Arts, Column

Challenging First Impressions

First impressions are often the worst impressions, especially when it comes to art.

“I want you to look at these paintings and tell me how you feel,” urged my professor during class all last week. He presented slide after slide after slide of art, pressing us to recognize and identify the particular emotions evoked by each one. We stared at the projections, then we stared at him-the autumnal reds, yellows, and greens of Monet’s Japanese Bridge reflected in the pupils of 16 pairs of confused eyes.

“I don’t like it,” said someone impulsively.

Disliking something, though, is not a feeling, my professor told us, asking us to look harder, past the simplicity of our initial positive or negative reactions. A long pause pervaded the dark room.

“It makes me feel … stressed,” said that same student, trying again.

When questioned about why he felt the way he felt, he didn’t know. No one did. In retrospect, our class’s anxiety was probably a result of our not understanding the painting-of our not understanding the method’s Monet was using to pattern our emotions.

Our professor explained, starting with definitions: perspective, composition, and texture were a few of the terms he told us to take note of. Equipped with a toolbox of vocabulary, we looked a second time at Monet’s work. And in the end, we realized the warm colors and their vivid hues were meant to make us feel alive and energetic, the short brush strokes were supposed to incite a sense of wild excitement, and the parallel composition of the painting was intended to illustrate the sky’s reflecting in the water beneath the bridge, provoking thoughtfulness.

Monet didn’t mean to frustrate viewers with his painting. He wanted them to experience a kind of spirited curiosity. He meant, as in the rest of his work, to push people to reexamine their premature judgments.

Like Monet, Impressionist artists in the 1800s had this same purpose. They broke conventions and encouraged people to reconsider their understanding of art. Critics and the public were originally opposed to the French artistic movement because the Impressionists approached art differently than their more traditional predecessors. So while artists before them generally portrayed the precise details of a subject, they represented feelings, recreating sensations through visual effects. Free, thick, and broken brush strokes took priority over strict lines and contours, and intense, unmixed colors replaced smoothly shaded ones, among other things.

Just as my class last week came to appreciate Monet’s Japanese Bridge, the world eventually learned to accept the style of the Impressionists. In both cases, it came down to reassessing opinions and becoming more educated about techniques.

After we studied that first Monet piece, it became a lot easier-and more enjoyable-to work through the remaining paintings in my professor’s slideshow. The Bedroom by Van Gogh was no longer a befuddling portrayal of a bed, night table, and chair arranged completely out of proportion. Now, it was study of perspective, maybe meant to make the viewer feel young and experience things as a child would. No more were Cezanne’s still lifes boring, mundane representations of oddly sized fruits and pitchers on wrinkled tablecloths. They were, rather, experiments in dynamics and dimension, inspiring the viewer to value the vitality in the quietest moments of day-to-day life by feeling aware.

The first Impressionist exhibit I saw was one displaying the work of Degas at the MFA a few years ago. While I contemplated the gallery’s collection, I tried as best as I could to comprehend it on a deeper level than simply calling its pieces “pretty.” I knew Degas’ ballerinas made me feel strong and beautiful, and I knew his infamous nudes made me feel vulnerable-but I didn’t know why. I didn’t know how the artist made me feel what I felt. I wish I knew then what I know now.

First impressions are often the worst ones, not because they’re wrong, but because they’re incomplete. They’re more like a starting point, a shallow, surface-level understanding expected to develop into a more profound, fulfilling one. Whether it’s a work of art or anything else in life, consistently reevaluating it is the only way to really appreciate it-to paint the truest picture of what it is and what it means to you.

February 2, 2014