Moreover, I realized that it was a question John Berger, critic of art and author of the Ways of Seeing, raised in his essay, and it is a question that will always be raised while demanding how to understand a certain art. Walking through a room where various French artists had their paintings exposed, I fell in front of the artwork (see above) painted by Paul Gauguin.
I did not choose a French artist to make me remember the French culture that I am missing here in Boston, nor to pretend that the French are advanced in art, but a way to analyze and understand, with the experience of a famous art critic, an artwork from an artist who astonished me in my previous art classes. D’ou venons-nous, Qui sommes-nous, Ou allons-nous? By Paul Gauguin I chose a painting that had a warm expression, and complex story emanating from it. As the title of my essay indicates, the title of the painting translated in English is “Where are we from? Who are we? Where are we going? So many questions in the title and the painting, but there were as much coming through my mind while studying this image. This artwork is very ambiguous because I do not know how to start looking at it. I can observe people appearing half naked in the foreground, but we cannot really tell why they appear there. The statue in the back makes the questioning more obscure. It seems like an Oracle that gives people their destiny, and that is maybe why they all look so sad. Truly, I felt that this image was a representation of my origin country, West Indies, by the color Gauguin used.
He used the blue to symbolize the ocean surrounding the island, and the mixed race of the habitants by the warm and beige color or the characters. I felt as if I was in the center of the painting, more precisely in the position of the child being observed in the right corner, and waiting to be reassured. I also felt like the person in the middle of the painting, standing up and waiting for answers while traveling through this painting. Gauguin’s artworks are extremely complicated to decipher, so are they to analyze.
Gauguin is an artist I studied back in France in my art classes. Consequently, I had seen many of his works, and even the painting I chose; However, I had never asked myself how knowing about his life could help me study his paintings. I was taught in my art classes how to analyze art in a more technical way than in an analytical way like Berger supported. Indeed, when we were looking at the entire structure of the painting with my art class method, we were focusing on the brush strokes, the color, the tone, lines and forms, and the composition of the painting.
If I had to describe the work of art I chose based on technical features, I would examine the painting saying that the brush strokes could express many emotions at the same time, and describe the painter style and art movement. Gauguin was also part of the post-impressionist painters with artists such as Paul Cezanne or Van Gogh. Post impressionist art was more focused on color, lines, outlines and perspective. Concerning Gauguin, the complexity of shapes is very important in his paintings due to their abstract significations. In fact, the lines were not straight; they were round and suggesting bodies that we did not see in art before.
Moreover, the color had its importance. Post impressionist artists like Gauguin used color and color combination in order to create ‘vulgar’, ‘calm’ or ‘bold’ impressions (Robert Hughes). The analysis of the painting I just did was very technical and structural, but in no sense relevant for understanding the thought process as Berger explained. I was subject to mystification as John Berger explained in his essay as “the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident” (103). Indeed, mystification appeared while I was looking at the painting.
I could sense a certain limit of my understanding due to the previous art classes I had. In other terms, it meant for me that words were coming before seeing whereas seeing should come before words as Berger deciphered in his essay. My mind was already set for a certain critic about the painting based on the knowledge I had; Consequently, I could not have another point of view vis-a-vis the painting I was staring at. Although I learned a lot from my art classes, especially how to describe an artwork contextually, the observations and point of view of Berger about art gave me enough elements o have a complete analysis of an image, both contextually and historically. Using Berger as a guide for art description helped me to learn more about the painting historically, and much more about the painter himself to have a complete understanding of the artwork. Prior to this assignment, it had never occurred to me to use the biography and the background of the painter in order to facilitate my understanding of the painting. When Berger quoted “When we see a landscape, we situate ourselves in the it.
If we saw the art of the past, we would situate ourselves in history. ” (100) in the essay led me to start the analysis of Gauguin’s painting in a very different way. Actually, when I focused more on the painter’s life, and follow Berger’s analysis, I learned that Gauguin wanted to commit suicide after he painted this image. Plus, even though there was a caption under the image saying that it was his last painting, I would not have noticed that it was his last painting, which refers to what Berger described when he talked about Van Gogh’s last painting.
Berger cited “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe” (97). Clearly, it means that the details you know about a certain painting will prevent you from analyzing it innocently. Based on the art experience I acquired in class, I would have said that the image implies sadness because of the choice of colors, which were darker than his previous works. However, I think that the title gives us more details about his thoughts while he was painting.
Through reading of artistic reviews or even my art book, named Shock of the New by Robert Hughes, I discovered that this work of art should be read from right to left, with the three main groups of people illustrating the questions that are asked in the title. The first group with the three women looking at the child represents the beginning of Gauguin’s life, making a reference to his parents, then there is the group in the middle which symbolizes all the experiences he went through while being a young adult.
The last group shows an old lady close to death because of the darker color he used, moreover, there is an odd white bird at her feet, which could represent the guide to heaven. In the background of the painting, there is a blue statute, which represents what Gauguin described as the hereafter. This painting seems like a flash back of his life, and these three questions lead us to comprehend him better. Gauguin left a lot of non-answered questions about this painting, considered as a testimony to his life by many critics of art. Indeed, this painting is very complex.
I learned by reading my previous art book, that Gauguin wrote a letter to his friend stipulating the reasons of the painting. In this letter, Gauguin said that he had decided to commit suicide in December; therefore, he wanted to paint on a huge canvas all the things he had on his mind for so long. Things he absolutely wanted to paint before his death. In this letter, Gauguin also confessed that the value of this painting is so much ahead of his precedents, and that it was a one of a kind that he could not nor would not try to produce a better painting.
This sentence clearly explains that he reached the height of his life, and that now he drew this painting, there was nothing else he could do better or similar except terminate his life. Gauguin was wondering a lot about the existence of the world, and this perpetual questioning led him to the entitlement of this painting. As I said earlier in my essay, each group of people appearing in this painting is applied to a specific question of the title. Those questions made me think about my own life. Indeed, the questions he used are somehow important to everyone to really understand the meaning of their lives.
Berger said “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe” (97). While looking at this painting, I could recognize some events of my life, for instance, I could recall where I am from and what are my origins, as well as how I did to accomplish such academic success and arrive in the United States. Furthermore, due to my art background, I could understand better the expression and feelings Gauguin was trying to deliver in this painting with his powerful colors and thick traits. Approaching art is not easy at first glance, thus approaching it with different methods makes it more difficult to understand.
Throughout my life, I have been able to view art in many different context, either artistically speaking when I was in art classes in France, or analytically this year when I had to analyze art with the support of an art critic opinions. For me, both ways were complementary to each other and drastically improved my understanding of art. Complementary in the sense that I could rely on my technical knowledge of art to understand the structure of a painting, and also analyze the story of the painting as Berger mentioned to fully understand the underlying message of an artwork.
Before this assignment, I was not sure that Berger could helped me understand art better than my art teacher could, but in the end I am totally amazed by the knowledge I can take out of an artwork.