A Visit to the Barnes Foundation
The Barnes is a stately mansion a little smaller than the Villa Borghese – or so it seems because the ceilings are a whole lot lower. It was built not to inhabit but for display, c. 1925, and has panels mimicking Cubist sculpture inserted in the façade here and there, where classical statuary would have been placed in such a building just a few years earlier – the joke, I’m sure, was Barnes’s idea, and the effect of crazy synthesis intentional.
Barnes’s personal taste – and he seems to have consulted no one else – was eclectic, belligerently modern when that was still an issue, but with a great love of the past and the primitive, especially when he felt the primitive had a link to impulses that also guided modernism. I have read no scholarly tomes or articles about him, so my reactions below will be my personal guesses as to what motivated his choices, his arrangements, and so on. There have been studies of this, and people with real art chops have discussed it, but let us be, as I was, a moderately well-read but untutored stranger entering a house full of wonderful objects.
Barnes purchased medieval Flemish and German paintings, illuminated manuscripts (removing and framing the pages), Titian, Tintoretto and Giorgione – at least, he thought it was a Giorgione at the time –Dürer (ditto), El Greco, Rubens, and so on, though he arrived at the auction a bit late for the masterpieces of known painters. These are interspersed with the moderns for which he is famous.
He did rather better with Degas, Manet, Renoir – acres and acres of awful Renoir – Cézanne, Van Gogh, Sisley, Gauguin, Rousseau, Seurat, Braque, Picasso, Matisse, and such up-and-comers as Bonnard, Modigliani, Miró, de Chirico, Paul Klee, Jules Pascin, Chaim Soutine (of whom he was an early discoverer and regular patron) and Jacques Lipchitz sculptures. The dozen or more small Lipchitz sculptures are almost worth the price of admission, if you ask me. Too, he kept an eye out for neglected Americans like Mary Cassatt, James Glackens, Maurice Prendergast and Charles Demuth. There are individual paintings by Marie Laurencin (a splendid sketch of a woman in a cloche hat), Puvis de Chavannes (Prometheus comforted by the daughters of Oceanus), Courbet, Corot, Odilon Redon and lots of works on paper.
He was also fond of bronze and ironwork of medieval provenance, hinges, kitchen implements, tools, locks, the more original and hand-made the better, and of African sculpture (big with the Cubists), Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and other pottery and artifacts, some Chinese and Japanese painting, Navaho rugs, pre-Columbian pots.
Is that eclectic enough for you?
“Why don’t they put all the African things together, and all the Etruscan things together, so you know what you’re looking at?” a woman near me grumbled. But that is precisely what every other museum in the world would do – does – and precisely what Barnes was determined not to do. His very point is the juxtaposition and the scattering of assumptions and preconceptions.
Did I get the message Barnes intended me to get? Maybe not. No way to be sure. I got the point that a Milton Avery will startle me more if it shows up between a Renoir and a Puvis de Chavannes than it would in a gallery of moderns. I got the point about triangles (when I heard a docent explaining them to a group of visitors), and the paintings are mostly set up so that the two on the outer edge on the same level pair off in some way, and triangulate with the one on top, and the one in the center triangulates with the little ones on top at the edges. And I sort of liked not having the name of the artist glaring at me (you have to go up to the frame and squint) so that I took in the art without being obstructed by preconceived notions of the artist, or even of the era in which it was painted – so that different artists of different cultures and eras could seem to be interacting, having a conversation on the shape of a skull or the texture of water. I liked the unexpected – landscapes by Renoir or Modigliani, whom one associates with portraits, caricatures by Demuth when you’re prepared for something that will balance that Cézanne, Cézannes that seem to defy his usual preference for greens and pinks with a welcome turn toward brown and gold and blue, the Monet of his wife at her embroidery frame, the very early (1906) Picasso of two women exulting with two bulls, the shocking Soutines everywhere, the French medieval heads set down among Lipchitzes and looking exactly as modern as they did, and his fondness for the unsophisticated art of devout Mexican peasants, juxtaposed with medieval masters on the same themes.
This is not a museum to pass through in indiscriminate haste; it forces you to guess something new about the art, to take in the grouping and then look at individuals without knowing who they are and where they would fit in the traditional continuum.
And I very much liked the primitive metalwork hung over the paintings or beside the paintings, scattered all over the house, so that no one has any idea why he hung any of it where he hung it, but he was very precise that it was part of the grouping and was never to be moved.
This is a museum that thinks about art, about the impulse, about the commonality of sophisticated and unsophisticated, educated and uneducated, skill and eye. It is one of a kind. Why transform it into just another of the hundreds of ordinary museums that people walk through without noticing very much? Why fill it with crowds of not very interested people, as the Met and the Louvre are so tediously crowded? Why not let those who love art have something for themselves?
Two hours was enough to “look at” everything, if not enough to “see” it all. I would have liked to sit over coffee for half an hour, recuperating, and then return and go through it again, or focus on things I hadn’t had time to give total attention to, but the Barnes is purposely not set up for such things. Two hours is all my feet will stand of any museum any more, at any one stretch. (So I’m glad I did the Louvre young, and can take the Met in small doses whenever I have the energy.)
My friend Chris Berg (the noted composer) says my description so excited him he has reserved a place to visit the Barnes on its last unedited day, New Year's Eve. That was so charming a notion of a way to ring out the old year that I decided to join him.