The Painting “Disbelief” by Lun-Yi Tsai

The catastrophe on Tuesday 9/11/01 ripped the life of the American society on what had been before and what would happen after that. The Twin Towers stood like pillars of stability and power of the nation. They appeared in numerous Hollywood films and became a symbol of New York and the United States of America (Sather-Wagstaff, 2016).

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Their fall was a great disaster and an ultimate representation of the terroristic threat for the global society. People all around the world understood that they could not be safe anywhere because a disaster could happen not only in hotspots but in the center of the protected megalopolis. The painting “Disbelief” by Lun-Yi Tsai vividly represents utter disbelief that people felt at first sight of the catastrophe. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the painting and connect it to the poem “Tuesday 9/11/01” by Lucille Clifton.

The painting by Lun-Yi Tsai depicts people surrounding the place of the catastrophe after the damage has already been done. They all look in the same direction in utter disbelief, some of them clutching on the barricade, the others standing at the distance as if detaching themselves from the place of action. According to the title, the dominant impression created by the painting is deep disbelief and fear because of the surrealism of the situation. The artist creates this impression by the masterful use of colors, shades, and light.

The painting is very dark; there are no bright colors to be found on the clothes of the people and the buildings surrounding them. The artist outlines faces of people with light spots leaving other details in the shade. The proportions are oversized to underline the expressions and gestures. The artist uses the triangle principle grouping the details of the painting in threes. The three heads of people in the front draw attention of the watcher. The head, elbow, and shoulder of the first person in the row create a triangle as well.

The artist does not depict the place of the catastrophe with debris, fire, and dead bodies all around. His aim is to depict the emotional state of the people watching the catastrophe from the other side of the barricade. These random people have never imagined that they will become witnesses of this great disaster. They are relatively safe, but their inner world has shuddered. One man on the foreground is bracing himself on the barrier as if he has lost his strength. As mentioned, the faces of the people are the only bright spots in the painting.

Nevertheless, the faces do not emit light. They are deadly pale with dirty grey and brown as leading colors. They all look at the place of the catastrophe with the same expression of disbelief and fear, except for the two people standing in the background. They are detaching themselves from the others in their expressions and postures. They are grim and do not show fear or disbelief but contempt and boredom. The woman in the background stands with her arms crossed as if protecting herself from the sight of the catastrophe. She does not want to believe in the situation in front of her. The man stands with his hands in his pockets with the expression of boredom, representing the people who watch the catastrophes only to entertain themselves.

The poem “Tuesday 9/11/01” by Lucille Clifton describes the same emotional state of people who have seen the catastrophe and do not know how they will live further (Keniston & Quinn, 2013). The poem represents the voice of the citizens struck by the surrealism of the events unravelling before them. As people on the painting, they all feel that their world will never be the same as before. The people of all nations have come together and have understood that the world is one and they are in danger in any place around the globe. The poem and the painting both represent the unity of people before the threat. Deep disbelief and fear of the future are leading emotions in both works.

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The painting “Disbelief” by Lun-Yi Tsai is a masterpiece representing the emotions of people struck by the catastrophe unravelling in front of them. The artist uses a wide range of techniques to create the complex impression of fear, disbelieve, contempt, and boredom in one crowd of people standing before the barrier. The painting is very dark masking all unnecessary details with gloomy shades of blue, brown, and grey. The faces of people are the only bright spots on the painting. Nevertheless, they are deadly pale and grey, looking solemnly in the same direction.

The majority of them stand at the barrier with only two of the watchers detaching themselves from others. These two represent contempt and boredom of random watchers who do not want to believe in the events in front of them. The poem “Tuesday 9/11/01” by Lucille Clifton describes the same emotional distress caused by the catastrophe. The inner world of people has shuddered, and they do not know how to live further. The catastrophe unites all people and shows them that they are not safe in any place in the world.


Keniston, A., & Quinn, J. F. (2013). Literature After 9/11 (Vol. 1). New York, NY: Routledge.

Sather-Wagstaff, J. (2016). Heritage that hurts: Tourists in the memoryscapes of September 11. New York, NY: Routledge.

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StudyCorgi. (2020) 'The Painting "Disbelief" by Lun-Yi Tsai'. 23 October.

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