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Barnes Again

pialikesowls's picture

Many people view the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia as a complete violation of a dead man’s will. After all, Albert C. Barnes would not have enjoyed the audio tours, easy accessibility, gift shop, website… The list would be endless. His sole intention for the Barnes was to educate and enlighten those using art, and he arranged every single inch of the space with his way of seeing: through an artist’s lens, with thought and purpose in every part of the wall.

I started looking at the paintings one by one; I wanted to see every single piece of art in the area, which is usually my attitude when I go into a museum or gallery. The museum contained works by some of my favorite artists: Manet, Seurat, Cézanne, Pissarro, and Renoir. I enjoyed looking up close at the paintings (not too close, obviously, as there were clear markers around the perimeter of each room) then seeing the painting as a whole. In a Renaissance painting, it’s easy to see how the strokes contribute to the overall work. In comparison, an Impressionist painting has short, choppy strokes. Out of context with a small close-up of the painting, you would not be able to tell what it is. However, once you look at it from afar, you could see how the strokes make a face, flower, or change the lighting. However, I noticed the furniture, and door locks on the wall. I wondered what their purpose was.

In the picture I have included, the large center painting is of a woman and child, with a large chest underneath it, in addition to a small painting and big metal piece above it. On the first left and right, both paintings are of trees and nature, with small door locks and small paintings of fruit. On the second left and right, both paintings are portraits with crucifix-shaped door locks above it. Lastly, the third layer of the wall has paintings of a group of people together, with fork like metal pieces above it. Also contributing to the symmetry are chairs, and small tables with teapots on them.

Something that Barnes focused on when organizing his walls was symmetry. For example, you would be able to tell what the center of the “painting” is, as he constructed it larger and more elaborately. He would place a larger painting in the center of the wall with a large piece of furniture under it, and put smaller paintings on either side. Oftentimes, the paintings on the sides would be similar in theme.

Barnes arranged the furniture very particularly; each wall is different and has different intentions. The walls were arranged in such a way that each painting compliments the other, and the furniture and door locks are just as important as the Renoirs. However, in this sense, the paintings were, after all, the main focus. Everything from the door locks and the teapots pointed towards the paintings, drawing you towards the most important parts of the wall. In paintings of the Virgin and Child, there would be saints and donors in the painting, but sometimes they would be gazing or pointing towards the Virgin and Child as that is what the artist wanted you to focus on. Oftentimes, even the architecture in the painting would lead your eye to the subject. Similar to a Renaissance painting, Barnes led our eyes to the paintings using furniture.

I realized that Barnes, just like the artists, was also creating Impressionist paintings, wall by wall. While it may be nice to look at every painting, one by one, that was not what Barnes intended us to do when we went through the rooms in the museum. If you just looked at one of the teapots, you would be confused as to why it is there. However, when you look at the entire wall, you can see that the teapot is pointing towards the paintings, serving its purpose in context. This parallelism goes along with the Impressionist theme, where each part has a function to the whole.

Barnes used each piece to make art on the wall, and this affects the way visitors look at the art. It might not be so noticeable at first, but neither is Impressionism. Barnes’ love for Impressionist paintings contribute greatly to the way that a museum frequenter looks at art, and takes it to the next level with how personal the foundation is. Compared to a museum, the Barnes lacks the impersonal white walls and instead covers the walls and floors with several paintings, furniture, and door locks.

I don’t think Barnes would be fully disappointed in the Barnes that exists today. It educates us while compelling us to look at the art in a way that is unfamiliar to us. The Barnes Foundation is unique because it forces us to look at art out of the White Wall Complex that so many other museums utilize. It forces us to realize that museum art is not limited to what is in the frame.