episode stated, that the process of seeing paintings is less spontaneous now because we have unlimited access to basically whatever we want in a modern society. What also arises with this idea of a photograph versus a painting is the concept of “eye” versus “I”. When viewing a painting the “I” is the self, the self perception of the beholder. The perception makes the gaze and with the invention of the camera a selected “eye” is created. When using the camera there is a subjective sight, cameras allow the concept of reproducibility. Cameras allow the image to be used on a loop, or countless times whereas a painting can only be at one place at one time. Now that being said, cameras are incredibly useful as they have encouraged accessibility to works throughout the world, but my question and I think Berger’s is the idea of authenticity.
When we experience a painting it is sort of an endeavour, it’s really a process to go to a gallery, check in your coat, walk through the rooms, and really find the exhibition you want to view. Originally paintings were integral parts of buildings and Berger describes them as confirmations or consolidations of memory and history. There is something almost “magical” about going to a gallery because paintings encourage the ideas of silent and still. Berger addresses this idea saying that a gallery visit is striking, which I tend to agree with. This idea of standing in front of a painting, quiet, and unable to touch has something mysterious about it, it truly is striking to just allow yourself to be submersed by the art, and not just a reproduction that can be reopened in chrome tab. I think that is something unique that galleries offer an audience, there is a physical presence that is necessary for the viewing of paintings which is not offered in reproductions. For instance, when we look at a photograph of a painting, Berger suggested that we focus in on the details and forget about the whole piece and the greater themes. This was particularly interesting to me because it gives into this idea of manipulation, a photograph can be cropped, altered in clarity and even in colour, whereas a painting once completed in almost raw in a sense that when you view it as an audience member your focused on the present moment and its impact rather than the details.
Berger had really interesting concepts of how we become aware of the self and the experience at hand and personally, he made some really effective and clear arguments. His four episodes are really accessible to the everyday art fan and I would strongly recommend watching them. Although they are straight out of the 80’s they touch on concepts of reproducibility that still effect our modern world. Just thinking about the fact that we can look up an image of the Mona Lisa and not actually have to travel to France to see it is on one hand really progressive but on the other somewhat on authentic. Berger’s ideas really are quite interesting and are worth discussion which is why the next blog will also address his methods of disguise and delight in the architecture of Trent University.