When Images speak like Words

The idea was very simple: why not screen the BBC series Ways of Seeing (1973) of John Berger in four different open sessions, and discuss how many of its ideas are still applicable to images of our time? We – two friends with a background in art and philosophy – loved the series for its accessibility and its creative approach. Often, art is made more inaccessible trough the use of complex language or by being exhibited in non-inviting spaces. At the same time, many art forms that are accessible – for instance reproductions on the internet, television series or films – are not necessarily treated as art and accompanied by a culture of reflexion. We share with Berger a desire to link these two worlds of images – the art image and the popular image – and to make the conversation about it everyone’s conversation. The home cinema of El Ingobernable – a large occupied building in Madrid that is used as a cultural centre – offered us the perfect space for this experiment. In this blog you find a short summary of the first two evenings and some observations.

Sound, Silence and Reproducibility

It is striking how a documentary of poor quality from the seventies, still appears fresh, both in approach and message. Instead of explaining everything, Berger seduces his public with imaginative exercises. He illustrates, for instance, the influence of television on painting by playing different genres of music over Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus (1601), while at the same time zooming in on the faces of Jesus and his disciples. Accompanied by Italian opera music, they look dramatic and full of conflict. Yet, at the moment devotional church music sounds, this tension disappears and their faces appear rather respectful.

One of the key arguments Berger makes in the first episode is taken from Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935). In this essay, Benjamin elaborates on how reproduction techniques have changed the status of art. He observes a shift from the appraisal of art as a sacred unique object to the celebration of the reproduced image in a variety of contexts. The meaning of the artwork in the age of reproducibility is more flexible, because all of these contexts in which it appears influence it. A religious icon, exhibited in an ancient church is different from its reproduction on a fridge magnet. The first might be admired by believers and kissed on a specific day during the year, while the latter forms a domestic collage with a birthday card and a doctor’s announcement. Taking art to various non sacred spaces means impairing its holiness.

This de-mystification and appropriation of art is for Berger something to celebrate. It allows people to make sense of art themselves. Everyone can reuse an image for their own purpose, and in that sense, he argues, ‘images can be used like words’. Many agreed with this opinion. It was noted, however, that this free use of images is not necessarily better. Nestlé’s use of Vermeer’s Milkmaid for their yoghurt campaign is also a consequence. Here, the quality and expression of the painting seem to tell us something about the properties of the yoghurt. It gives a commercial product allure.

It is self-evident that the use of the reproduced image is even more widespread nowadays, compared to the seventies. Artworks circulate on our Facebook walls, or are nicely ordered by colour on Pinterest. The question is, however, how often we allow this stream of images to be interrupted by critical reflexion. Do we ever take the time to look at them thoroughly? In the first episode, Berger shows the Milkmaid of Vermeer as a still image in silence, which was an unusual experience. Silence and stillness can barely be found in films or on the internet where we can scroll past, zoom in or comment on images. Where do we find the space to look with attention? Is it for this reason that museums with originals are still that important in our time?

Nakedness and Nudes

On the second evening, we analysed the female nude. According to Berger nakedness is simply being without clothes, while a nude is someone who is naked to be looked at. Almost all female nudes in the Western history of painting seem aware of a spectator. Bronzino’s Venus, for instance, only pays attention to Cupid with her head. Her body is entirely posed to those who see her.

Bronzino (1546) Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time

After the screening we reflected on how much of the classic nude is still present in the image of Beyoncé. We watched her video clip ‘Girls’ in which sexy women confidently dance in front of a group of military men. At least, Beyoncé gives us a much more active image of femininity. Most of the classic nudes are depicted in a passive position – lying on a bed, waiting. Still, sex is also very important in the way Beyonce presents herself. Can the bedroom lingerie in the video be related the classical image of a woman, waiting on a bed?

Another topic on the second evening was the context of the nude. We compared these four images and asked ourselves which of the women we would like to be.

One said he would prefer to be the woman in the drawing class or the activist. The pictures on the side, seem to him more objectifying: “I would not like there to be a picture of me that seems to be made for a male gaze”. Another man chose the woman on the beach: “In all the other occasions, people look at you while being naked, I’d rather be alone in such situations”.

In a certain way, photographed or filmed people are never alone. Their images travel from spectator to spectator, and in this journey their bodies meet multiple eyes and opinions. In all of the contexts they circulate, their meaning changes. This makes that not only the message of the image matters, but also how we use it. Its meaning is in our hands.

This blog was co-written by Ainhoa Castellano, who was also the initiator of the ‘John Berger evenings’

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