Part of what I love about seeing art in museums and galleries is pretending I am the collector. I love imagining I was the one having conversations with Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, discussing lines and textures with Modigliani, and sharing my opinions with Vincent on his newest, bluest piece. This is precisely why the Barnes Museum has made the top of my list of museums I love.
Last Saturday I took the train into Philadelphia to be with my best friend of 20 years. We rarely spend time together so when we do, it is sacred. We clear our daily diaries, turn the phone to airplane mode and sink into one another. I love disappearing with her in different cities around the world. This weekend we would take on the city of brotherly love.
Philly is covered in historic architecture, brightly painted murals and mosaic tiles. Art and culture abound. That weekend I saw the best production of Henry V by the Latern Theatre Company in one tiny theatre and I once saw three actors blow apart Tracey Lett’s play Bug produced by Theatre Exile in another. The city is unassuming, underrated and I love it. They even have vegan philly cheese steaks.
My friend and I woke up early Saturday morning. We walked along the cobblestone streets past old row houses and began brainstorming fun things to do together over a morning smoothie. The air was wet with leftover morning frost and the warmth of my scarf amplified the cold breeze hitting my nose.
I remembered hearing about a museum in this city from an artist friend of mine in Vancouver, Jay Senetchko, and at the time I had bookmarked it as something I did not want to miss. When I suggested this idea to my partner in crime, we both agreed it was perfect.
An hour later we approached The Barnes Museum. The outside of the museum is striking and unique: tall, angular buildings made of limestone, coated with an ivy frame and a peacefully still, reflecting pond. If the structure housing the work was this elegant, I could only imagine what was inside.
I walked through the giant wooden doors doing my best to show some serious self restraint. I felt like a kid in a candy store on a sugar high; I couldn’t wait to see the art. On the inside I was bouncing off the walls, but I managed to keep myself composed and aloof for the sake of my own image as a “cultured and mature woman.” My friend and I shared a grin; art like this is yet another passion we share. Our steady stroll quickly morphed into a speed walk as we whisked past the gift shop and into the gallery.
We went right to the counter to collect our headphones. As a tried and true headphone junkie, I absolutely love having the wisdom of the world’s best art historians whispering knowledge into my ear. Suddenly the superficial pleasure of art falls away and I have an experience of a whole story, a history, a life lived. Gotta love a good curator.
I pushed the headphones into my ears and entered number 001. Up came whimsical, classical music which accompanied a friendly story about Dr. Barnes and his love for all things artistic. This introductory speech tells all about Dr. Barnes’s passion for Matisse, Renoir and Picasso, but what struck me most was Barnes’s interpretation of the word “art”.
This man considered art as “all things made by humans,” so the museum is riddled with door hinges, fireplace tools, lamps and chairs. He collected horticultural pieces with the same voracity and obsession as he collected Modigliani and Ciro. He was diverse and eclectic in what he chose to purchase, and because of this unique flair I really got a sense of him in his art.
I loved this part. The intimacy I felt with this collector made the whole experience of the art that much deeper. He was an artist himself, mastering the art of collecting art.
The collection focuses mainly on work from the 1960s. American abstract expressionists were in their prime at this point. This time period along with the turn of the century art out of Vienna are my two favorite eras. The artists seemed unafraid of creating a less than perfect depiction of what they saw in the world. I am of the opinion that art is designed to share your insides on the outside, so when artists open us up to their insides in a way that is so uniquely them I find it so exciting.
I walked slowly from one room to the next and marveled at the way the chairs were organized to complete the paintings above them and how the side tables housed vases that were selected specifically to pull together the Cezanne and Renoir on the wall. The collection vacillates from Modernism to Impressionism, and from the functional to the purely aesthetic. Barnes collected what he liked, not what was in vogue.
My friend and I reconnected at the end of the tour. Free from headsets we could share our experiences. We were so excited, talking over each other and sharing the things that moved us most. Another thing I love about art? It allows us to better understand ourselves and share those understandings with someone else. My friend and I were in the same museum, but what we we saw was totally different. Because of this, I know her better.
I wanted to spend a few lifetimes here. My only complaint was that I had to leave. Every bolt, door knob and painting at the Barnes Museum is an opportunity to see the ingenuity of humanity, the art in all that we create. As we pressed our way through the large wooden doors I couldn’t help but look at the previously mundane world with a little more reverence and admiration.