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Beauty,Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
On Serendip

Reading Blue Woman

Megan Monahan

Upon first visiting the Barnes Foundation's immense collection of art, I found myself unmoved by so many of the paintings I saw. They all seemed to be the same in the first few rooms I entered and I thought it was going to be a very tedious two hours of staring at works of art that did not inspire anything in me. Everywhere I looked I saw Renoir's paintings and they were all of large naked women bathing or having their hair brushed. They seemed so quaint in my mind. I found the first few very pretty in their ideological representation of women with their soft features and pink skin all painted in a somewhat diffused tone that softened them even more; however, this got tiresome quite quickly. It felt like each painting was exactly the same as the other. No matter how long I stayed and focused in on every detail of the piece I would not have been able to discover more about it or have any revelations about the particular woman being depicted. I felt I had the Renoir's "all figured out" and this was a disappointing realization.

As I continued to browse the works of art I discovered one that entranced me as none of the others did. It was of a woman (as so many of the paintings were) but I would not have called her beautiful at all, in fact, I could not tell it was even a woman upon first glance since her appearance was so androgynous but her eyes were so haunting that I could not turn away. It simply oozed with an otherworldly beauty that transcended all the other paintings I had seen up to that point. The woman was not smiling but neither was she particularly sad either. Her countenance gave away nothing and the mystery of this kept me wanting more.

Eventually I moved on from that painting and as I made my way through the rest of the museum I noticed that all the works by that particular artist, Chaim Sautine, caught my attention and seemed far more interesting that those surrounding them. I was quite surprised by this since I had never even heard of Sautine before but all the other less impressive paintings were by artists I had learned about many times like Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne Van Gough, and Manet. It was very exciting to feel like I had discovered something special that I otherwise would never have been exposed to. It made for a very beautiful experience.

I was so intrigued by this artist that when I returned to my room I looked up Sautine on the internet to try and learn more about his unique brand of painting. I was not surprised to learn that he experienced a troubled youth as the tenth child of a Jewish family living in a Lithuanian ghetto and that he was plagued throughout his life by depression and suicidal impulses. He had an intense passion that drove his artistic endeavors which is quite clear in his works but he would sometimes destroy many paintings in fits of despair. He was also not greatly respected for his talent until right before his death which did not surprise me since his painting is not easily accessible.

I felt like I could clearly see all that torture in his pieces after reflecting on them with my newly obtained information and it lent a whole new dimension to them.

For the second visit to the Barnes Foundation I knew exactly where I was going to spend my time. As soon as I entered the museum I went directly to Sautine's Blue Woman who had entranced me so thoroughly previously. I was somewhat disappointed to find that it did not take my breath away the way it did the first time but I suppose that was to be expected as Elkin's has documented that phenomenon quite thoroughly in "The Ivory Tower of Tearlessnes" and I am certainly not the first nor last who will be subjected to it. I also found that the tour guide tarnished the painting for me because as I was sitting taking notes on it she proceeded to loudly tell her tour group that Blue Woman reminded many people of Michael Jackson. Of course, after this I saw the resemblance to Michael Jackson and it took me a little while to see the painting as I had been before the woman diminished its significance. Though I did not experience the same visceral reaction to the piece that I did initially I believe that I obtained a more cerebral understanding of the painting and was better able to determine what fascinated me about Blue Woman.

While I was first drawn in by the woman's eyes that seemed so full of emotion and yet simultaneously expressionless, I noticed upon further viewing that the subject's hands were quite striking. They almost seemed to be separate from her body and they were grossly disproportionate to her body. They actually overwhelmed the painting when viewing it as a whole but I found I really liked the effect it created. I later noticed that all of Sautine's portraits on display in the Barnes were drawn with the same exaggerated, gnarled hands. They looked almost crippled by something like arthritis and oddly swollen but somehow they fit in the painting's aesthetic like that was exactly how the subject's hands should look.

The coloring of the painting was very dark and had a background of mostly green while her dress was blue. Green and blue were the respective colors in those areas and there was little depth there but the depiction of the woman's skin had so many facets. Her skin seemed very sallow and he has incorporated lots of yellows and greens but there were also definite streaks of browns, pinks, blues, and reds among the others.

The woman's pose also seemed distorted and much like the hands, looked crippled. It was very awkward and seemed horribly uncomfortable for her. It gave her the appearance of looking like a hunchback the way one arm seemed shorter and more deformed than the other. It must have been bent and resting on something but it was very difficult to see if this was the case because that section of the painting was very dark and shadowy. She looked like she had folded herself up in that odd manner for no reason without the clear depiction of an armrest. The shoulder even came up unnaturally high on that side, exaggerating the effect. I decided that this was just the artist's overall style but I was still not entirely sure as to the woman's state of physical heath based just upon this depiction.

The woman's age was also not readily apparent judging from how she looked in this portrait. Due to her odd posture and lack of physical beauty I first thought her to be an old lady but I could tell just by looking at her longer that that was not necessarily true. I then found myself drawn back up to the woman's face and the eyes that had convinced me of her beauty. The asymmetry of them and her entire face in general created the mystery I had first detected and made it difficult for me to "solve" her.

The woman was illusive. As a result of her distorted appearance I felt I could glean nothing about her from the painting except that she was an enigma. I felt like there were so many unanswered questions about this woman. It was so muddled that I could never feel like I was completely finished with the painting. There would always be something hidden from me by the artist and the woman staring back at me. This was what I liked most about the woman and the work of art which she inspired. It was like I was looking at her through water and by not looking as she would have in life she had disguised herself to become another person whom I could never find. While Renoir's works were much cheerier than Sautine's I found I could "see" all the painting held in a single glance. There was nothing to keep me coming back to them. Everything in his pieces everything is as it should be: nothing is out of place and no one is unattractive. This makes for very boring art as it does not seem to express anything that I could not have seen simply by viewing his models and scenes with my own eyes. They did not discover anything new about their subjects or reveal anything untoward and this lacks any emotion. Renoir's pieces seemed so superficial after looking at Sautine's. Sautine's work is far superior in the way that it always seemed to be saying something deeper but it is not necessarily something that I will ever be able to figure out. It will continue to haunt me even after leaving the museum when I have already forgotten all the painting of various pink naked women.

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