Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!


natschall's picture

Does the lens we look at a painting through change when it is in new surroundings?

I think that the surroundings of a painting can certainly change the lens it is looked through. Think, for example, of what you would value a painting at if you saw it in a dumpster outside versus if you saw it hanging in the Louvre. But, looking specifically at the Barnes Foundation after visiting, I found myself doubting whether the surroundings had really changed as much as people were complaining about in The Art of the Steal.

Barnes would have you believe that being in the city changed the paintings a lot, and that this is why he wanted the Foundation to stay where it was originally founded. But if the immediate surroundings of the painting are the same, such as they are now in the Barnes (the walls are kept the same, with everything exactly where it was--even the rooms are the exact dimensions as they were when the Foundation was in Merion), is being in a different city really a new lens? Or is it the same lens, but with maybe slightly different background thoughts going in?

This is all besides the fact that Barnes himself was changing the lens we look through simply by owning the paintings. The artists (with the exception of Matisse, who made his mural specifically to go in the Foundation) did not paint their work looking at it from the lens of Merion, Pennsylvania (or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for that matter!). Barnes may have completely changed an artist’s original intentions by placing the painting next to a Renoir, when the artist had been envisioning it in a solo gallery in Paris (to give a wild example).

Of course, Barnes himself didn’t change the lens as much as the Foundation did when they moved into Philadelphia. Not with respect to the physical paintings, but to their image--the most popular were plastered all over posters and buses, to generate publicity for the Foundation. Some people believe that seeing a painting recreated hundreds of times in random places diminishes the effect it has on you when you see it in real life. But I don’t think this is true. For instance, I’ve seen El Greco’s Apparition of the Virgin and Child to Saint Hyacinth many times, but when I saw it in front of me at the Barnes, I was blown away. I had to stop at look at it, for what was probably much too long, judging by all the people who passed me. Seeing it reproduced took nothing away from my experience in front of the physical painting. If anything, it made me love it even more because of how much detail I could now see, and how sharpened my understanding of it now was.