Walter Benjamin and Ways of Seeing

While I have been producing some academic work on Benjamin, I had another look at the notebooks I made last year.  This is a quick post of pictures to show some of the things that I find fascinating about his work.

The first is that he said that the camera would have an impact on how we view art because it will allow us to see it  in new ways.  He implies that even the maker will have a changed relationship with their work.  I found this when I first saw extreme close-ups of my own work, including every fibre on the thread holding the beads on.  In close-up these elements can look sculptural, and the following page from the notebook shows by juxtaposing a close-up of my work with a piece by Henry Moore how this might work:

The second thing I wanted to think about was Benjamin’s insistence that art gets much of its meaning and certainly what he called its aura from its context.  So a painting of a saint in a monastery means something different to seeing it in a museum or on a Christmas card.  And John Berger picked up the theme in his foundational TV series and  text, Ways of Seeing in 1972 when he showed how cropping images which is very easy with photographic reproduction and even easier now with digital photography again could, by changing how we see a painting, change its meaning.  So, this is a demonstration from my notebook on ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Representation’:

Cropped, this looks like a portrait of a young girl, but if we take the mask away:

We can see that it’s Mary Magdalen, particularly if we know how to ‘read’ the jar of ointment.

It’s when I get these brisk mental workouts that I realise how much I enjoy being an academic.  I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to deal with ideas for a living.

3 thoughts on “Walter Benjamin and Ways of Seeing

  1. So interesting to see pages from your notebooks and read your insights. I have experienced the “changed relationships” of which Benjamin speaks with some of my paintings from many years ago. After photographing them digitally and examining details, I find the cropped, close-up images have far more to say to me today than the overall finished painting does when viewed in person. Perhaps it is due to the sculptural quality you observed in your own work at the macro level. You’ve given me some things to think about today.

    1. Thanks very much for this comment. I completely agree – the cropping makes me see things that I really had no idea where there – even though I have made them. It adds a whole new dimension to making – or planting. Thanks again for taking the time to comment. Ann

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