Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team.
from 'Ways of Seeing: Part I'
by Sara Robertson, Senior Curator
“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight."—John Berger, Ways of Seeing
I'm taking a different approach to In the Collection this week, and turning my attention not to a work of art, but rather a man who has had a remarkable influence on the art world.
John Berger—an art critic, writer, painter, and poet, passed away last week at the age of 90. Berger is most widely remembered for his 1972 BBC series, “Ways of Seeing,” also translated into an essay format with the same name. The series was impactful in many ways that other art-related content hadn’t been before. This was not a broadcast discussion of an artist or school, nor an exploration of a movement or any other art historical idea. This was, as one critic wrote, a few years back, a key moment in the democratization of art education—a welcome exception to the standard, ephemeral TV art program of the time.
I have to admit that I had read parts of Berger’s essay, but had not actually watched any clips from the series until Nat, one of Meural’s own, told me about Berger’s death. I had, being an art history student, known of Berger’s legacy, so I thought it was important to spend the rest of that day diving into the series and experiencing how Berger’s approach made art seem more accessible to all. I felt like I was back in one of my many thought-provoking art history courses: Berger acting as one of my professors, teaching perplexing concepts and relating them to our present-day life. I invite you to dive in as well (it is fun really): Ways of Seeing, Part I, Ways of Seeing essay, Berger draws Tilda Swinton.
In fact, in my final year of university, my favorite class was the capstone course mandatory for all Art History majors. It was called The Theory of Art (or something to that extent, which prompts a feeling of limitless knowledge and a semester of intellectual discussion that would make anyone feel like a young philosopher). The class was grueling, intimidating, and, to be honest, at times went right over my head. Still, it allowed me to comprehend, even if fleetingly, these wild, philosophical ideas and texts on art, the act of creating, and history that often included German concepts and terms with little to no definition. In short, the class was my favorite because it forced me to think—probably harder than I have ever made my mind think, and that alone inspired me.
I will always defend art history, more so art education in general, for its unique ability to make people think. Not necessarily in ways related to our day-to-day, or that will assist us in “the grind,” but in ways that expand the mind and ultimately enrich life. John Berger was, like my professor, a teacher who illuminated our thinking, and expanded the concept of ‘expertise’. As homage to the man and his work, we have created collections (one in horizontal, one in vertical) inspired by, and featuring works shown in Berger’s “Ways of Seeing”.