Thursday, May 24, 2012
An Ensemble Day
"Ensembles" were what Dr. Albert Barnes called his unique juxtapositions of paintings, metalwork, and decorative arts from different periods, cultures, and styles. He was obsessed with arranging and re-arranging his ensembles, which were in such marked contrast to conventional museum groupings by era, artist, and area. We visited the Barnes Foundation in its new Philadelphia incarnation today, in the first week of its much heralded opening. http://www.barnesfoundation.org. The old galleries from the Merion campus dating from 1922 are faithfully reproduced within a modern building, tied together with beautiful landscaping, modern climate control, additional amenities and spectacular natural lighting that makes people familiar with the old galleries think the paintings have been cleaned. (They haven't - the colors just sparkle more).
The ensemble concept feels so natural to me. My mother loved her reproduction of Wilhelm Lehmbruck's Kneeling Woman (above), now mine. The original is over life-size, but I grew up with this copy and love it in reduced scale. Mom would juxtapose it with a pitcher whose spout and handle echoed the curves of the Kneeling Woman's body, or the samovar, whose shape complemented the scupture's. My mother was naive about what she was doing, but she would have felt right at home with Dr. Barnes' ensembles. She would have loved how he paired particular Pennsylvania Dutch chests under specific paintings, with pottery on them that complemented the Matisse or Renoir or Cezanne above.
Before we moved, I photographed the Kneeling Woman inside my assemblage which I later took apart because the box was too heavy to move across the country. The pieces will be recycled into new work.
By the time we got home this afternoon, I was exhausted. I decided to lay down and watch the netflix video that I hadn't had time to watch for over a week, !Women Art Revolution, a film by Lynn Hershman Leeson, even though it didn't seem quite in keeping with a Barnes day. "Through intimate interviews, art, and rarely seen archival film and video footage, !Women Art Revolution reveals how the Feminist Art Movement fused free speech and politics into an art that radically transformed the art and culture of our times." After watching, I looked at the films's website. It turns out it was selected and screened by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as one of the three best documentaries of the year in 2011. http://www.womenartrevolution.com.
I tried to remember if I had seen any women artists at the Barnes, in any of my visits. Maybe one Mary Cassatt? What I do remember from the additional new exhibition gallery now displaying the history of the Foundation, was a typed letter by Dr. Barnes bemoaning that all the male students were off fighting the war (WW II), leaving only female students at the Foundation. The tone of his wording left no doubt that he felt women were less desirable as students. No criticism here, just an observation - he was a product of his era, no matter how visionary.
What is the relationship between my Barnes experience this morning and watching the video of !Women Art Revolution this afternoon? The ensemble concept expands your way of seeing and thinking, about life as well as art. Juxtapositions matter. The Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early modern artists that Barnes collected, his contemporaries he often came to know personally, were rejected and misunderstood in their day - as was he as a collector at the time. He remained bitter about this the rest of his life. The Feminist artists were rejected, ridiculed, and misunderstood in their day as well. There is a resonance in the belated recognition of the historical importance and contribution of both Barnes' unique genius and the Feminist Art Movement. Peter Schjeldahl ends his New Yorker review of the new Barnes saying "The Pharisees of proper taste deemed Barnes weird for his fanatical orchestration of artistic stimuli. In truth, he was crazy like a prophet." The movie makes clear that the Pharisees of proper taste kept the Feminist Artists out of traditional museums and galleries and did their best to render them invisible. Yet we now see how prophetic they were in the ways they have influenced generations of younger women artists. It was an ensemble day in a way I could not have foreseen!