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Beauty,Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
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Reading The Postman

Eugenia Chan

Saying that an artwork in a museum is "beautiful" is to say that the artwork has been reduced to just another banal piece of work on canvas. By being merely "beautiful", it is as if the artwork lost its ability to captivate or mesmerize an audience. There is a curious and pseudo-attractive power in artworks that are displayed in museums; the museum itself implies an artistic sanctuary where art becomes omnipotent and everlasting.

It seems plausible then to believe that all artworks in a museum is there for a reason, whether it be to demonstrate an artist's priceless talent, a powerful theme, or just a landscape reminiscing a pre-industrial time. But then again, the collected artworks reflect an individual's (or a small group of people's) artistic taste or preference; just because an individual finds something beautiful does not necessarily suggest that others will also. In fact, even if others do find the artwork to be beautiful, it may not be in the same manner, or to the same degree.

Art is very subjective discipline. However, under a certain conditions (especially in museums), people tend to forget that art can and should be interpreted in a personal way. And so, they just superficially label all artworks as "beautiful". After all, someone is spending an enormous amount of money to immortalize it. Why would anyone want to preserve something that is not beautiful?

I must admit, when I first walked into the Barnes Foundation, I did not find the majority of the pieces beautiful. But all around me, people were talking about how beautiful piece X was. During our first visit to The Barnes Foundation, a lady working ther asked me what I thought of Van Gogh's, "The Postman". I unconsciously blurted out, "oh, it's just beautiful!" thinking that that answer was enough to be the correct and appropriate thing to say in that setting. The lady just looked at me and gave me an artificial smile before walking away.

Like most people, I am afraid to admit that I dont know or understand something outside of a classroom setting. Since everyone seemed to have reached a general consensus that everything at the Barnes is beautiful, I too, stated the same even though I did not understand the painting enough to respond to it in any way.

It did not occur to me how meaningless the word "beautiful" was in describing art until I returned to my dorm room to a peer-edited draft that said, "NICE! Good job". Saying an artwork is beautiful does not explain or show in anyway what makes the artwork so. It does not have any more meaning than the words, "nice" or "good job" without a clear explaination. It was like I had been conditioned by textbooks and the media to believe that artwork in a museum equals one adjective, beautiful. And only that.

That evening, I googled "The Postman" and re-looked at the painting and wondered why anyone would be fond of it. Maybe the brushstrokes? Negative space? Choice of palette? I could not comprehend it. But apparently people found it beautiful since all six versions of "The Postman" were all immortalized somewhere. I just assumed that becaused I was lacking the 'artistic-eye' or the 'analytical-eye' to appreciate Van Gogh's greatness, I would never be able enjoy The Postman.

On our second trip to The Barnes, I attempted to 'read' Vincent Van Gogh's "The Postman" to the best of my ability yet once again. Not knowing how to start the 'reading', I examined the 1889 Oil on Canvas from background to foreground.

Halfway through the examination of the deep green background, I realized that I forgot to wear my glasses that day; it was no wonder that Van Gogh's work seemed more blurry than I remembered. With my 'impaired' vision, I could not pay close attention to Van Gogh's signature technique where he slabs on generous amounts of paint to create a unique texture. Instead, I was able to see "The Postman" in a more holistic point of view.

Even with my eyesight I noticed how the postman was not symmetrical in anyway. For one reason or another, I had a misconception that all artists painted their model to create a more perfect human being. Van Gogh's portrait was hardly that, there was nothing that made The Postman exquisitely beautiful.The Postman was just an average Caucasian male laborer. Where most portraits at The Barnes Foundation attempted to bring out the symmetry and perfection of the human form, Van Gogh presented his model as he wasĄ­ without the 19th century equivalent of airbrushing. The rawness of the portrait brought out the reality of the human form. Even with my limited vision, I saw how much work was put into creating the aura of 'humanness' in The Postman.

"The Postman", unlike other portraits of people, had an expression that looked back at me to the point where I felt like I was being watched. For me, the eyes provided more 'reading' than any other part of the painting. The eyes seemed to tell a story of a hardworking postman fatigued by his long working hours; his eyes being red and having bags underneath. This piece's purpose is far from trying to praise the elegant lifestyle, or glamour of the elite. The Postman sharply contrasts Pierre-Auguste's "Bather and Maid" 1900 Oil on Canvas piece that was displayed within close proximity of "The Postman".

I interpreted "The Postman" as a more timeless artwork even though it was painted decades before "Bather and Maid". The fact that Van Gogh decided to create a portrait instead of a scene may have an effect on the timelessness of "The Postman". The portrait's action, or perhaps the lack of action, fails to give the observer a sense of time. The "Bather and Maid" on the other hand, poses a scene of bathing nude in a pond, a scene that could be easily dated to the earlier part of the 20th century (since a scene like that in the present is more unlikely compared to "The Postman"). Also, it is more a picture of a common man's life and not of an elite family's leisurely activities; in that aspect the portrait concerns the way of life of a larger community.

Maybe it is a stereotype I have, but I associate middle to lower class family as having a richer family bond than an upper class family would. This stereotype is not some random thought; with fewer activities to pursue, it makes sense that the middle and lower class families would have and cherish family time more. As mentioned during a class discussion in at the beginning of the semester, pictures of relationships evoke a pleasant emotion in a person whereas a picture of someone in despair equally evokes a painful emotion in the observer. Like a heart-rending picture, "The Postman" made me think again about the qualities in Van Gogh's work that made it respectable enough to be immortalized at The Barnes Foundation in the first place.

I still do not know how to see the fine techniques that experts claim is the source of the attractiveness in "The Postman"; the idea of looking into brushstrokes, negative space, and palette colors still remains a mystery to me. However, I think that with my blurry more holistic view, I saw more; it was when I could not see clearly that I, ironically, found more meaning in Van Gogh's artwork.

More often than not, I feel that art experts feel the need to seek a "truth" in an artwork. I personally think that the so-called truth can never be obtained, mostly because the truth may be applicable in a certain time period and not in others. Like Mark Lord said in his lecture, art is like a trend, and its meaning may be one thing for a certain generation, and something entirely different for another. The fascinating and almost magical aspect about art is that it is never fixed; its interpretation is subjectivity at its greatest with no boundaries to force anyone to think a certain way. But people tend to forget or not realize that. Art gives everyone a chance to choose what they find appealing, surprising, and sensual. This time, Van Gogh's work enlightened me to celebrate art as something more than just "beautiful".

I do not think that my encounter with Van Gogh caused an artistic emotional awakening in me. I still think I would have trouble in deciphering my secret understanding and interpretation of an artwork at first glance. However, what I learned on that second visit to The Barnes was that sometimes art should not be scrutinized to the finest detailed, instead, it should be looked at with afresh eye in a more holistic perception. This new way of looking at The Postman has affected me beyond the immediate response of wow, that is beautiful. Now that I have 'read' the painting and interpreted to my understanding, it been casted into memory as a striking piece because of art because I found a personal meaning to it. No one else would see The Postmans eyes and be intrigued by its humanness. I did. And for me, THAT is a legitimate reason to why I find the piece to be beautiful; the humanness of the painting sets apart Van Gogh from Pierre-Auguste. And that makes all the difference.

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