After visiting The Barnes on Sunday, I can't say that it's the only sane place to see art in America, but I can say that I've never had a better time -- and a more enlightening experience -- at a museum.
Even though The Barnes exists a mere two and a half hours northeast of my home (by car), it wasn't until watching the documentary The Art of the Steal that I became aware of it. I was very interested in visiting the museum as the documentary progressed, and, not knowing the story or its outcome, I became increasingly stressed while watching (the odds that the museum was still around seemed to dwindle with each passing chapter). Luckily, as I found out at the film's conclusion, The Barnes Foundation is still around in (more or less) its original format. That is, until next year. Time to make reservations.
Until seeing The Art of the Steal I had also never fully realized that what I found off-putting about most museums was the clinical, hospital-like atmosphere: white (usually) sterile walls, spaced out paintings, placards, and everything with a very detached, technical feel. The level of reverence many of these institutions have for the work becomes apparent (if somehow The Art of the Steal fails to get this across) once you think about the fact that most pictures are framed in a way that masks part of the painting (bits of the perimeter). Albert Barnes, on the other hand, placed all of his frames outside of the painting so as to not cover part of their edge, and his museum is perhaps the only one to have done away with the small placards that detail the name and year of the painting (a distraction, he thought, since the paintings surely stand by themselves). Small details aside, what makes The Barnes truly special is its wall displays.
Each wall of The Barnes is arranged very precisely, with paintings from various artists and time periods mingling and mixing freely with one another for the purpose of comparison. Hanging above and around the paintings are metal objects -- door hinges, keys -- often positioned together to create new patterns (occasionally I noticed face-like designs). On the floor in front of the paintings (usually) sits antique furniture of some kind -- typically a desk, chest, or small cabinet (displayed as art in their own right) -- and atop the furniture there is sometimes pottery, small brass sculptures, candles, or other similar objects. The point is for everything to play off of, and highlight, everything else -- teaching as much as showing. For example, the pattern of an antique chest might hint at the pattern in part of a woman's dress in the painting hanging above, while the wooden spokes in the back of a chair sitting in the corner might mirror the branches of a tree in the nearby Cézanne. Some of the paintings (or walls) are arranged so that an accented color builds a pattern in the display: a red flower in one painting can be followed to the red socks worn by someone in another, which can then be followed to the red hair of a figure in another, etc. (Much of this, of course, creates a subconscious harmony, and no doubt Barnes used it as a very good teaching tool.) Other ensembles are arranged so that certain lines continue from one painting to another, zigzagging very subtly across a wall. Another kind of arrangement simply makes influences more apparent: a room with a few Modigliani paintings contains a center display with various African masks -- the very kind that influenced and inspired him -- and after looking at them we see the faces in his paintings a bit differently.
Albert Barnes also made it a point to highlight commonalities and connections between seemingly disparate things. He displays religious works from Africa and the East alongside Christian iconography to perhaps suggest that African images look just as strange to most Westerners as the Christian images look to most Africans. Why then, we're meant to ask, is one supposed to be sacred and the other silly? Thus, the connection -- human spirituality, the longing for purpose -- is what really matters.
There are still other reasons for some of Barnes' particular arrangements. On one of the walls hangs a large Manet (if I remember correctly), a painting of two women sitting near the center, with two red flowers blooming in the green grass below. Albert Barnes viewed one of the bright flowers as a "mistake" since it draws the eye down to the corner and upsets the composition, so he decided to "correct" it by placing a small Renoir above the Manet, a painting (of a woman) which contains a splash of red (in her dress). It's interesting to cover the Renoir with your thumb while looking at the Manet to see what he means. After doing this I noticed how my eyes tended to take in the entire wall at once (or what ever was in my field of vision), while my brain leaned more towards consciously separating each part of the wall into the various individual paintings. This, in a nutshell, is what's so great about The Barnes. Every room is a work of art in itself, and Barnes, their composer, was a great artist in his own right. Each wall demands various viewings/perspectives: up close, to see the individual paintings; at a medium distance, to see how the paintings and objects interact; and from across the room, to see the entire wall as a single piece. Sometimes the walls even echo other walls, with a painting on one side of the room mirroring something hanging in the same spot on the opposite wall. It's endlessly fascinating. I easily spent three and a half hours in the museum (it felt like an hour and a half) and could have just as easily spent more.
One of my favorite ensembles consisted of a play on "arches". I don't remember everything exactly, but on one section of a particular wall was a De Chirico painting of a few horses standing in front of some arches (part of a building or ruins). Above the painting was a hanging piece of metal with two arches, and below it was another painting that had two arches -- some sort of building. On the floor was a wood piece with arches that mirrored all of this. In the same place on the second half of the same wall hung paintings that were not literal arches, but implied arches. The metal work above and the wood work on the floor were the same, but the De Chirico on this half of the wall appeared to have no arches at all -- that is, until you looked closer and saw that the heads and necks of the two horses facing one another created arches. Similarly, in the painting hanging below, arches were created by the heads of two figures standing side by side.
Everything in the museum is done with a stunning attention to detail. Even a smaller version of a painting by Matisse is positioned in a spot in the stair-well (leading to the second floor) where you can see the larger version of the painting, which hangs near the top of the main room (on the first floor), behind it. Not only that, the arches of the small painting rhyme with various mini-arches in the architecture around it. (The painting itself is shaped with three arches. To see the large version of the painting on the first floor (above the windows), click here. This mural by Matisse -- though it is not a mural because it's painted on a piece of cut wood -- was made specifically for Albert Barnes as a gift. edit: this is incorrect - see comments section.)