Monday, April 26, 2010

A Trip to the Barnes Collection

In, let's see -1989, 1990 maybe -I trekked out to Merion Mercy Academy to perform some "male" roles in a few plays at the all girl school.

I wound up staying over with some school friends pretty frequently, one of whom was a neighbor to the Barnes Foundation.  His mom took us once.  It was probably the first art gallery I stepped in (excepting one or two school trips to the Philadelphia Art Museum).  Of course, it didn't seem special at all -having no context and zero knowledge of art history.  I guess I just assumed that every museum had a few dozen Picassos.  In any event, I barely remember anything of that brief trip.

Despite that memory gap, the visit imparted a subconscious approach to art.  Or Art, I guess.

Dr. Barnes "had a lot of opinions" (to pull an often leveled quote from the era of my forgotten visit to his galleries).  Two stick out.

As a 19th Century Man of Science, Dr. Barnes believed that understanding art could be learned by method and every citizen could be a connoisseur.   Further to this, as his assemblages are accented with assorted keys and spoons and bits of metal, art already is part of our everyday world.  In the drawing gallery, its four walls filled floor to ceiling with Picassos and Matisses, there's a peculiar drawing in the corner.  It's in crayon, noticeably unpolished with a "thank you" note to Dr. Barnes written on it, signed only "Elaine".  It's attribution, like all the other hung works, is a simple name plaque affixed to the frame: Bailey.

I could very well be wrong -but I hope I'm not -because I like to believe that Dr. Barnes placed this unknown woman's drawing amidst the Renoirs and Cezannes.

Second, but equally important, is the how the collection asks the visitor to experience the art.   Each room is an intimate encounter.  Each room invites you to have a personal relationship to the work.  Even though the galleries were pretty crowded yesterday, it still offers a one on one conversation with the painting.  Everything hung is in conversation with each other, and the visitor joins.

The museum experience is exhausting.  After twenty minutes at the Metropolitan or MoMA, I'm ready to go home.  With their billion dollar architecture, their heavily guarded whitewashed rooms and their ceaseless chattering parade of bag toting tourists museums impose their collections on you. 

The Barnes Collection is exhausting too.  Every room exhausts you.  Yet every room exhilarates twice over.

I'm having a difficult time reflecting on the visit because it was so moving.  These paintings (and sculptures and tools and pottery, et cetera) not only speak volumes -they are masterpiece after masterpiece.   The collection's handful of Monet paintings show why he's considered a master.   Any of dozen or so Soutine paintings would be signature works in another gallery.

Art is indescribable -it's form is it's definition -a new thing brought into the universe.  The Barnes Collection is indescribable.   

The grounds also include a manufactured pond and gardens.


Carol Gardens said...

Too bad this era is almost over, as the Barnes will soon become a conventional museum moved into Philly's "museum district". I just got back from Philly and my friends live a few block from the spot where the Barnes will be relocated. They told me to see "Art of the Steal", a doc which strongly comes down on the side of the "do not move" contingent. Soon the Barnes will be more accessible, but more typical, and Barnes wishes have been ignored by the art world power brokers and politicians. I'm sure there will be a large gift shop!

George Griffin said...

Richard, one way to describe the Barnes is "too many Renoirs" but the other is "irreplaceable treasure." I always loved the salon hanging with eccentric metal tools above the paintings. And there is the sexiest Courbet ("The White Stockings" it is sometimes called) which complements his "Origin of the World." How could the Matisse mural, designed for the room, make it to Philly?

Art need not be accessible.