The Masterpeices Of Art As We Know It – Western Art Essay
When discussing masterpieces of art, the majority of people tend to think of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh or Pablo Picasso, all of
whom excelled in their specific area or medium. However, most masterpieces do not simply show a refined skill in applying the medium to canvas or accurately portraying a certain subject matter—the work I have chosen as a “masterpiece” is Paul Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” (Fig. 1), an oil on canvas image, depicting the three major stages of life. For me to consider a work of art a “great” art piece, it must force me to see something from a new and unusual perspective, or provoke me to think about some aspect of reality I have been ignorant of. The iconography, medium and style of Gauguin’s painting may not be held in the same level as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” or even Michelangelo’s “David”, but any work of art that is able to communicate a message so effectively without words and still visually appeal to the viewer proves that the artist did not simply set out to paint a “pretty picture”.
Gauguin’s painting can be appropriately broken into three parts—read from right to left (although it is not a continuous narrative because it does not illustrate a story)—the first section including a baby and three young women, which can be assumed to depict the first question, “Where Do We Come From”. In the center stands a youth picking a fruit from the tree of knowledge and a fair woman pondering in the distance, as these two figures seem to be questioning their existence and desire answers to life’s mysteries, suitable to be titled “What Are We”. The last section of the painting, which portrays the last question, “Where Are We Going” shows two figures, an old woman nearing death, and a mature woman also questioning her future. The dark colors of the picture seem gloomy and uninviting, and made me think about Gauguin’s mental state at the time he completed this picture. The entire mood of the painting, including the title, show Gauguin as a suicidal artist, unappreciated and ignored by the masses, as he inquires about the meaning of life and even what the future holds for him.
I have to admit that Gauguin’s application of color may not seem as “neat” as previous oil painters, with him utilizing patches of color that appear slightly smeared or blotched onto the canvas. And whereas some oil painters are able to create a smooth surface effect, it seems that Gauguin has purposely completed his picture appearing very crude, with either the texture of the canvas or the numerous layers of paint seeping through. Since oil paint is usually not opaque, it also seems that Gauguin has not bothered to blend any of the shadows or lights, leaving fairly distinct borders between the various colors, for example, the green shadows on the yellow flesh are almost inhumane, due to the fact they do not appear to blend or truly create any sort of dimension on the human figure.
But the way Gauguin has applied his paint and color is simply characteristic of his style, and at this point in his life, 1897, he had been heavily influenced by the Tahitian atmosphere in which he had been living in for the past few years, and there is clearly a Tahitian feeling in the image. There is a steady balance between warm and cool colors, and a decent balance between the lights and darks, although the contrast between the latter is quite distinct and force the viewer’s eyes to leap around the painting. Moreover, Gauguin was a post-impressionist, and has placed more emphasis on the form and structure of his figures, all of which are very curvaceous and round. His subject matter is also one of timelessness, not a single moment captured in an image, and is a painting that cajoles the viewer to ask himself those very questions in the title.
This painting in particular is not one of my favorite works of art, specifically due to the color application and style, but I am more attracted to its message rather than aesthetic values. There is no one definition as to how a work of art can be called a “masterpiece”, but I feel that art should not simply appeal to the eye, but also to the mind, and if any piece of art forces its audience to contemplate issues that people have been increasingly ignorant of throughout the years, as well as question the artist’s objective in utilizing a certain style, medium or array of colors, can be considered a masterpiece, and Gauguin’s painting has accomplished all of the above mentioned.