This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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Beauty,Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
On Serendip

Pleasant Surprise

Mo-Gyung Rhim

How can you read anything—people, emotions, pictures, paintings, or even words with any sense of certainty? How can you extract deeper meanings, sensations, experiences from anything? Should you research beforehand in order to approach the subject in question with a degree of reassurance from having some knowledge and concrete information to bring to the inherently uncertain and morphing task of interpretation or the "reading" of an object? Should research be conducted after the initial exposure, allowing for as much of an initial untainted experience and then being able to apply fact to the shaping or re-shaping of the first quick judgment? Should any research be conducted at all? Does strategizing an experience make it more shallow or watered down? What method can be trusted to maximize an experience? Though there have many philosophers, aestheticians, theorists, thinkers, professors, etc., who have all addressed these questions each with some game plan for that slam dunk experience, walking alone in the Barnes Foundation on a lazy Saturday afternoon and writing alone on an even lazier Friday afternoon is all that I needed to find an answer.

In the Barnes Foundation there is a painting on the second floor by Henri Rousseau, who was a French Post-Impressionist painter who lived from 1844-1910. The painting is one of his later works created in 1901. It is a large painting, approximately 7' in length and 4 ft in width. The painting is oil on canvas. The paintings deep and rich colors are striking to look at among the softer and more muted colors of the surrounding walls and other paintings. There are dark, even strokes that lay beautifully and thickly on the canvas. The depth and the darkened tones of paint make certain sections of the painting blend and merge seamlessly into one another while making other sections more pronounced and set apart from one another. The shapes in the painting are also very noticeable, either in the way that certain shapes and forms are meant to smoothly cloak and cover one another acting almost like camouflage or the distinct, clean lines of shapes that are purposefully painted to be pronounced and noticeable in their definition and certainty of form. But every section of the painting is vivid, bright, and captivating to the eye—from the intense color of greens that remind the viewer of the green leaves on trees only in dreams or the glaring white fangs and claws on a bear that only appear so clearly in nightmares.

Even though the style of the painter in his use of lines, shapes and color add depth, dimension and another layer for analysis, it is the scene portrayed in the painting that really grabs the observer's attention, dragging and pulling their eyes, refusing to let go. The painting is set in some type of jungle or forest area with a small clearing in the center of the painting showing the sun set/rise over a river. The figures in the painting are in the dark shroud of the jungle. There is a naked woman on the right side of the painting standing on some sort of rock formation. A bear is in the center of the painting, rising on its hind legs to rise up to the woman, greeting her before an imminent attack, his teeth bared and his claws unsheathed. In the veil of the dark shadows of the rocks and his cloak and hat, there is a man with a long gun pointed directly at the bear's back. The man is so hidden by the rocks and by his attire only his eyes and hands are visible and at first glance he hides from even the viewer. These observations help to see the painting.

However, all of the features taken in by the initial glance lead to deeper look that allows for an initial reading of the painting. The man's gun, one realizes, has been caught at the moment that it is fired. There in the painting, at the end of the gun, there is a small explosion, but the bullet has not yet reached its target. Like the bullet, the bear is approaching the woman, his claws out, his teeth gleaming, his eyes full of intent, yet he too has not reached his target. The woman, at the end of this chain, raises her eyes to the sky and her hands follow suit in a shrug that says, "Whatever." The woman seems to have surrendered and in her feigned terror, she is mocking the bear and even death as if to say, "Come get me." The woman in the painting refuses to take death so seriously and in his portrayal, Rousseau seems to mock the serious attitudes of other paintings. He seems to be shrugging his shoulders to the world of academic and clinical painting and to the equally academic treatment and analysis of such paintings saying, "Whatever."

The painting is also able to capture the tenseness, the uncertainty, the catch of the breath in the exact moment before everything is about to change. Rousseau captures the moment right before the bullet meets its mark and the moment right before the bear would have his prey. These are moments of action and reaction that are caught in a freeze frame in time as well as a wooden frame hanging on a wall. Rousseau is able to capture emotion and time in his painting with a sense of humor.

I laughed—a deep rumbling, distracting, long, laugh that made other people stare at me and walk away in a huff, in agitation or in complete wonder at what I could possibly find so funny in a museum full of Renoir's and Cézanne's. That is reading a painting.

The painting in the Barnes is void of any information about the painting other than the name of the painter . After coming back to the small world of my dorm and sitting down to open up the wide world web in order to get at least some information about the image and the painter, I decided that perhaps as an experiment, I could do some research and see how that amplified, doused or changed my experience. I had already had my experience and had a good laugh, so what was at stake? A lot apparently.

Henri Rousseau, known as "Le Douanier" Rousseau was a French painter. The nickname "Le Douanier " refers to the job he held with the Paris Customs Office from 1871-1893. Before working for he Customs Office, Rousseau served in the army and later he would claim that his services brought him to Mexico which he said inspired many of his jungle themed paintings. These claims of glory and service in Mexico seem to be a creation of his imagination and there is evidence that many of his paintings were taken from scenes in area zoos, though certainly his imagination must have still been in Mexico or somewhere else to come up with some of his scenes.

Rousseau was untrained and initially took up painting as a hobby, but his own faith in his talents and abilities never faltered and eventually he took up painting as a ful time profession. Though untrained, he tried to paint in an academic manner of traditionalist artists such as Bouguereau and Gérome. His own delusions and his almost oblivious attitude made him a prime target for ridicule and it was eventually his non-academic style that won him some praise from artists such as Pablo Picasso who threw him a banquet, though only half seriously, in his honor. Though Rousseau strived to paint in a more traditional manner, the innocence and charm of his work was the reason for his mild success and praise from the avant-garde towards the end of his life. Most of his real praise and admiration came after his death in 1910 from Surrealists who found his work as a perfect example of success in which an "untaught genius" could see and paint much more meaning and depth than a trained, clinical artist could. Rousseau's' work became heralded for its highly imaginative images and his ability to retain such a precision and clarity in his vivid images even on large-scale canvases.

Rousseau's highest wish was to be able to paint "academically." Did this ruin my whole reading of the painting that Rousseau was a painter who scoffed at academic and clinical "clean" and realistic painting? How could he purposefully, humorously and masterfully paint a mocking portrait that scorned and ridiculed the academic world of artists and critics if he was striving to be a part of that very group. Could it be that I was completely wrong? Was Walker Percy wrong? Do we need to have the framework of information, facts and biographical knowledge in order to "read" something correctly? Is John Dewey correct? Would it have been better for me to know all these little facts before I read the painting the first time? Would I have appreciated it more?

There was one last fact that I needed. The title. "Unpleasant Surprise."

Disregard all of the research. My initial reading was correct, was valid and was accurate. At least to me. The title seemed to fit into my initial reading so well. In a scene as horrifying as almost being eaten by a bear and describing it so blandly with the understated word "unpleasant" seemed to me another "shrug" and another mocking gesture to the seriousness or the overstated-ness of pretension in academic art and criticism.
I laughed again. Even after all of the research and the fact-finding, my initial reading came back and it was satisfying.

However, don't trust me. Disregard everything that you have just read. Trust only what you have seen and what you have experienced. What you have heard means nothing. What you have read means nothing. Trust only yourself. Maybe you will see the painting and weep. Maybe you will be disgusted, unmoved, or walk by without even a second glance. Maybe those are the "right" readings of the painting. Maybe.

The only way to truly read a painting or anything that is up for interpretation and integration into one's own life, heart, and mind is to trust one's own emotions and reactions—to trust one's own tears, one's disgust, one's laughter. Trust me on this. If you want.



I found later that there are cards that have the name and date of each painting.

Douanier means Customs Officer

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