I went to see the Barnes collection of modern paintings in the suburbs of Philadelphia yesterday. Such a lot of controversy swirling around this small collection of 20th century masters. I had heard it was that the doctor collector didn’t want his paintings moved from the mansion he built for them, even if it is to the obvious location architects are now preparing for it on the Philadelphia parkway. But while there, I also learned that he had a far curiouser relationship with his acquisitions than most collectors. Barnes didn’t want his painting moved, but also insisted that they always- in perpetuity – be hung in exactly the same way that he spent his lifetime devising.
Curatorial is an important profession. How art is presented to us can help us to appreciate and learn from the pieces we are looking at. Line, surface, color and space, we were instructed by the Barnes Foundation tour guide, a retired doctor and presumably not an art historian or curator, were the elements of his paintings that Dr Barnes wanted us to see. He wanted to teach us how to see in a new way, said our host. And he spent the next 40 minutes patiently instructing us how his patron had devised the highly personal, rigidly contrived, salon style presentations.
Each wall symmetric, and constructed using endless conceits: pictures of doors on a gallery wall with an exit door, nude bums that sit on real chairs placed in the gallery in front of them, a bird which flew his (painted) coop and the canvas is shown as a tin cutout bird on the wall above. Once you get the tricks it’s admittedly fun to try to find more.
But really, how instrumentalist and reductive! Primer art history used by a well meaning, wealthy man to make his mark on a collection, and now a successive generation of docents and administrators to keep it that way. If missed opportunities could be generational, this would be the king. Line, surface, color and space are nice to talk about when looking at modern paintings, but the modern movement in art was about much more. These artists were struggling with a lot more than mere representation in their work. What about content? Weren’t there enormous social upheavals during the time these works were being painted, and can we see them in the work? The Spanish Civil War, ripples from the American, French and even the Industrial Revolutions.
A steady stream of other thoughts: the nuance of European genius in the hands of an American provincial; artistic genius being manhandled by banking practicality; how easily money, the getting of it, can so readily substitute for knowledge hard won by education, talent and experience.
The real offence is not in whether the art can be moved from its suburban location, it is whether it can be released from the strangle hold that a well meaning but novice curator has imposed on an important collection.
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