When Derek Gillman, executive director and president, and Blake Bradford, director of education, first asked me to teach the Traditions course, they suggested it was time to update the curriculum, remarking that “Dr. Barnes died in 1951, but art didn’t stop in 1951.”
In designing the course each year, I keep in mind that the Barnes education program aims to enhance understanding of paintings from the past and apply those insights to art being created today.
This ability to decode paintings begins with a year-long chronological study of the major traditions in Western art, starting with the pre-Renaissance. Students look at pieces and decipher what problem the artist was solving as he or she decided on the formal elements of the painting—light, line, color, and space. This process also helps them determine how the artist creatively adapted motifs and techniques learned from predecessors.
For example, last year we studied Henri Matisse’s Red Madras Headdress, which was painted in 1907. Students discovered that Matisse’s large areas of color and flattened perspective strongly influenced the American artist Milton Avery. In his piece Nursemaid, painted three decades later, Avery pays homage to Matisse’s innovations while using them for his own creative purposes.
Ellsworth Kelly’s Two Curves (see header photo) from last year carries these simplifications of color and space even further: Kelly uses the shadows cast by the piece to “lift” the curve away from the background. Returning to Matisse, we learn that designing his 1930 Dance mural, he surrounded each figure with a different color value in order to lift it away from the background. Art is cyclical, with traditions, techniques, and motifs from the past reinterpreted by successive generations of artists to reexamine these themes from their own perspectives.
What connections do you make between the Barnes collection and your favorite contemporary piece or artist?
Images: Ellsworth Kelly (American, b. 1923). Two Curves, 2012. Painted aluminum, 74 7/8 x 114 x 3 in. (190.2 x 289.6 x 7.6 cm). © Ellsworth Kelly
Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954). Red Madras Headdress (Le Madras rouge), between the end of April and mid-July 1907. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 7/8 in. (100 x 81 cm). BF448. © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image © 2013 The Barnes Foundation
Milton Avery (American, 1885–1965). The Nursemaid, 1934. Oil on canvas, 48 x 32 in. (121.9 x 81.3 cm). BF961. © 2011 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image © 2013 The Barnes Foundation
Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954). The Dance, 1932–1933. Oil on canvas; three panels, (left): 133 3/4 x 173 3/4 in. (339.7 x 441.3 cm) (center): 140 1/8 x 198 1/8 in. (355.9 x 503.2 cm) (right): 133 3/8 x 173 in. (338.8 x 439.4 cm). 2001.25.50a,b,c. © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image © 2013 The Barnes Foundation