John Berger, Ways of Seeing … and PEN International

John Berger, who died aged 90 on January 2nd, was a critic, novelist, playwright, screenwriter and poet and well-known to many. Occasionally, in his early writings according to this Guardian obituary, Berger’s ‘Marxist dialectic did force him into uncomfortable contortions’, but whenever I heard him or read his fiction I loved his originality and his extraordinary ability to make the complicated simple.

The Guardian obituary includes clips from interviews and a documentary and episode two from his 1972 programme, Ways of Seeing. I read the book, devoured might be a better word, but I never saw the programmes. This episode makes me wish I had.

In it he says:

A woman is always accompanied, even when quite alone and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father she cannot avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually … because how she appears … and particularly how she appears to men, is of crucial importance to what is normally thought of as the success of her life.

And, a little later, he talks about the difference between being naked which, in Berger’s words is simply to be yourself, and being nude, which is to be an object to be observed. Thus, he says:

The mirror [in paintings of female nudes] became a symbol of the vanity of woman. Yet the male hypocrisy in this is blatant. You paint a naked woman because you enjoy looking at her. You put a mirror in her hand and you call the painting vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you have depicted for your own pleasure.

He goes on to describe paintings that are, ‘As personal as love poems’, by Rembrandt and Rubens and a couple of others, paintings that don’t exploit women but admire and love them. And then there’s a discussion among five women who watched the film. They discuss the interiority of women and the exteriority of men: how women tend to depend on men for a view of themselves; how men are confirmed in themselves by their achievements in the world. And, towards the end (it’s half an hour long) there’s an examination by the women of the difference between being nude and being naked. One of the women talks about a painting by Lorenzetti of a woman in a loose comfortable garment (see below) who is her idea of what a picture of a real woman (not an object) should look like. Interesting, isn’t it, that this painting was made in the fourteenth century but the woman in Ways of Seeing (made in 1972) didn’t – or couldn’t – cite a painting from the twentieth century.

The figure of Peace in The Allegory of Good Government

Depressingly, it seems we haven’t moved on much since 1972 either. Pirelli’s 2017 calendar advertising blurb boasts that its images of women have broken with tradition because the women are dressed. But they’re still objects: they’re not themselves. They are, in the words of the German calendar photographer Peter Lindbergh, ‘Nude while being fully dressed,’ because the camera has ‘stripped them to the very soul’.

How I wish you were still here to argue against that hideous statement, John Berger.

And the thing I’d love to have invented this month, in a world where time is infinite and all things are possible is PEN International, for its campaigns on behalf of persecuted writers worldwide. You can take action or you can donate money to defend freedom of expression and if you’re a writer you can email PEN International here and ask for their list of imprisoned writers and write to one. Imagine yourself being imprisoned simply for something you said or wrote: a letter might offer a little comfort, don’t you think?

About Angela

I write fiction about the difficulty we have when we try to say what's in our hearts.
This entry was posted in Artists, Equality, Women, Writers. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.