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Revisiting the Barnes

pialikesowls's picture

There was so much anticipation in my head when I went to the Barnes Foundation. I had wanted to go for a while, since my mother had told me about it, and how it housed pieces by some of my favorite artists: Seurat, Renoir, Van Gogh, Cézanne, and much more. Impressionism was one of my favorite eras of art, and I was going to take advantage of this trip into Philadelphia.

My mother had informed me that there was a period where Albert C. Barnes wouldn’t let anyone into the foundation. Countless amounts of people had written requests to Barnes, asking to visit, but many had been rejected. My mother may have also mentioned there was some controversy with the foundation, but I think she touched too lightly upon the subject for me to completely register and remember the facts. Therefore, I had walked into the Barnes partially the way Walker Percy had intended us to: without a lot of prior knowledge.

However, I had built the museum up in my head a lot. I do this a lot with other things, too. Sometimes I’ll say that someone absolutely has to watch a movie or read a book, and that it’s probably the best movie or book in existence. When this happens, people are usually disappointed. While I did build the Barnes Foundation up a lot in my head, I was not disappointed at all. I feel as if the difference this time was that I didn’t know what paintings would be in the foundation, and that I didn’t know how the foundation would be set up.

I started looking at the paintings one by one; I wanted to see every single piece of art in the area. However, I noticed the furniture, and random pieces of metal (which I think are door locks) on the wall. I wondered what their purpose was. Impressionist paintings are famous for being impressionistic – obviously. What this means is that up close, the strokes don’t make a lot of sense at all, but when you look at it from afar, you can see how each stroke could make lighting, make a face, or make a shadow. 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.

The way Barnes arranged the furniture with the art is very particular; each wall is different and has different intentions. This being said, each painting, each chair, and each door lock has a role in helping Barnes convey the meaning and creating an aesthetically pleasing wall. I realized that Barnes, just like the artists, was also creating Impressionist paintings. While it may be nice to look at every painting, one by one, that was probably not what Barnes wanted us to do when we went through the rooms in the museum. 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 Renoir oil paintings. Up close, a random door lock might make no sense at all, but when you look at it from further away, the wall becomes an Impressionist painting.

Something that Barnes really focused on when organizing his walls was symmetry. 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.

In the picture I have used, 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.

Barnes used each piece to make art on the wall, and this affects the way people 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, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes lacks the impersonal white walls and instead piles on several paintings, furniture, and door locks onto the walls and floors. 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.