Images offer a powerful way to communicate. A single image can relate more to a person than text can. An artist can create a piece of artwork to express how he or she feels or how they see something. Over time the art that was created long ago can change meaning from what the artist originally intended and the perception can change as well, either through mystification or personal experiences. Author John Berger in his book Ways of Seeing writes about the various ways in which this can happen. By looking at descriptions of paintings done by a fellow student, a professional critic and myself we can see how different people “view” the painting and analyze how those different views can bring change to the paintings meaning.
When looking at the descriptions of the painting, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, differences are seen in what each individual person sees. In my personal description of Last Judgment the focus is geared more towards the colors used and the description of the smaller sections of the painting. For example “The color scheme is blue for the most part. In the lower right corner there is a section of red color surrounding a group of individuals. One of those individuals is painted in greater detail; perhaps he has a greater importance in the painting as a whole.” This is in contrast to my classmate’s description which focuses more on the scenes in the painting. For example, “Above are clouds and crowds of people in what looks like heaven in the top left a bunch of people are holding onto a cross and in the top left it looks like they are holding on to a pillar.” In each of the descriptions both viewers see something different in the same image. These differences in observations are perhaps brought on by personal experiences in life, previous exposure to art or something else entirely. What’s interesting to note is that both viewers gain their own individual understanding of the image. Although there are some differences in the descriptions, for the most part they both focus on the visual. They describe the events taking place, the images used and the colors present in the painting. This is in contrast to the professional critic who takes a different direction with his description. Although the critic starts his description in a similar fashion to the two previous descriptions he begins to describe later on as if he were in Michelangelo’s head. For example lines like “Mary is turning away from her son, so terrible does she see his judgment” or “If there is any hesitation in calling his Last Judgment on man whom he loves, he is reminded of the brutality of man by the saints that surround him bearing the symbols of their own martyrdom”. The critic cannot know why Michelangelo painted the direction of Mary’s head looking away from Christ and he cannot know why Michelangelo painted the saints where he did. Nevertheless he writes as if he has some special understanding of the reasons behind Michelangelo’s decisions. The critic sums up his evaluation of the painting with this, “Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is testimony to the artist’s sense of religious and social justice. It may also be seen as his own, bitter, judgment in the Sistine Chapel against all those critics that sort to discredit his work. Ironically what remains today is the rapture of critics, as they are overwhelmed by the towering artistic genius of vision and skill that we enjoy in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.” These are all examples of mystification, which according to Berger is “the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident.” What Berger means is that mystification is the misunderstanding of what the artist originally meant to bring across in the artwork. Critics like the one in the example tell the viewer what to think or feel instead of allowing the viewer to come to their own conclusions and interpretations. Berger argues that this leads to a person losing their place in history. Berger writes “When we ‘see’ a landscape, we...
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