A conversation across the centuries


Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) established The Barnes Foundation back in 1922. Barnes conceived of the foundation that bears his name as an educational institution rather than as a museum. For decades admission to his extensive but eccentric art collection in Merion, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, was tightly controlled. 

Since May 19, 2012, the Barnes collection has been housed in its new location at 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway in central Philadelphia, where it is far more accessible to visitors. Nevertheless, all the artwork continues to be arranged precisely as it was displayed in the original Merion building at the time of Barnes’ death in 1951.

The foundation’s “Map and Visitor Guide” offers this summary of the quality and the scope of the collection: “Barnes amassed one of the world’s most important holdings of post-impressionist and early modern paintings, with concentrations of works by Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Picasso and Pierre-August Renoir. Barnes bought major works by Vincent Van Gogh, Amedeo Modigliani, Henri Rousseau, and Chaim Soutine, as well as old master paintings, African sculpture, Pennsylvania German furniture, Native American ceramics, jewelry, and textiles, American paintings, antiquities from the Mediterranean region and Asia, and wrought iron objects from Europe and the United States.”

My wife Sandy and I had the opportunity to make our first visit to the Barnes this past December on the Sunday after a family bat mitzvah at Philadelphia’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom. I have had the good fortune to visit dozens of major art museums throughout this country and Europe; nevertheless, the several hours my wife and I spent at the Barnes have inspired me to look at paintings in a fresh way.

Barnes possessed what has been aptly identified as an “idiosyncratic approach to display.” He insisted upon creating on, or adjacent to, every wall of each separate gallery an “ensemble” – a symmetrical arrangement of paintings, sculpture, furniture, decorative pieces and wrought iron work from different periods and cultures. When visitors enter one of the permanent collection’s 23 rooms, they find almost no identifying information on the walls. At best, they might be able to make out the artist’s name on the frame of a painting or a signature on the painting itself. In place of a clutter of information that would disturb the balance and tranquility of the ensemble, the staff has placed in each of the 23 galleries a number of copies of a Collection Gallery Guide, which provides basic information about the ensembles displayed on the north, east, south, and west walls of that particular room.

After spending considerable time examining the ensembles in Room 23, I had the uncanny feeling that some of the paintings were beginning to talk to each other. For example, the five largest paintings in the gallery, all late 19th or early 20th century – two by Matisse, a Picasso, a Renoir, and a Rousseau – focused upon an individual woman, or in the case of Renoir’s “Leaving the Conservatory,” two women. It was as if the paintings were asking each other, “How am I expressing my creator’s perception of women – the outer woman and the inner woman?”

For me, the most profound conversation among the paintings in Gallery 23 is a dialogue across six centuries. At the center of the ensemble to the right of the doorway on the north wall is Picasso’s “Girl with a Goat,” oil on canvas, 1905. A naked pubescent girl stands in the middle of the portrait, almost equal in height to the vertical length of the frame; to her right stands a small snow white goat, while a naked toddler, balancing an earthenware jar on his head, stands awkwardly to her left.

A far smaller painting on the east wall of the gallery depicts the Crucifixion, oil and gold on panel, Germanic (possibly Bohemian), second half of the 14th century. The two Marys are standing on either side of Jesus on the cross. What draws these two paintings into a dialogue is the striking similarity in composition: a slender central figure balanced on both sides by standing figures – each picture a trinity!  Such similarity of composition compels me to ask: What does a girl with a goat have to do with Christ on the cross? I would suggest that the two portraits, though painted centuries apart, reinforce each other’s evocation of innocence and vulnerability.

It seems to me that it is inconsequential whether my readings of the paintings happen to be “correct.” What is consequential is that the ensembles that Barnes left at his death 65 years ago force the visitor to make connections between works of art produced at different times and in different cultures.  That is to say, “modern art” is not an abrupt break with the past; rather, modern art, in all its manifestations, is part of the same river that has nourished artistic expression ever since our ancestors painted animals on the walls of caves.

As I sat in the galleries of the Barnes collection, listening to the paintings talk to each other across the centuries, I found myself reflecting upon the similar experience I have had when immersed in a page of Talmud; for a page of Talmud is a discussion across the ages par excellence. On a single page, we encounter ancient texts from our TANAKH (Hebrew Bible), the writings of the Tanna’im (first two centuries CE) in our Mishnah, the discussions of the Amora’im (200-500 CE) in our Gemara, the commentaries of Rashi (1040-1105), and additional commentaries known as the Tosefot by Rashi’s sons-in-law and grandsons as well as many others – all engaged in a back and forth conversation through the ages.

Whether sitting in a gallery at the Barnes or struggling with a complex legal argument on a page of Talmud, I have come to understand  that, at its deepest level, time flows in both directions – a comforting intimation of our immortality.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.