On the outset of the second episode in the Ways of Seeing series, “The Female Nude,” John Berger’s face is there, front and center, in a medium-to-close shot, looking directly into the camera as he speaks. Images of European nude portraits flash on the screen as Berger talks of the male gaze. He is gazing not at you, but through you. He barely exists, though he is right there. He says of these nude women, “Their nudity is another form of dress. They are condemned to never being naked.”
The barrage of images, accompanied by Berger’s French-tinged English voice over, continue. He explains the process the Renaissance painters had of capturing single portions of a model’s body—the torso, the right leg, or perhaps a shoulder—and collaging it with that of several other models, thereby creating their perfect woman. At one point, he even compares the faces of models from Renaissance nudes and then-contemporary nude magazines to find that while the context is different, each model’s face displays the same coy pose, an exhibition of what a man wants to see and what a woman wants the man to see, but because they are nude, because there’s nothing left to take off, they are now costumed in their own skin.
I have a minor in Women’s Studies—changed since then to Gender Studies by my alma mater—have read a healthy sum of feminist theory, and even went through my favorite sweat-suits-and-shaved-head phase of feminist awakening in my early 20s, because I wanted to find a male partner who would clearly love me for my mind, yet when I wanted to cross my arms and say, “duh,” to Berger’s ideas, I could not. So much of the gender studies education lies in the 20th century that the idea of looking further back into the Renaissance to find a direct map to the representation of women in art right now seems a bit of a stretch. Likely, we dismiss this, because it’s just so long ago that of course things were different for men and women then, and of course we can revere the masters for their work and not consider their gaze or their portrayal of women.
After Berger has presented his thoughts, he defers to a group of five women from various backgrounds, to whom he has already shown the previous portion of “The Female Nude.” He asks them to discuss what they’ve just seen. One of the women says that she’d never examined the nude models in paintings, because the idea of the “male gaze” seemed so much more evident in contemporary photographs. She says the only time she sees herself as what she actually is and not as what she wants to be is when she catches a glimpse accidentally in the mirror somewhere and is inevitably shocked by what she sees. Another woman, who seems educated on the subject, mentions the frescos of Lorenzetti, particularly the Good and Bad Government and the female representation of Peace. In this fresco that represents the Good Government, the judge is surrounded by six women, who represent various characteristics of virtue. Peace is relaxed, reclining in a gauzy white gown, with flowing blonde hair. The woman in the video explains Peace as one of the few women from the masters who has been painted as she is, not as we want her to be. What’s interesting about this, according to the Italian tourist information site for Casa Santa Pia that boasts tours of the frescos, is that, “Then as now, blonde hair was fashionable and seldom entirely natural; it was not the dominant natural hair color for Italian women from this region, and it was common for women to lighten their hair by streaking it with urine and heating it in the sun.”
So let’s give this whole episode of Ways of Seeing a little more context as well. John Berger is a human. He studies and records the thoughts and lives of a vast array of peoples, and mostly he is thought of as a conduit for the marginalized. By all accounts, the man has done some miraculous things. In 1972, when he won the Booker Prize, he donated half of the winnings to the Caribbean people to aid them in their fight for equality and independence, because the Booker funders were, in fact, a piece of the Caribbean financial oppression. When nobody is willing to stand up for what’s right, John Berger is the one to make the attempt. In his personal life, he’s been with the same woman for almost 50 years. His Wikipedia entry, however, claims the phrase, “After a childless first marriage, Berger has three children…” The origin of this writing clearly did not stem from Berger himself, but the idea that a whole relationship with a woman can be summed up into whether or not the woman bore him children is interesting in relation to the subject about which the description is supposed inform. But enough about Berger. How about the five women?
Anya Bostock is a prominent translator of Leo Trotsky and a well-known feminist author and theorist. A search for Carola Moon turned up only a few results of French websites discussing Harry Potter. Barbara Niven yielded similar results, only replacing “Harry Potter” with “eating disorders.” The Canadian-American actress Barbara Niven would have been 19 around the time of the filming of this installment. There is one very beautiful woman who does not speak out of the five who could be 19, but this might be a stretch. If it was her, the idea that she has gone on to do motivational speaking about eating disorders in America could possibly be fitting. Eva Figes, a wildly successful author and feminist wrote a good many novels and essays. A short biography of her states that, “In The Tree of Knowledge, she turns a feminist light on the world of John Milton—a blind man who nonetheless ruled the women around him.” As Eva and the other four women surround a dressed-down John Berger, one can’t help but see John Milton reflected, or perhaps the judge surrounded by the six women of virtue, a single man who could be silent or sightless and still rule the women with whom he surrounds himself.
The most compelling of the five, though, is Jane Kenrick. A graduate of Oxford and a truly compassionate human who worked tirelessly as an activist for women’s rights and socialism, Jane took her own life at the age of 42. In the film, she wears glasses, is in her twenties, and brimming with energy. She has complex ideas and cites passages from her education to support them, but she is never the true focus of the documentary, never holds the attention for too long. The camera, instead, drifts off to the silent woman, who relaxes in her chair, nodding along with what the others have to say. This camerawork is an interesting choice for the episode. In fact, the visual composition as a whole is remarkable. First with Berger staring directly into the camera, then focusing on women who never look directly at the camera, but instead look at Berger.
In the final moments of the episode, my favorite choice is made, and whether this was made by the editor or by Berger, it’s still interesting. Eva Figes is looking at John Berger, who is off screen. She’s telling him of the Lorenzetti and describing the woman of Peace. She’s leaning forward, presumably toward Berger, and the camera is trained on her profile. She’s in control. She has the final word of the episode, not Berger.
No matter how this episode succeeds or fails or how the host and the subjects reinforce or break down the subject matter of which they’re speaking, the episode is thoughtful. For those jaded souls who read every piece of feminist literature they could find in their awakened college days, this video is an active practice of what you’ve been reading.