Monday, September 17, 2012

A Day at the Barnes

You may or may not have heard of the Barnes Collection.  It isn't really a museum, but then again, it sort of is.

Imagine over 500 works of art, mostly French Impressionists but some early European religious paintings, a few Renaissance pieces, maybe a Flemish or Dutch master of the Golden Age, some African masks and sculpture, mixed in with ornamental metal fixtures and implements, plus some furniture and ceramics and the occasional farming utensil. 

These are all the objects d'arte collected by A.C. Barnes, and originally displayed in his home in Merion, PA.  After a long drawn-out battle in court, the Barnes Foundation finally received approval (and funding) to build a new location in Philadelphia and move the collection so that it was more accessible to the public - but, under the terms of the bequest, the groupings and layout of the objects had to remain exactly the same as in the original location.

So, today I spent the afternoon in the Barnes Collection (new location) - and I had a wonderful time.  The usual museum labelling is absent, so the observer (me) can either enjoy the artwork as it is, or try to identify the artist by recognizing style and subject (which becomes a great game to play inside your - my - head).  The other game is to try to figure out why Dr. Barnes put the paintings and objects together in this particular configuration.

For example, why would he place a large dark passionate El Greco saint between two lovely and light Renoir bathers, voluptuous women in pink and gold - then maybe a Soutine impasto at each end, a few small light still life paintings above, a little Pissarro landscape balanced by a small Cezanne - and a few silver hinges, trivets, drawer pulls, and other ornamental metal works punctuating the frames, with a shiny brass bed warmer like exclamation marks at the beginning and end of this sentence of artworks.  Why????

Is there a theme, like maybe these are all paintings of people?  Well, no, there are saints alone and bathers alone and a few landscapes and maybe some apples and pears.  Are the colors related?  Well, no, not that I can figure out.  There is symmetry of shape in the placement, and often balance in terms of the artists or styles (along the line of symmetry) - but that's about all I can see.

Confusing?  Maybe.  Overwhelming?  Certainly.  Ecclectic?  Yes, and eccentric.  But decidedly fun, a feast for the eyes and the soul, and bringing in flocks of art lovers from around the world.  (Plus 181 paintings by Renoir, tons of Cezannes, masses of Matisses, and Picasso in all of his periods.)

If you haven't been, go to the Barnes.  If you've been already, go see the wonderful new space.  I loved it and had a wonderful time - this was my second visit to the Barnes, my first to the new space - and there is always something new to see even though it is the same collection and the same layout each time - because with art, you notice different pieces and focus on different themes or colors or artists, depending on your mood or emotions or current situation.  The art stays the same, but our perception of it changes.  That way, it always seems new and different and exciting.

Along with new and different and exciting - the wildlife in this neighborhood is amazing.  There was the usual rabbit sighting one day.  Yesterday I watched a large stag (with four-point antlers) in the wooded area beyond the backyard, as he ate and kept an eye on me.  Today, a brown fox ran down the road as we drove back home.  NOT what I expected in a suburb of Philadelphia.  But exciting!


  1. My friend Linda and I last week were talking about a trip to the Barnes! Love the post!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! And seriously, go to the Barnes, it's wonderful!