Seeing Faces at the Barnes Foundation

(above, Gallery 6, south wall)
(picture source)

It's amazing how sometimes it takes years for a thing or a concept, to soak in and become more clear. For the past six years, as art handler and collections assistant at the Barnes Foundation, I've been (casually) puzzling over the placement of the candlesticks and vessels (mostly meant for potables - coffeepots, teapots, tankards, pitchers and the like) that dominate the tables, desks and chest-tops at the Barnes Foundation. Now, Dr. Barnes arranged symmetrically - stridently so - thus these furniture pieces are normally anchoring the wall arrangement or "ensemble"; they are essentially rooted to the floor by these furniture pieces, the furniture acting as a kind of grounding mechanism (root system, if you will) for the more esoteric interplay taking place in the branching arrangement above. But the items on the furniture pieces are symbolically important as well, I realized recently. And it seemed like so much of a trope for so long, that I'd (nearly) taken it for granted. Almost always, the two candlesticks are at or near the two back corners of the piece's top, and then the vessel is centered on the top, but - and here's the detail which confused me at first - placed towards the front. I dutifully maintained this arrangement (according to the original, 1951 postmortem  installation photographs which function as our standard), but without really understanding what Barnes was after (if anything at all).

And here is what I believe Barnes may have been after: a visage; a physiognomy made from symbolic decorative arts items, suggestively arranged to resemble a face. Normally this consists of candlesticks for eyes, and vessels for a mouth (and occasionally a nose and mouth). Thus, the concept of the omnipresence of art at the Barnes Foundation (or a pervasive mirror, if you will). Essentially, Barnes was creating the suggestion of a face on the very surface which a centralized viewer would be standing in front of. And the items vary according to which direction the symbolic connection is to go. For example, in Gallery 6 on the south wall, (see image above) a teapot is placed: it both formally references the reflection on the lake in the Gauguin painting above it, as well as symbolizes a carrying and possible pouring out (or divvying out) of of knowledge, wisdom -- or potency. Conversely, in Gallery 2, east wall, the central vessel (mouth, if you will) is a host box for holding the symbol of Christ's body for communion...of course, it references the painting above, a depiction of a vision of the Holy Virgin, by El Greco. But it also symbolizes the emptiness (which it is) of a soul waiting and imploring for the holiness of God to fill them - it is a vessel in waiting; in limbo; in anticipation, along with the saint seen in prayer receiving a vision.

One of the most blatant examples, and the one which initially precipitated this idea, is in Gallery 23, west wall, under the Unpleasant Surprise masterpiece by Henri Rousseau. There is a bear attacking a maiden in the painting, and on the blanket chest below it, is an ursine face scaring us; confronting us with a similar danger (and possibility, in the form of a saving rifleman). The arrangement formula is slightly different here: two ears are created by candlesticks; two eyes by tankards, their handles angling towards the back corners, implying furrowed brow and menacing face. The nose, septum and slightly grinning mouth is created by a particularly unusual item, used in the production of wax-covered rush lights, called a "grisset".

Considered as a persuasive phenomenon, or a general component of the collection's arrangement, there is certainly a sense of omnipresence of art. Students are instructed to be "centralized" and focused on the ensembles as didactic "chalkboards", thus by virtue of these assembled visages, the dedicated gaze is immediately met with an artificial face; an oracle of sorts, which imparts a symbolic direction to those seekers who face down the occasionally intimidating walls. They also function as a mirror, in which different aspects of ourselves can be seen - not unlike the assumed human presence in landscapes (picturing ourselves as being there). This is, if it is true, meant as both comforting and confrontational, two aspects of the best of art collections. But mysteriously oracular? That is all Barnes Foundation.

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