Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Barnes Raising and the Joy of Life

by Drew Martin
More than two years ago I wrote a brief review about the Barnes Foundation right after watching the documentary The Art of the Steal, and then I also explained a reference in that film about the looting in WWII with the details of another film, The Rape of Europa

Last week I took a quick trip to Philadelphia to visit the relocated Barnes, which totally blew me away. As one former student of the foundation verbally catalogues in the documentary...

They've got more Cézannes than that are in the entire city of Paris. There are 181 Renoirs, wall to wall, 59 paintings by Matisse. The Joy of Life is always cited in everyone's artbook because it is such an important painting in the history of art. Picasso, 46 [paintings], seven by Van Gogh, six by Seurat. The Seurat Models; now that really is sort of a spectacular thing that there is no equal for.

The new museum is unique in that it is very modern, and is a extremely well-designed and crafted building, and yet it maintains the linen-walled chambers of the structure Barnes had built in the nearby town of Marion, Pennsylvania.

The dense display of jaw-dropping paintings surprised me at every turn because I would see something that I just assumed was in the Louvre, MoMA or the Met. In the collection is Cézanne's Card Players, and as mentioned in the quote above Matisse's Joy of Life, which is one of the first Fauvist paintings, and the work that changed Picasso's life. After, and only after seeing it, did Picasso create Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Personally, I think the best way to see art, if the artist is alive, is in his or her studio with the artist present, surrounded by his or her inspirations, music, books, completed and unfinished works. How else could you fully appreciate someone like Mondrian than by seeing him in his tidy studio with even his easel at a right angle, where he might talk about his life governed by particular rules?

The paintings in the Barnes are shown alongside everyday objects including furniture, and (obsession for) door hardware: old hinges and locks. This creates a very different sensation than a typical gallery/museum, which isolates the artwork. For one thing, it is homier and more human feeling but what really affected me on this trip was how seeing so much art, so packed together, which is usually overwhelming for me, actually had a liberating effect. It makes you want to create art because in the flutter of images you get a real sense of creative experimentation. 

As far as the controversy of Barnes versus the establishment during his lifetime, the collection is greater than the personal conflicts and court rulings. Additionally, the anti-elitist drive that separated the collection from the downtown art world, was just another form of elitism.

This situation reminds me a lot of my recent post, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? in which Noam Chomsky speaks about continuity, which is the mental ability we have to maintain our relationship the true nature of a character even if it is transformed into another creature, such as a prince turning into a frog. A very clear example Chomsky gives is of the Charles River outside his window at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There are many things you can do to alter the river, such as change its course, pollute it, or even freeze it over. Likewise the Barnes collection is no longer the man who assembled it, nor is it the old stone building in Marion or the new structure in downtown Philly, but rather it is the most impressive collection of post-impressionist art, and paintings of the first half of the 20th century, arranged in a specific way.

It should be seen without prejudices, and it should also continue its original purpose to educate students of art as well as the more casual visitor.