Dear Barnes fellow travelers,
Now that we have all had time to return to our daily lives, I wanted to reach out and thank you for taking this trip with me. The Barnes is indeed a fantastic Post-Impressionist collection but its organization and setup are peculiar and can be a bit disorienting to the casual and even to the educated visitor. But, it was an experience we could only have had at the Barnes: where we could see the evolutions in our own eyes.
We saw how Renoir, who starts out as a run of the mill impressionist, is really pulled to classical Flemish Baroque tradition most pre-eminently embodied by Peter Paul Rubens. Nevertheless, Renoir takes these female figures and uses them in a thoroughly Modern way: as figures in a prolonged formal investigation about art and the nude, specifically Western art and the female nude. He is also teaching us a lesson in efficiency by using more or less the same figure dozens of times.
We saw how Cezanne, a peer of Renoir’s, who also starts out as a young Impressionist at the exact same time, develops his practice in a thoroughly different direction. Impressionism does not even begin to satisfy Cezanne’s need for innovation especially when it comes to depicting three dimensional objects in a two dimensional medium. Cezanne ends up at a place so far removed from Renoir’s (and, e.g., Monet’s): geometric flat shapes, simplified color application, multiple points of view within one canvas. In his work, Cezanne sets up the scene for the radical steps of the 20th Century: he belongs to 20th Century art just as much as he belongs to 19th Century art.
We got a sense of Matisse’s arc. The Collection is not that complete in this area but we could see Matisse’s start in Fauvism (which is a sort of impressionism with very unnatural colors) and then moving away from Post-Impressionist work into defining his own evolving style of depicting female nudes but also the avant-garde social class of his time day (clothed figures in their daily preoccupations and their interior spaces). These depictions are referencing the full arc of Western Art history in that they emphasize the female figure (both nude and clothed) and its interior spaces. In some sense, the interior space is part of the portrait of the figure (or figures). The technique is thoroughly modern – simplified forms and yet soft and sensual - without the harsh formal intellectualism of cubism. The figures are sensual and they each represent their place in the contemporaneous culture. Matisse’s technique requires simplification but manages to maintain sensuality and to please the viewer. The technique utilizes a very unique color scheme. Both the form and the color scheme change over time but remain unique to Matisse. We could see the parallel arcs of Matisse’s career in contrast to Picasso’s. Matisse is a sensualist who loves beauty. Even though Matisse innovates, he is emotionally and not simply intellectually to traditional Western Art. Picasso is an unrelenting innovator who prioritizes radical innovation over beauty.
In future trips, we will have an opportunity to follow Matisse and Picasso’s artistic evolutions side by side and explain much of 20th Century art as forming between these Center Poles.
I do hope that, in addition to learning various things about specific artists and art movements, you received a taste of looking at art in its immediate context (what are the peers doing at that time) but also in a larger context (historic styles and subjects). Taking in both the immediate and historic context helps us provide a sense of the complexity of the end product. Finally, I hope the opportunity to follow an artist’s evolution over time allowed you to experience how much more deeply we can understand certain artistic choices if we trace the previous steps of the artist in question. Once again, this type of art viewing reveals much more nuanced and complex view of the art object.
Many thanks and see you soon!