Saturday, November 7, 2009

No Other Words

A couple of weeks ago I visited The Barnes Foundation. For those who don't know about it, the Foundation is a school and museum located on the grounds of Dr. Albert C. Barnes' home in Merion, PA (a suburb of Philadelphia). Dr. Barnes devoted himself to collecting art after making a fortune by co-developing the drug Argyrol. In establishing the foundation, Dr. Barnes envisioned it as a school rather than a museum and gave detailed instructions for it's operation after his death. Dr. Barnes arranged the layout of the paintings and African art objects himself in order to show students the visual and aesthetic traditions he felt were present in all art forms.

While Dr. Barnes' will stipulates that the paintings stay exactly where they are, the Foundation ran into financial trouble in the 1990's and petitioned the court to allow it to move the museum into Philadelphia to increase public access. The court ruled in favor of the Foundation and it is set to re-locate Dr. Barnes' collection in late 2011. The ruling has, of course, caused a great deal of controversy as many people feel that Dr. Barnes' wishes should be respected.

I wanted to see the collection as originally intended by Dr. Barnes so I played hooky from my real life and spent a couple of hours at the museum. Usually when I go to a museum, I look for the explanation about the painting that is hung nearby. I like to know what I'm looking at and why it's important, etc. I especially like the Philadelphia Museum of Art because during special exhibitions there, they will give you the audio headset free of charge.

No so with the Barnes. As I went from room to room, none of the paintings had descriptions near them. In each room, there were laminated cards that told you the name of the painting, the artist, and the date (if known), and that was it. There were no such descriptions for the African art objects intermingled in each room. So I had to look at each painting for myself and decide what I wanted to see and what I thought was important.
It was a fascinating afternoon. I scrutinized facial expressions and body language. I discovered similarities between painters. I enjoyed works by my favorite artists that I had not seen before. All this without reading a word of instruction about "what to look for."

At the end of the day I was reminded of a line in The History Boys. Irwin, a teacher, is reciting a line of poetry and then he says, "In other words..." A student jumps in with (and I'm paraphrasing here):
No sir, can I stop you? With a poem or any work of art you can't say in
other words. That's why it's a work of art in the first place, there are no
other words. You can't look at a Rembrandt and say in other words can you?


  1. what a cool trip...i wrote on someone elses wall today how i love looking at a piece of art and then coming up with a whole different interpretation the next time...

  2. Yup.Words Can Be A Tyranny Sometimes? Sounds A Fine Place.