Recently, I took a two-day class at the Barnes Foundation entitled Moments in Masterpieces, taught by Leslie Bowen, a practicing artist. Although I was the youngest person in my class by about fifty years, I got a lot out of the class because I was able to learn and talk about the arrangement and content of the collection in a way that resembled my everyday conversations about the aesthetic elements of art in my high school art classes.
Youth today are eclectic. We entertain a whole series of styles, ideas, wardrobes, experiments, arrangements, comparisons, connections, and opportunities before we come up with the characteristics and opinions that best fit who we want to be. This broad, inclusive approach reminds me of the Barnes, where the art arrangement breaks standard museum practice of displaying by artist, date, region, chronology, and other non-visual categories. Instead, Dr. Barnes connected the paintings and objects with the common aesthetic values of shape, texture, color, space, tone/value, and line.
Although at first glance the galleries may seem to have no rhyme or reason, upon further observation, a visual harmony becomes evident. The presentation creates conversations between Degas’s sketches of bathers’ legs and metal pincers; African masks and portraits by Picasso and Modigliani that adorn the walls of Room 20; the central paintings by Rousseau, Renoir, and Daumier that frame Room 14; and the Soutine on the diagonal from the Egyptian relief in Room 16.
These visual connections are easy to relate to. As a teenager experimenting with lots of different things, I try to organize and draw meaning from common themes in my disparate experiences. The galleries of the Barnes ask for these associations to be made, and through this we can discover new patterns and relationships that change our perception and perspective.
Although my age group isn’t the usual museum-going demographic, I think that the Barnes already has an advantage over other fine arts organizations because it is primarily a teaching institution. Because the Foundation is based on the principles of learning and education—Barnes worked with John Dewey, in particular—it has the power to captivate young people who are still receiving a formal education.
To me, the Foundation could almost be described as a kaleidoscopic “I Spy education center” whose goal is to create connections and use juxtaposition to make the viewer learn not just from the content of a work but also from its location in a gallery. This characteristic welcomes the viewer to associate at will the figures in a Renoir with the arch of a chair, or the swirls in a tablecloth with the patterns on a ceramic piece, and creating those relationships is very fulfilling. As a young adult and a hopeful future student of art history, my experience at the Barnes has given me knowledge of the importance of developing one’s own opinions and the significant power of making connections.
Henri Rousseau. Scouts Attacked by a Tiger (Éclaireurs attaqués par un tigre), 1904. BF584
Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Mussel-Fishers at Berneval (Pêcheuses de moules à Berneval, côte normand), 1879. BF989
Honoré Daumier. The Ribalds (Les Ribaudes), 1848–1849. BF22