Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Barnes Foundation

Yesterday morning, Alison and I drove up to Philly to visit Kristin and see the Barnes Foundation in Merion Station, PA. This is a private collection of over 800 paintings by famous Impressionists, post-Impressionists, and modern artists such as Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne, Seurat, Matisse, Picasso, and Modigliani. Dr. Albert Barnes, the collector and founder of the foundation, arranged the paintings into "wall ensembles" that he chose himself and that he specified could not be altered. The foundation's charter and bylaws state that the works must always be displayed as arranged by Dr. Barnes. He was also very particular about not loaning the works out or have them travel, as well as the number of visitors that could see the collection in any given week. The foundation ran into financial trouble in the last 10 years, and now there is a controversy surrounding the gallery and its movement from Merion to a site in Philly. We wanted to check it out before it moved.

The best word to describe what you feel when you enter is: Overwhelmed. This was unlike any other museum exhibit I have been to or could have imagined. Dr. Barnes arranged paintings practically one on top of the other, covering each wall. Some are too high to see properly. There are no descriptions next to any of the paintings -- no title, artist, year, country. At best, you can squint to look at the artist's name, etched on the frame (you will be reprimanded if you step too close to a painting, inside the black electrical tape on the floor). Asian art will be placed next to a Byzantine triptych, which will be placed next to a Renoir painting of a bather. Amid the chaos of the art, Barnes has also strategically arranged pieces of iron work. We thought they might be something stolen out of a Medieval church - there were circular designs, curly designs, forks, spoons, craziness.

I was looking forward to seeing a painting by Seurat called "Models" (see top painting above). Seurat's pointilism technique is awesome. Up close, you can see that each brush-stroke is an individual dot or point. From afar, you see the picture as a whole. Two of my most favorite paintings are his "Sunday Afternoon.." which I know I've seen but I don't remember where (Paris?) and "Bathers in Asnieres" which I saw at the National Gallery in London. "Models" is drawn on the same large scale as the other two, and has a painting in a painting, since you can see part of "Sunday Afternoon" in the background. Unfortunately, Barnes placed "Models" too high for anyone to get anywhere near close to it.

I wish there were a book that describes how each wall of each room is arranged. For example, on one wall, Barnes did not like a red flower in a particular painting. He arranged other paintings on the same wall with bits of red in them to anchor that red flower and draw imaginary triangles with the eye. A large iron casting at the top of the arrangement is meant to complement or anchor the large hat on Madame Cezanne, in the bottom center painting. On another wall, he has an El Greco painting that depicts a monk (?) but is mostly a study of the folds and the shading of his robes in candlelight. Barnes placed a painting of Cezanne's to show how El Greco influenced Cezanne's still-life of a skull and fruit. Yet another wall had a painting by Hieronymus Bosch showing some pig people. I started thinking out loud about how he paints hell in his works, and a man walked up to us and said that painting was depicting hell, and on the other side of the wall, in the next room, on that exact spot, Barnes had placed a painting of heaven. We made guesses about the ironwork. Barnes placed a huge fork next to a painting of trees. Perhaps the shape of the fork emulates the shapes of the trees? (per Kristin).

I walked away from this gallery thinking that Albert Barnes is a madman and feeling entirely overwhelmed (and even slightly faint, but that could have been the after-effects of my morning venti cappuccino). However, it was definitely a cool experience, and the madman definitely has a lot of fantastic art that you wouldn't be able to see in any other exhibition if it's never allowed to travel.

Thanks to Kristin for introducing us to the Barnes Foundation!


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