City Barnes

Albert Barnes saw design in everything, and a select few pieces from his spectacular collections of decorative arts-Pennsylvania German blanket chests and cupboards, country chairs, ceramics, and especially artistic bits of wrought iron-are installed in the painting galleries of the Barnes Foundation, just as he intended them. Additional objects, such as Native American pots and jewelry, African sculpture, Jean Renoir pottery, and sculptural metalwork from all eras and cultures, can be found in small pocket galleries off the balcony.
The decorative arts play a deliberately provocative role in the gallery compositions by reinforcing an aspect of the painting or paintings placed above them. Take the west wall of Room 4 for example: The abstract heart designs on a Pennsylvania dower chest of 1770, which is placed below Les Ribauds, a painting by Honoré Daumier, make direct reference to the curvaceous bodices of the two women. The painting and chest are also related in their colors-earth tones with strong black contrasts-while demonstrat¬ing differences in design and technique. Then, at the top of this installation, Barnes combined two pieces of wrought iron, one repeats the curves, the other follows the lines of shadow and the flailing arms of the women.

Fig. 9. A diagram with precise measurements was prepared for each room showing the exact placement Dr. Barnes had determined for the paintings and objects in the original museum, so that the arrangements could be duplicated in the new building.


In Room 6, on the south wall, you encounter an exaggerated horizontal arrangement: two sturdy low-back Windsor chairs with saddle seats are placed in two corners, making a clear reference to the paintings of lusty nudes by Renoir hanging above them. Over this combination is a pair of wrought-iron hinges installed vertically, repeating the upward gestures of the figures. To bring the eye back into the center, at the top of the wall is a quiet painting by Renoir of a woman's head. Her downward gaze leads the eye to a colorful, vertical Paul Gauguin painting placed over another dower chest.
A final example-from the north wall of Room 13: Here a splendid Pennsylvania blanket chest made about 1789 and attributed to John Bieber easily dominates the composition. It is flanked by free¬standing andirons that repeat the chest's painted pillar forms. The ceramic pot echoes the central flowerpot motif on the chest, which leads the eye straight upward in a vertical composition with Renoir's canvas of two seated figures.
Other combinations await discovery throughout the Barnes. A chest from the Mahantongo Valley of Pennsylvania, painted with little birds has little carved birds perched on it. They are related by color and are challenged by the scale of the chilling jungle scene by Henri Rousseau above them (Room 14, north wall). A chair placed beside a Goya portrait of a man who is sitting in an identical chair, is a more literal lesson in observation (Room 6, east wall). Pedantic? Yes. Irritating to people accustomed to eye level ribbon-like installations? Probably. Albert Barnes called his arrangements "instructional wall pictures." The first visit might be intimidating; the second, full of discovery. And ever after a joy.

BEA GARVAN is curator emeritus of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

 

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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