Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

by Rena Iizawa


The grey and neutral tone of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s architecture for the exterior design of the Barnes Foundation prove as stark contrasts to its interior. Known for its extensive collection of French Impressionist, post-Impressionist and early Modern, the selections of works may be compared to those of the Paris Orsay Museum. Such works, however, reside in a late 19th century former railway station. Therefore, it may be fair to compare the Barnes Foundation to the exhibition of the 2017 Sergei Schuckin Collection at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, where works of this kind are displayed in the glass structures of Frank Gehry’s designs, built in 2006. However, even then, the Barnes Foundation has a much more personal take on the curation of its artworks.

The charm of this exhibition is not the wide collections of renowned artists of the 19th and 20th century but the actual curating of it. In this particular museum, it is difficult to focus on a single piece of artwork as they are so many pieces displayed all at once. The spaces do not have themes or timelines dictated but are simply placed according to what its founder, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, felt appropriate in a certain moment. Barnes was a chemist turned art collector/educator. Even as a chemist, he would organise two-hour seminars each day for his workers to discuss ‘writings of philosophers like William James and John Dewey, and examine original works of art.’ (Barnes Foundation website) This particular curating style was perhaps the most fitting to this thinking.

Throughout the gallery, there are no annotations or captions accompanying artworks. For those wishing to know more, a separate piece of paper is provided. It is up to the visitor to decide how to go about it. This is perhaps true to any museum as people can actively or passively choose to avoid these museum labels. However, these curatorial choices seem to echo Barnes’ philosophy of interdisciplinary approaches to art.

There is obvious interest in the hierarchy of the artworks in how the art which guided tours tend to gather around are placed in the more spacious lower ground to accommodate for the traffic. On the upper floor, however, works appeared to have no straightforward categorisation. Matisse’s Red Madras Headdress in Room 15 is circled by deconstructed panels of fans along with Italian landscape paintings to mini children’s doodles. Furthermore, there is complete emphasis on the mixing of materials throughout this exhibition. The light green chest at the foots of the Matisse is as crucial to this room as the kettle placed above it.

In the introductory video at the museum, art historians and artists discuss the importance of the ironworks that occupy all the rooms in the gallery. They stress how these are not frames to the paintings or additives to an empty patch of wall. Barnes thought of this carefully and encouraged the finding of ‘visual relationships’ (Barnes Foundation website) through this type of curation . Barnes provides an open world that allows for free interpretation connecting iron with wood, wood with paint…

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