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Ensembles



The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is one of the premiere collections of modern European art, with paintings by Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, Van Gogh, Renoir, and Modigliani, among others.  In addition, the collection includes African art, Native American ceramics, Pennsylvania Dutch furniture, and functional metalwork or tools, among other artifacts, reflecting the broad interests of its founder, Dr. Albert Barnes. 

 

Albert Barnes was a physician and chemist who made his fortune from the invention of a chemical used to prevent infant blindness from gonorrhea.  He initially arranged with a friend to travel to Europe to purchase art, but later made trips on his own, purchasing art from Gertrude Stein, dealers in African Art, and artists directly.  Although not educated in art history, Barnes “knew what he liked” and his tastes were both wide-ranging and avantgarde (he collected early works that were later part of the Harlem Renaissance). 

 

Dr. Barnes was known for the way he arranged his collection which was not traditional or historical.  Rather, works were hung in “ensembles” according to principles of light, color, and space, rather than their style or genre.  Thus, an impressionist painting might hang next to a wrought iron key or a Native American bowl.  Barnes was known for moving pieces throughout his lifetime, but he stipulated in his will that all paintings remain in the places they were at the time of his death (a court case was required to move the collection from it’s original location outside Philadelphia to the new building it occupies in the downtown). Thus visitors to the collection may be taken aback by the novelty of the presentation but may also be intrigued -- and challenged-- by the relationships between pieces.

 

So where am I going with this?  I do not have a museum worthy collection of fine art or collectibles (time will tell??)  but I am very invested in the way in which art is displayed in my home-- be it my own work or that of others.



I love to mix folk art of different types from different parts of the world and observe the way they “talk” to each other.  The proximity of one piece to another enriches the way we look at each item, from the connections in colors, or shapes or in subject matter.  A painting (ok, a poster) by David Hockney of Nichols Canyon, his neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills, hangs nearby a Chinese folk art painting of farmers at work in the fields harvesting lotus and melons.  Both are personal or intimate works, depicting not monumental images but local geography.  Not far away is a Haitian metalwork image of a tree with birds and leaves, a far different medium but also an intimate image of nature. 

 

I recall purchasing metal bronze bird sculptures from the Ilana Goor Museum In Jaffa, on a trip to Israel (in more peaceful times).  Ilana Goor is a wonderful Israeli-born sculptor and artist whose museum is her marvelous home filled with all manner of art and artifacts.  Goor’s birds appealed to me because of their wonderful weight and the unique charm of each.  Although I would have loved to have bought them all, I splurged on two rather than the one my budget dictated, as the salesperson commented that the birds needed to be placed “in dialogue” with each other.  Indeed, as I walk by them on occasion I will rearrange their placement so that their conversation can be slightly different, providing me with newfound delight each time I see them.   

 

Art is like that.  While it has its own story, it also speaks to those who came before it, its larger culture, and its relationship to the great experiment of human creativity. 


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