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John Berger begins his book “Ways of Seeing” by putting across the idea that words are inadequate when it comes to conveying the way we perceive the world, seeing is habit plus convention. Building upon the German philosopher, Walter Benjamins’ works, he theorizes, with the invention of the camera, the reproduction of images, concentrating on European oil paintings, changed not what we see but how we see them. By taking the paintings out of their surface, replaces how the artist viewed the world. Paintings preserve things as they once were, just as how the painter once viewed, thus understood the world.
Both men and women are perceived differently in the world, a man’s display revolves around power and possession, whereas woman’s display tends to gravitate towards her physical appearance, therefore bring about the need to constantly examine herself image, knowing full heartedly that her looks, tastes, values, and personality are being observed by her male counterparts, judging solely on her exterior aesthetics.
Leading Berger to state “Men act, Women appear” Men look, while women watch themselves being looked at. This relationship is deeply correlated with European oil paintings depicting nude women. Berger dissects the story of Adam and Eve in the book Genesis, the first case in the difference between men and woman, Berger points out two things in the biblical story, first after eating the apple humans first become aware and ashamed of their own nakedness, concluding that nakedness is in the eye of the beholder, second, the woman is blamed and thus is made subservient to the man, in relation to the woman, the man becomes the agent of God.
The scene most depicted is the moment of shame, the shame is not in relation to one another, it’s the spectator who shames them. Using a work by Tinoretto as an example, Berger elaborates the fact that the nude woman looks at herself in the mirror, mirrors being the symbolic sign of vanity, just as the spectator looks at her in the painting, reminding us that women are considered, and consider themselves, sights to be looked at.
The main subject being that of male hypocrisy, painting a naked woman for the enjoyment of looking at her, putting a mirror in front of her, then repeating the same example as the story of Adam and Eve, blaming the woman. The Judgement of Paris is another prime example of males gazing upon naked women and judging them, Paris awards an apple to the woman he finds most appealing, consequently transforming it into a beauty contest, the prize? Possession, the woman’s prize is being owned.
Berger continues by comparing European oil paintings and contemporary photographs of nude women, having similar characteristics in the women’s’ face expression, responding to the man looking at her. Although at times there may be a male present in the picture, the woman’s attention is solely focused on the true lover, the spectator. This can be seen in the painting that the Grand Duke of Florence sent to the King of France, although the woman is kissing cupid, her body is displayed to the spectator to please his sexuality.
Concluding, Berger points out the minor details, one being is the case of hair being minimized on woman’s body, hair being closely associated with sexual passion, the woman’s passion needs to be minimized so that the spectator feels as if he has dominance over mentioned passion. Going back to the male appearance in oil paintings, the cupid, how advantageous that it so happened to be a little boy. Finally women are rarely seen in any sort of dynamism, they exhibit minimum energy, they were there to feed an appatite.
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