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Beauty,Spring 2005 Third Web Papers On Serendip

Experiencing an Under-Appreciated Painting

Alice Kaufman

The painting I choose is in the corner of a bright, large room with a long connected skylight around the ceiling. There is a very large, very famous Henri Rousseau in the center of the wall my painting is on, and it is clearly designed to be the focal point of the room. It doesn't matter; I knew which painting I will look at before I entered. On the last trip to the Barnes Foundation, my friend and I saw it, and we were both enthralled by it.

The painting first caught my friend's attention because of its subject matter; the subject that the forms of the painting represent, and what Barnes thought we should look beyond. Paintings of mythical dragon slaying were once very much en vogue, she explained. I enjoyed it for the rich, almost childlike blocks of color. For the second visit, and by myself, my first impression of the painting is one of disappointment. Was this the vivid, Crayola colored oil and pastel picture that I had seen before? Why was it now so dull?

I am afraid that my friend had given the painting more life than it posses alone, and that her enthusiasm is what gave it beauty that day. But I study it anyway, thinking that no one else would pick it, and it was very different than the soft, cream colored women with which the Foundation is filled. I find the name of its creator, Odilon Redon, and the title is Saint George and the Dragon. I stand close to it, and shift to the left to not block the doorway leading out of the room.

As I stand there, I realize that while my friend enhanced the experience, my eyes were not deceiving me. The lighting is terrible for it as seen from the benches in the center of the room; Barnes must have not cared about this painting at all. Close to the canvas, I see it with the most light from the overcast sky, and the yellow electric lights in the center of the room contribute little. Because it is near a doorway, the black tape separating the painting and me is very close to the wall; I can stand six inches away from it and not fear the museum guards, as long as I stay out of their way. Near the painting, I see a burning rainbow of color. Even closer, I can see intricate details on the figures that were washed away by the intense color just a step away.

St. George's horse is not very large relative to the canvas, but it is easily the most finely detailed object within the piece. The horse's body is made of peach, pink flesh, brick red, blue, and cream, yet the overall impression is white. The bridle and stirrups fascinate me. They are created with a metallic gold paint, which popped out of the canvas. At first I think that it was a trick of the light, but the small scrapes of paint really are three-dimensional. The scrapes of gold paint are not even connected to each other, but it is clear that these slivers of reflective monochrome form forged and solid iron work. St. George himself is not very realistically proportioned, and it is unclear how he is riding his horse and throwing his lance backwards and down. His spear is not solid, like the other metalwork in the painting. Upon staring at St. George's arms and the parts of the lance that are complete, I realize that he is not only plunging the lance into the dragon at the horse's feet in the direction of the horse's haunches, but he must also be throwing it behind his head. This seems ridiculous, until I realize that Redon has painted St. George throwing the lance across the front of his head, but Redon simply did not paint in it. The lance would clutter St. George's face. At first glance, nothing seems out of place, it is simply a smooth motion of his arm. Everything appears in order, and yet objects are not solid.

The dragon St. George slays is almost invisible from the viewing benches. It is impossible to say what color the dragon is, except that the general impression is dark, with half rings of yellow lined in an arc, forming the scales along the dragon's spine. These marks of yellow are like the gold in the metal on the horse, small scraps of paint that puffs up from the rest of the paint. By outlining the spine, Redon gives his only hints at the position the dragon could be in; it is a swirling tangle of dark sapphire and emerald. It is near death, and therefore does not possessing the strength to be one solid, contained shape.

The title and my description thus far are misleading; St. George, his horse, and his dragon are all in the painting, but they are swamped by a strange, bright sky and sea. The central figure in the painting is really the sun, painted directly in the center. It is a large, slightly nebulous cloud of red, with a big yellow circle in the center. The colors are not blended and shaded together, they simply lay side by side in patches. It reminds me of skies I drew with crayons when I was small, with atypical color choices and very clear shapes. There is a hugging arc of mustardy yellow above and to the left of the round sun, and to the direct right, a muddy deep purple. Hugging the ecru hillside that is the background of the horse is the same dark, muddy purple. Above the mustard and the purple are brilliant white clouds, edged with yellow sunlight. In the right corner still above that, there is light blue sky, which balances the rest of the painting's dark colors. These clouds are incredibly beautiful. It is as if one took a photograph of at sunset filled with billowing cumulus clouds, and yet maintained the roundness and dimensions of the sky. These are the heaven kissed clouds that are painted when an artist needed to show the presence of God, but could not conceive of anything else appropriately awesome and ethereal. After staring for some time I realize that even this aspect of the painting does not make logical sense. The source of light, the sun, is down in the center of the painting; how could it light the opposite edges of the clouds? And yet I feel as though I have seen a sky like it, that sometimes there simply is no logic behind how the sky appears. There is so much reflection and refraction of light that I will never be able to intuit. I'm not sure if mundane, earthly rules of light and shadow can apply. But I feel that if it could look like this, it would be stunning.

The bottom of the sun's roundness and the purple's softness are both cut off slightly by the beginning of a strict horizontal line of teal. Remaining ribbons of red flow horizontally into the water, just as reflections sometimes do. The first wide stripe of the sea is ironically composed of mostly vertical lines, with the same bowing curve of the dragon scales. It is looks as if someone had folded a ribbon lengthwise, making it curve. The effect is that of a rising wave and motion, but it is an unfamiliar sort of wave, without any breaking crest of white foam. There is only dark, rich color. Underneath this straight yet curving strip, the ocean creates another, more uniform horizontal strip, a darker green than the one above it. In spite of the stillness of the brush strokes, this part of the water also has motion. The beige beach that St. George stands on in the bottom left of the painting drops off in the middle of the bottom of the canvas, but before it does, speckles of beige, beach colored paint fly into the water, clearly added after the sea was painted. It is unlike any other stoke on the canvas. For a long time I cannot decide if it is a beach or a cliff side, and I vow to research the story of St. George to find any geographical clues, until I realize: the sandy colored paint was splattered above the bluish green, but the overall feeling it gives is that of a breaking wave at the shoreline, devouring the beach at an uneven rate. The end of the wave cannot even be seen; it is spent well below where Redon has stopped painting.

The overall effect of the great heaps of color can best be seen from the viewing benches, which continue to give the worst light. As the real sun, pitifully hidden by sheets of dull clouds, brightens the room, the place where I sit becomes brighter, while the painting remains in soft half light, making it seem dull and muddied. A tour group comes into the room, and I listen to what the older woman leading the tour group says. She points out the skylight first, saying that on bright days when no one is in the room, she turns off the light, to see the paintings as people first saw them, without electricity–people forget that about the building, it didn't have electrical lights. I'm not sure about the opening of the Foundation and the advent of the light bulb, but I continue to listen.

See how the room is anchored on either side with red, she says. (The Redon does have a good deal of red. A red painting of a bowl of fruit, or possibly flowers, is on the opposite side of the wall.) Notice the obvious color is primarily green, with the large Rousseau in the middle, dominating the wall. It's a very frightening picture, I mean, this is a nightmare I've had, being attacked by large cats. (The Rousseau contains a small woman, being eaten by a tiger, as far as I can tell. What a strange nightmare to have.) And we see these large, waving blades of grass in the foreground, and when you notice how the cat is standing on the large leaves of grass, it becomes even more nightmarish. Rousseau, of course, painted his foliage from a greenhouse...

The large group moves on to the next room. The confusing, bright, contradictory yet satisfying picture is reduced to an 'anchor' by a tour guiding people to certain thoughts. It doesn't matter. My experience has not been erased.

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