They were five in top hats, suits and ties impeccable, the women against a sultry grey backdrop, cigarettes dangling from lips, between fingers. Exuding elegance, secrecy, and intimacy between friends.
They were four, two each against a deep red curtain. Cecil Beaton couples. He could have shot them for Vogue. Genteel sophistication, a soft beauty about them.
She was one against a dusty orange wall, the kind you might find in a painter’s studio in an old, provençal home. Her hair is pulled back sharply into a neat bun, hands clasped delicately in her lap.
My art history teacher always gave me the impression that art could speak something to you and mean something more. Since that class, I have spent countless trips in museums, admiring art, being surprised and delighted.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a Rachael Rausch bouquet as much as the next. Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette will always inspire me to dance. Van Gogh will tell me to look at the stars and dream deep, rich, fantastical, otherworldly possibilities.
But, sitting in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Beaune — really, the last place I was expecting to find myself, because the museum is small and was not on our list — I felt…connection. I was moved. I had to sit down.
I bet you’re envisioning the people I’ve described. And I am also betting that you envisioned them as white. Not in a bad way…but in art classes and in society, I personally had a rather Western education and perspective (and shout-out to my art teacher who was always working to diversify the curriculum).
In this room I sat surrounded by paintings that recall the elegance, sophistication, and dainty air of all the Western portraits that I adore. Beautiful clothes, the details, the…honour given to the subjects. What shocks me is that when I look at these paintings, I see…myself…and everything I’ve wanted to be.
Ok, MW, you see yourself, great. Yes, but I mean I almost literally see myself, because the paintings that stare back at me depict Chinese people by a Chinese artist whose work I have never before encountered. My Chinese art education (and my memory is also fading) ended with the Qing dynasty, if I remember correctly. There were no beautiful, contemporary portraits of women then. It was a lot of pottery, and the spindly sketching we come to associate with the culture.
I understand who I am, and I mean that in a non-arrogant way. I can be elegant, maybe beautiful, intelligent, and have fun. These paintings strangely affirmed to me what I deserve to be. That Chinese culture is just as beautiful as French, American, Western, anything I’ve been taught and conditioned to believe is lovely. That I am lovely.
There was always a strange identity disconnect in my mind, growing up, and especially now. I don’t have many ties to my ethnic culture, having often felt too “American” to fit in. On the other hand, I then felt not white enough to be American.
For the first time, I am seeing myself and my people in traditionally Western settings (even as nuns, in one of the paintings) and not stereotyped. And it is, in some way, refreshingly gratifying. I can accept both. I can be both.
All photos by http://eugeniadegaspari.com on film.