Do you know about The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia? Maybe you saw the movie “The Art of the Steal” about the bitter controversy surrounding successful efforts to move the Barnes collection from the Philadelphia suburb of Merion (where it was created by its founder Dr. Albert C. Barnes in the 1920s) to a new location in Center City, Philadelphia?
The Barnes Foundation collection holds paintings familiar from reproductions – Cezanne’s “The Last Bathers,” Van Gogh’s “The Postman,” and most famously “The Dance” commissioned from Matisse by Dr. Barnes. It contains more than 800 pieces of art including many important post-impressionist and early modern paintings – along with old master paintings, African sculpture, furniture, textiles, antiquities – and wrought iron objects from Europe and the United States.
That last bit is most important, because a very particular way of hanging the art sets the Barnes apart – it’s arranged in what Dr. Barnes called “ensembles.”
Eager to teach people about art and show the “universality of the creative impulse,” he displayed things not in groups of “isms” or by artist or chronology – but by looking for commonalities or differences in four aspects of art: light, line, color, and space.
Madame Matisse’s hat might be echoed in the wrought iron hinge or lock or hasp hanging above or beside her, and relate to the next paintings as well. Or color might be the element the eye discovers as it moves over a wall of paintings and objects, seeing red splash, red sky, red cloak. Thinking about these related elements makes an engrossing way to experience the museum’s art.
The new building is luminous and beautiful, and inside it recreates the ensembles exactly as they were at Barnes’s death in 1951. No modern museum, white emptiness here – the house-sized rooms have warm-toned walls and light from actual windows, and the paintings and metal pieces hang precisely in their original close placements.
No photography was allowed, not even drawing, or I would have tried to sketch my favorite wall. It’s just a warm glow in my mind now, lacking specifics, just remembered pleasure from light and line and color and space.
The New York Times recorded the old building before the move, and you can get the feel of the collection as it was (and is):
My first week home, still thinking a lot about the Barnes Foundation and how completely the paintings and their settings entranced me, I listened to a New Yorker “Out Loud” podcast with the author Nicholson Baker. In answer to a question about how reading from an e-device differed from reading a real book, Baker described how that morning he’d read an E.B. White essay out loud by a noisy waterfall. It’s something Baker often does, in order to really pay attention.
He said for him art is about slowing down, about giving yourself to the art, about taking time being a precondition for enjoying art.
At the Barnes, that’s the experience.