Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

An art historian considers Matisse’s ‘The Dance’

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A couple of weeks ago, surprised by the news that the Barnes Foundation moved Henri Matisse‘s The Dance (1932-33) mural, I published what Matisse himself said about what we we would now call the ‘site-specificity’ of the art work. What Matisse said seemed to strongly suggest that he made The Dance for a specific place in a specific building with a specific landscape beyond the room in which it was installed, a landscape that would come in through a set of french windows. Matisse’s comments, taken entirely from the revised edition of eminent art historian Jack Flam’s “Matisse on Art,” seemed so clear that I figured there must be something I was missing.

As I noted in my initial post, I figured that there had to be more to it than what was in Flam, more than what Matisse said while making the piece and in the year after he finished it: After all, art history isn’t written from or determined by a single-source any more than journalism is. I emailed the Barnes to ask to talk to the curator who had made the call to move it, to ask what art historical explanations might go beyond Matisse’s many comments. The Barnes acknowledged receipt of my email… and since then has repeatedly failed to make anyone available.

So I called Karen Butler, an art historian at Washington University in St. Louis. Butler was one of three art historians to contribute to “Matisse in the Barnes Foundation,” a comprehensive catalogue that the Yale University Press will publish in the fall of 2013. The book is one product of Mellon Foundation-funded research into the Barnes’s long-under-studied collection. (The first in the series, “Renoir in the Barnes Foundation” will be published in June.) Butler is an expert not just on Matisse, but about the period around which The Dance mural was made: She’s preparing an exhibition on between-the-wars Braque for Washington University’s Kemper Art Museum, a show that will travel to The Phillips Collection. She is not a curator at the Barnes, nor does she perform work for them in another capacity.

Fortunately for us, Butler decided that the question of the mural’s removal was layered enough that it was worth discussing. I asked Butler if the piece was site-specific, because  to read just Matisse, it sure sounded like it.

“I agree with you. It’s a site-specific work of art for what that meant in it’s own time, but it is a little more complicated than that,” Butler said.

That’s exactly why I was calling, I said. The Barnes had been unwilling to detail those complications and how it factored into its decision-making, so here I was.

“It’s a commission,” Butler said. “So of course it’s designed with the architecture of this site in mind. No one’s going to deny that.”

One reason it’s complicated, Butler said, is that Albert Barnes himself never quite provided Matisse with the exact environment Matisse wanted for the mural. Butler said that the 2013 Yale-published book will include never-before-published correspondence between Albert Barnes and Matisse, correspondence that will detail the landmark commission more fully than ever before.

“Matisse wanted clear windows and Barnes refused to change them. Matisse also wanted to remove the frieze [visible in the picture at the top of this post], but Barnes wouldn’t do it. The collector bought it — it was within his rights to decide how to keep his own space. But given the changes to the new Barnes — the room where the mural is displayed has clear windows — you could look at it like the new Barnes in some ways  overcomes some of the problems with the original Barnes.”

According to a short book Jack Flam wrote on The Dance in 1993, Matisse was upset by Barnes’ decision to place frosted glass above the french doors, preferring clear glass “so that the outdoor greenery would be more visible,” Flam wrote. “From the beginning Matisse had considered the view through the windows as part of the ensemble.”

Furthermore, Butler suggested, because the Barnes is re-creating Paul Philippe Cret-designed spaces and Barnes’s Merion installations in its new downtown Philadelphia location, the Barnes was doing all it could to replicate the site-specificity of the work.

“The new space is exactly the same dimensions, has the same windows, faces south, and you can see greenery when you look through the windows,” Butler said, emphasizing that she was speaking more about what she understood the plans for the newly-sited mural were because she is not on staff at the Barnes and has not seen the new building. “It has the second-floor balcony, and it even has a light on a chain in the middle of the room the way there’s a light on a chain in the main gallery of the original Barnes Foundation. But the work has also been conserved and is displayed with much better lighting, so the viewing experience should be much better.”

I suggested that the Barnes did in fact have a choice: If its curators had considered whether the work was site-specific (and we don’t know that they considered this at all) and determined that it was, they could have left it in Merion. After all, the Barnes Foundation is not abandoning the Merion building and gardens, it’s just moving the art.

“I think the works hung near it are quite important to its meaning,” Butler said, referring to works by Seurat, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse himself and more. “Matisse knew what was there when he was making the mural, and they must have factored into his thinking as he made it.  It would be very difficult and somehow sad to move all the artworks and just leave the mural in the empty space of the old Barnes. In some ways the questions you raise go back to the whole question of moving the Barnes.”

I told Butler that was precisely the question I was trying to avoid, that I was really trying to investigate this one artwork, whether or not it was appropriate to move it given that there certainly was the option of leaving it in Merion if, in fact, Matisse had specifically and pointedly intended it for that site.

Butler agreed that was a legitimate question, but suggested that the Barnes’s failure was more a product of poor communications strategy than a lack of art historical examination.

“They’re just complicated questions because there were concerns with making things more accessible to the general public,” Butler said.

That’s true, I noted. The Barnes has always been clear about how a primary aim of the project is tourism-generation.

“How do you deal with, say, not moving the mural but moving the rest of the collection regardless of the mural’s relationship to those works?” Butler said. “Do you then give people tickets to the old Barnes and the new Barnes? Then you fall into questions about logistics, and you have the same problems with access as you have always had. Plus there is the even bigger issue that you would have ended up by dividing the collection, which doesn’t seem to be a better solution.

“To see the mural in the old Barnes without its companions, so to speak — if all the other works go, I think that would be sad too.”

And so it seems that all questions return to how good an idea — or not — this whole moving enterprise was in the first place. Maybe for the next however-many-decades we’ll all be unable to consider the Barnes without coming back to the move.

“Yes it’s a commission for a specific place,” Butler said. “You’re right. But I do think that individuals at the Barnes Foundation and the architects too tried really hard to come up with a new space for the mural that is very close to its original context, while working within the premise that it was moving. The question was, ‘How do you recreate that experience?'”

With the move done, we’re on to the next stage of considering the Barnes: Was moving The Dance a good idea? And is the ‘faithful re-creation’ strategy a good one? We’ll see.

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  1. Stephen says:

    I see your point, and I’ve had questions about the Barnes moving myself. But wasn’t Dance taken down and sent on tour with the collection a while back?

  2. Evelyn Yaari says:

    Interesting, but wait. If you are going to look at the historical perspective, your question points toward another: What is — or was — the Barnes Foundation? Here we have another question that the Barnes administration has not publicly faced. Emily Cooperman, Ph.D. answered this in her Assessment of the Barnes Foundation as a National Historic Landmark, a designation that for which the Merion site was eligible. The Barnes Foundation was an integrated site comprising the art collection, the Paul Philippe Cret-designed gallery building, and the 13-acre arboretum surrounding them. Ms. Cooperman’s findings were echoed by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Executive Director Jeanne Cutler, who warned Barnes Board President Bernard Watson that removal of the art collection negatively impacted the site’s eligibility for Landmark status and even its eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Why? Because it is only the unified, whole complex that reflects the historically significant educational “experiment” developed by Albert Barnes and John Dewey. The Cooperman Assessment is available on the Friends of the Barnes website: http://www.barnesfriends.org/downlload/historic_preservation_national_historical_assessment.pdf

    Naturally, the Barnes Board and administration have turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to the historic significance of the Merion site, foregoing the nation’s highest available honor for this internationally-esteemed cultural site. They had other plans.

  3. […] Barnes left an independent art historian who has researched the Barnes’s Matisse collection to answer questions about The […]

  4. greg says:

    ask those medusas and gorgons who were and are neighbors of the merion site and controlled the lower merion board. the reasons the collection was moved to begin with was these uber rich neighbors (the sort of people albert barnes despised) and their desire to make the collection unvisitable and unviable. the last minute monetary offer by the township was too little too late. now lower merion is just a rch, terminally boring inner suburb, with nothing worth visiting. as one of my friends told me, it is the choices we make. indeed.

  5. […] of Barnes PR fails, the Barnes still has yet to answer questions about this problem, which led to this minor […]

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