Woman Pouring Milk

The way John Berger, a 20th century art critic, describes a painting is to describe the relationship between the painter and the subject. To do this he must find words to apply meaning to the image. When one views art they relate to it. This relationship between the viewer and the art is affected by outside factors. To describe these outside factors Berger uses several terms such as the history, mystification, and reproduction of art. These terms will be used to describe how one should relate to the painting Woman Pouring Milk.


According to Berger, art depicts what the person painting sees at a specific moment in history. The painting then becomes a record of this specific point in history. People in the present can view a painting and see what the painter would see through his pick of a subject and how he applies the paint to the canvas to portray what he sees. Berger believes the understanding of the present hinders ones view of the past. He states that ones present view is molded by the ruling class. This is done to trey to justify their role of the past.

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Berger feels that the misunderstanding one has of the present will mystify the past. When something mystifies, it means that, that something blurs what should originally be known. Because of mystification ones view of the past lacks important points. When mystification is present, one must figure out the meaning behind what appears to be true. To do this one must understand the present and its relationship to the past. The art as it travels through time is viewed differently at each present it encounters. The present affects the painting because of the new surroundings it is viewed in. These new surroundings differ from where the art was originally conceived.


Berger states, when art is reproduced its surroundings are changed, which impedes the way that one would look at the original. It adds many new perspectives and meanings to a painting away from what the artist intended. The piece of art, now reproduced into many, is no longer unique. This creates the problem where a select few want to own the original so that they can keep it to themselves to enjoy. Art is intended for everyone to enjoy. Berger believes this has become a social problem were the ruling class isolates the art to fit into their own culture. Now, the people who art was originally intended for are not able to view and appreciate the original. They are stuck with reproductions were the meaning is changed. The meaning of the original cannot travel with the reproduction. Now, the image is affected by the knowledge of the present that in turn is affected by the ruling class. This causes a problem that involves reproductions.


According to Berger, many are not aware of this problem of reproduction because they now are so widely used. Reproductions take away from the original art value. The ruling class takes over an individuals knowledge of the present to mystify their view of the past. Berger believes that this breaks people away from their past which they rightfully should be able to understand.


While analyzing the painting Woman Pouring Milk by Vermeer, one must understand that the previously mentioned ideas will take affect to diversities the meaning. One must place themselves into the time period without confusing it with today. For that one needs to understand present clearly and not allow it to mystify the past. Berger believes one should not allow the views of the present impressed on them by the ruling class affect the way they interpret the painting. One might also want to view the original work of art rather than a reproduction. This way they would not bring in new ideas about the painting. Because these are hard to distinguish, many people will view the painting in their own way and develop their own meaning.


In the painting, Woman Pouring Milk, the painter sees his subject and portrays what he sees through his painting. The woman appears content as she goes about her daily activities that, in this case, include pouring milk. At that time women were more suppressed than today and most fell into the job of being housewives. The misunderstanding of the presents relationship to the past mystifies this painting. The artist depicts his view of women at that time through this particular woman. He paints her as being content because he may think all women are satisfied with their given place in life. The artist may never have thought of these women wanting more, or even being individuals with their own views. This brings up a point about the woman that the artist could not pick up on.


The woman appears to also be in some level of thought. She is not communicating these thoughts to the artist by either her words, eye contact, or some form of body language. This gives the impression that the artist does not understand what she is thinking or what she wants. It could be that she may not be content, that she wants more from her life. Once again, the painting can mean something else depending on what time period the viewer is in. Also, the surroundings that the reproduction is located in if they are not viewing the original can diversities the meaning. When I view the image I think of women in general. On the other hand one might view a servant, wife, or family aspect of the painting.


I do not think that one should criticize and try to find the right meaning for a painting. I feel each person should gain his or her own meaning from a work of art, whether it contradicts the authors intent or not. Reproductions bring more diversity to a piece of art, because a reproduction can develop many new ways a person can relate to a painting via its surroundings. These new relations allow for more people to appreciate the image.


To illustrate my point I will expand on some studies that Berger mentions. I will theorize using a common uneducated laborer as a subject. Take this subject and throw him into a museum to view a particular image. This person may look at it and view it as something only a wealthy or educated person can enjoy. Because he found no meaning that applies to him he will soon discard the experience from his mind soon after. On the other hand, if lets say he sees it on his television set at home, because of the paintings surroundings, it allows him to develop his own personal meaning. Now, this meaning could relate to his family, house or workplace. This painting and his new found relation to him could intrigue him, and in return apply it to his lifestyle. Because of the reproduction, in this case, it allows for one more person to enjoy this work of art. After all, what most artists want is for people to enjoy their paintings.


I believe Berger brings up many good points on seeing, describing, and misinterpreting. It stirs my mind and makes me think deeper into aspects of art I may never have thought of before. Some points Berger brings up I agree with and have added them to my overall view of things. Also, things I may not agree with allowed me to question and develop new theories on points I never thought of before. I gained a new respect for art and developed new ideas for what it means.