The Semantics Of Imagery In Ways Of Seeing

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In his book, John Berger explains the semantics of imagery and how it changed over the years. He explains how sight gives us a perception of our surroundings. And how what we see and what we know are two different things.

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One surrealist painter who experimented with language & sight was René Magritte. This is visible in his work, one particular painting is ‘The Key of Dreams’ where he used ordinary objects in unnatural contexts, giving them new meanings and perceptions.

Berger starts explains that images are merely sights, that have been reformed and recreated. The way people see and perceive images have been changed over the centuries. Images were made to last so that so that they could be perceived by the future generations. Certain attributes affect the way we see images, some of these attributes are: form, beauty, stats, taste and many others.

After his words about images and how we perceive them, he starts analyzing paintings that have a common subject, which is women. He then talks about the relationship between the subjects – women – and the contexts and mediums in which they were painted in.

Berger explains how the preservation of visual arts has always been considered holy, present in palaces and houses, controlled by the ruling class. Nowadays, modern means of recreating images and art has stripped this away, making images of art free to be perceives by anyone – they now surround people the same way language does.

In chapter 3, Berger is talking about men and women as subjects in paintings and how they’re different. Men usually were ‘acting’ while women ‘appeared’. This is shown in the painting ‘Susannah and the Elders of Tintoretto’ by the Venetian painter Jacopo Robusti. In the painting, Susannah is shown taking a bath while the elders spy on her, there’s another painting with a different point of view showing Susannah looking at herself in a mirror, joining the spectators of herself.

Berger’s analysis in chapters 4, 5 and 6 talks about one common thing; oil paintings and the representation of wealth. This is shown in many paintings in European art between the 1500-1900s. One painting in particular is ‘The Ambassadors’ by Holbein. It makes the spectator look at many different items in the painting, making the eyes move from one object to the next; the wood, the silk, the metal, he skull, & the other objects shown. In oil paintings, Greek and ancient figures were regarded highly more than paintings of still-life, portraits or landscapes.

Berger continues to analyze images and paintings in chapter six of wealthy subjects, domestic scenes, historical paintings and photographs of children.

In the final chapter of this book, Berger changes his focus from art history to a more contemporary aspect: advertisement, or ‘publicity image’ as he calls it. At the time he wrote this book – nearly fifty years ago – images has taken a turn and started to be more propagative more than ever, with advertisement surrounding us everywhere. He talks about advertisement and how it works – he explains that advertisement makes the spectator envy the subject, placing them in a glamorous position that makes the spectator want to buy whatever is being advertised. He compares contemporary advertisement to oil paintings in the sense that that spectator wants to have whatever is being advertised – to purchase it and to own it – same as the working class spectators who used to view the paintings of the ruling class and their material property.

29 April 2022

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