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Beauty,Spring 2005
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A Beautiful Experience with a Work of Art: A Battle Between the Known and the New

Jaya Vasudevan

Jaya Vasudevan
Professor Anne Dalke
English 249- Beauty: Chemistry and Culture

An Experience with a Beautiful Painting: A Battle Between the Known and the New

Upon going to the infamous Barnes Foundation, my mind became filled with a countless number of expectations. After hearing my classmate's general and somewhat bland experiences with the Barnes, I convinced myself that I would have an experience similar to their own- that is, being able to look at the work of the great museum mastered displayed in a very unconventional but methodical way behind a black tape that the viewers were forbidden to cross. With this prior knowledge of the contents and rules of the museum, I explored the pieces initially with the mindset that I would fall in love with a Van Gogh or a Picasso or an El Greco, almost as if it was my duty to have a beautiful experience with a painting by these artists who never failed to awe people with their 'timeless' works. However, after spending two hours at this gallery did I realize that it was a place that was far beyond my imagination and was one that was to break all of my expectations. Surprisingly I found many of Picasso or Renoir's pieces to be dull or lifeless, and despite my deep love for the work of the great Greek/Spanish artist El Greco, which never fail to amaze me (this experience being no different), there were other paintings by artists I've never heard of, especially one painting in particular, that elicited feelings within me that I've never experienced before with a painting or from any work of art. Located at the far left side of the building in a small room with some of the less famous artists (artists that Barnes knew well but were not as famous as the other artists on display) sat on a wall at eye level a painting by Henri Rousseau called La Douanier- a small piece of work which left me almost dumbstruck and fascinated upon first glance of such a bizarre yet strangely magnificent picture. In a lush thick forest with gigantic orange trees and even larger flowers and blades of grass stands a young woman, very tiny, completely alone, and elegantly dressed. The most striking detail that I viewed, however, was that this tiny woman in the painting was giving me the same ridiculous, curious glare that I was giving her, as a tried to figure out why the artist put such a disproportionate, fragile little being in such an odd scenery. As I stared as her expression and then realized that hers mirrored the same expression on my face, I started to laugh in astonishment of this discovery while feeling a bit sheepish for thinking that a figure in the painting was, in a sense, staring me down (and because I also managed to make a small scene by chuckling so loud). As I viewed other works of Rousseau within the museum, I realized that many of his other paintings seemed conventionally normal, making this painting particularly unique. Although it may seem like a completely ludicrous reason to fall in love with a painting, I cannot think of a time when another work of art was able to evoke such an inexplicable feeling within me, and from that point on I knew that my experience with La Douanier was indeed special in its own rite and the most beautiful experience I had with a painting while at the Barnes, despite my fondness for all of the beautiful El Greco paintings that I've seen that day, as much as I try to convince myself otherwise. El Greco's style was arguably far better than many artists, and I couldn't understand how a much less prominent painting could have a much greater effect on me.

Why exactly was the beauty that I saw within the Rousseau different than the beauty that I saw in El Greco's painting? After much brooding I find the answer so simple, and acknowledge that it is one that has been resonating in my mind and throughout this course: my case was an example of an untainted experience with art, as I put my art history background behind me and was able to appreciate the painting for what it was, for once being able to formulate my own personal conclusions as to why the picture was so beautiful. I may have left the Barnes completely blown away by the paintings of El Greco that were displayed, but I started to write this paper I could not even procure and image of even one of the El Greco paintings from the museum in my mind: I can only think of a generic idea, a morbidly haunting painting that usually revolves around a Catholic theme or moment in the Bible. On the other hand, I was able to recollect Rousseau's image almost perfectly, even remembering small intricacies, weeks after my trip to the Barnes. Unfortunately with the paintings of El Greco, I've spent years, whether in Spanish classes or in art classes in high school, learning the meticulous details about his life story and his painting style. Because of this background knowledge, I look at one of his pieces never asking myself the question why I personally thought it was so beautiful; instead, I would point out all of the features- such as the haunting, dreary uses of color, the elongated figures in a state of agony- aspects of his work that I have been told make his works so beautiful. I finally realized that I based my love for his works on other people's ideals of beauty that have been instilled within me, and still remain unable to come up with my own personal ideas of beauty towards El Greco without being biased or influenced by this background knowledge.

When I was presented with the unfamiliar Rousseau, however, I saw a completely new and almost refreshing art style in front of me, and was able to draw my own conclusions about the painting and formulate my own ideal of beauty. Learning about new artists in the museum the way I chose to learn about them was therefore a very beautiful experience in general, and it was wonderful to look at each painting without looking for anything in particular like I have been taught to do with previous classes. With El Greco and other masters, the duty of looking into the piece, being mandated by an invisible instructor to admire their unique style and skill or figuring out what they were trying to convey had been instilled within me at such an early age. With an artist like Rousseau, however, I had absolutely no idea what to expect from his work and therefore the astonishment was greater with his piece than it was with the artists I already knew. This feeling of not having any expectations to fulfill was also in its own way very beautiful. Although it may be a very bold statement to make, I felt and still feel as if ignorance, ignorance towards the style, time period, history of the artist, or any background information in general, truly led me to have a beautiful experience.

For these very reasons, the Rousseau will remain forever beautiful in my mind- that is, as long as my knowledge (or lack thereof) towards the painting remains untainted. A sense of mystery illuminates the picture, and it is almost as if this mysteriousness combined with my unique interaction makes my relationship with the painting more intimate. There is a large difference between acknowledging and understanding the story that the artist was trying to convey in the painting (which comes with having background knowledge on the painting and the painter) and actually creating one's own story to explain the happenings of the work; the latter, in my case, made me more attracted to the painting, far more attracted than I would be with a work of El Greco or a Picasso. Even though the artist may be trying to convey a particular story or message in their work, after visiting the Barnes I firmly believe that it is not the viewer's duty to figure out what that story is. The artist instead serves as a reviver or even a catalyst to a person's imagination, letting the individual create their own view of beauty, forming this intimate relationship between the work of art and the viewer. I remember specifically looking at people with audio tours and almost feeling a sense of complete pity for them, for they paid $7.00 to have an experience that Barnes and all of the artists trying to give to them taken away by the talking machination in their hands.

Is it fair to say that it is alright to remain in a state of ignorance, refusing to learn about this painting or the artist? In this sense is the viewer not doing justice to the painting? It almost seems rather ridiculous or bullheaded to be adamantly ignorant. However, I turn to mark Lord's lecture, words which I took to heart, as he talked about how people put works of art for display in museums once the beauty that the world had once seen in them were almost dead or lifeless. Barnes within the foundation puts up a display of pieces that one would fine to be defined as "dead art," according to Lord, but the innovative was that Barnes displays the pieces- with the lack of captions or explanations- presents the art in a way that it was never seen before, allowing the viewer to look past time periods and artist styles and view the picture the way the viewer wants to see the picture- finding their own beauty within the painting. In this way, the individual, with the stories created by their imaginations, almost breaths a new life back into what would be considered a lifeless painting, as I did for Rousseau's piece. Although I remain completely ignorant as to what the author's real motivations were when painting this piece, I refuse to learn what his motivations where, what his life was like, or what emotions he was trying to convey in La Douanier. The fact that I was able to look at this painting and have so many feelings evoked within me, having given this painting a new aura is an experience that I hold very dear and one that I hope to remain untainted. If I must learn about the painting for whatever reason and have this experience tainted, so let it be; until then, I think of La Douanier with a blissful fondness. In retrospect to my visit, I regret seeing the Barnes get sold to the Art Museum of Philadelphia, as this painting and other paintings would once again become lifeless to most, becoming just another piece of art forever to become a thing of lost beauty within a modern museum.

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