The Barnes as a Framing Site for Dance

Dr. Albert C. Barnes began forming his collection in 1912 and established his Foundation in 1922 precisely in the years when collaboration and cross-pollination between modern European art and dance was at its height. In Paris in the teens and twenties, dance companies like Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Rolf de Maré’s Ballets Suédois used avant-garde visual art as a frame and foil for modern dance. Between 1917-1929, Diaghilev commissioned costumes and stage sets from artists that Barnes collected, including Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Henri Matisse, Marie Laurencin, Georges Braque, Maurice Utrillo, Giorgio De Chirico, and Georges Rouault, among others. De Maré similarly worked with leading modern artists in the early 1920s like Fernand Léger and Francis Picabia. Léger’s own work, the experimental film Ballet mécanique (1924), attests to the traffic the other way around, as the concept of dance formed the frame for a cascade of fragmented visual compositions.

Fig. 1 · Henri Matisse, The Dance, 1932-33, oil on canvas, three panels, The Barnes Foundation, 2001.25.50a,b,c.

The Barnes’ role in this moment of collaboration between art and dance, however, was at one remove and through the proxy of Matisse’s mural for the Foundation, The Dance (1932-1933, fig. 1). Dr. Barnes had commissioned Matisse in 1930 to paint the three lunettes crowning the main gallery of the building housing his collection. The artist responded with a composition of eight nudes—three pairs of dancers leaping and tumbling under each lunette and two sitting under the pendentives. The mural served both as an architectural frame for the modern art on display in the main gallery and an artwork that was part of Barnes’ signature wall arrangements called ensembles.

Matisse’s monumental project is now legendary for reinvigorating his career and catalyzing his invention of cut-out papers as a technique and artistic medium. Nevertheless, when the mural was finished and installed, the project was somewhat of a disappointment for Matisse, mainly because of its lack of visibility. Barnes would not open the Foundation to the public to exhibit the work, nor did he ever permit color photography of works in his collection. Thus, this major milestone in Matisse’s career, a work that took several years of intense investment of the artist’s emotion, intellect, and energy was essentially shut up in a suburban town in Pennsylvania, largely unknown to the rest of the world.

Fig. 2 · Scene from Rouge et Noir, Monte-Carlo, 1939.
Matisse was therefore keen to use his work on the Barnes commission in a more public format. The opportunity came when the choreographer Léonide Massine commissioned him to design the sets, curtain, and costumes for the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo’s Rouge et Noir, which premiered in 1939. Matisse adapted the structure of the lunettes and the sloping blocks of color in the Barnes mural for the stage décor (fig. 2). While the color palette of the mural and the stage set was different, it was similarly stripped down and limited in the ballet’s case to five colors: red, black, white, yellow, and blue. Most significantly, in place of the painted dancers of the mural, live dancers inhabited the lunettes, leaping and crouching through four movements of the ballet. The Barnes mural had been reincarnated as a setting for contemporary dance.

With the daylong exhibition of the Philadelphia Museum of Dance (PMD) on October 6, 2018, dancing bodies came to inhabit the Barnes, and not just a proxy for the space. Notably, the dances occupied almost every public area in the building and on the grounds except for the galleries. Boris Charmatz’ febrile and cathartic danse de nuit even took place in the parking lot after hours, transforming a space of abandonment into a space of reckoning. Beyond practical and logistical considerations of capacity and collection care, this choice to situate the pieces outside the spaces of art paradoxically created a confrontation on equal footing between dance and the Barnes collection. Dancers in this case were not corralled to activate static galleries and engage new audiences (or at least not solely for the latter purpose). They were not secondary to the art objects.

The exhibition effectively made the Barnes a framing site, stimulating new reflection on the relationship between dance and the museum. What does it mean when dance becomes a museum object as opposed to a performance? Given the history and collections of the Barnes, the exhibition also provoked for me complicated questions of spectatorship and the decontextualization of non-western art, as well as a profoundly visceral understanding of the moving body’s ability to re-interpret art.

When the Barnes moved to Philadelphia in 2012, the collection was re-installed exactly as it had been in Merion. Barnes’ symmetrical ensembles, combining fine arts, decorative arts, and other objects from different eras and cultures, were precisely replicated, as were the dimensions and proportions of the galleries in Merion. Moreover, the architects of the Philadelphia Barnes chose to house the collection in its own structure, a rectangular block that is spatially distinct from the rest of the building, which contains modern amenities, offices, a temporary exhibition space, etc. The Barnes collection is therefore conceptually sealed off as a historical entity.

In this site, dance adds living presence and movement to an institution characterized by a fixed installation; at the same time, set up as a counterpart to the collection, dance takes on the status of historic object. Indeed, the PMD exhibition took inspiration from the Barnes ensembles, programming simultaneous performances of modernist western dance and traditional non-western dance. Thus, the work of Isadora Duncan and Merce Cunningham could be seen alongside West African dance and around the corner from Bharatanatyam, a form of classical Indian dance.

Fig. 3 · Ensemble view, Room 22, south wall, Philadelphia, 2012. Image © 2018 The Barnes Foundation.

Similarly in the Barnes galleries, the African art in Rooms 20 and 22, much of it sculpture from West Africa, is displayed with the paintings and drawings of Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and other modern western artists (fig. 3); in a nearby room, East Asian art is juxtaposed with the work of Matisse. Connections and contrasts between disparate traditions ideally emerge.

With the historic art objects in the collection, it is relatively clear what the object is, that is, where it ends and where it begins. The material presence of oil paint on canvas or carved wood is tangible. When dance enters the Barnes, it becomes less clear. Is the choreography the object? Is it this instantiation of the performance? Or is the object the actual moving, dancing bodies?

One juxtaposition in the PMD exhibition struck me as particularly apposite in this respect. In the Annenberg Court of the Barnes, a soaring atrium that is the main space of public gathering in the building, It’s Showtime NYC! presented a medley of pieces. This street dance company performs work drawn from busking routines on the subways in New York. Simultaneously, the contemporary choreographer Maria Hassabi’s work, STAGED? (2016)_undressed, occurred outside on the West Terrace, visible from the Annenberg Court. The PMD described this piece as “the formation of a live sculpture.”

Viewing these concurrent performances reminded me of the sense of awe and discomfort that I feel when in Rooms 20 and 22 in the collection galleries. The African art in these rooms, at least the works not made exclusively for the Western market, have been decontextualized and aestheticized in their presentation as art objects in vitrines or hung on the walls. The mounts for the African masks, moreover, are beautifully minimal wooden bases made by the 20th-century Japanese cabinetmaker, Kichizô Inagaki, an expatriate artist in Paris.

Of course in Barnes’ time, the display of African art as fine art and not as ethnographic objects was a progressive act. Barnes viewed his African art collection and its display as a means of advancing education in the African-American community and racial equality in general. 1 Given the course of art and social history in the ensuing decades, however, the installation of these works beneath and alongside the Picassos and Modiglianis has fixed them in an outdated “primitivist” narrative. They are often interpreted as inspiration and source material for artistic breakthroughs in modern European art.

While this installation speaks to an important moment in Western artistic and intellectual history, it also stifles the telling of other histories of the objects, histories of their social, political, and religious functions in the cultures in which they were made. This includes the work made for sale to Europeans; such objects were conceived for monetization and display in the West, nevertheless the practice speaks to colonial exploitation as well as exchange. By contrast, there is little ethical conflict in the display of modern European art made for exhibition in galleries, collectors’ homes, and museums.

The PMD exhibition served to draw out and reflect on these issues of display in the galleries. It’s Showtime NYC! adapts an aspect of urban street culture, itself with roots in West African dance, for public performance. While the work has been created for display and is no longer tied to the transactional context of New York City subway cars, the Barnes exhibition setting brought its own thorny context to bear. The moving bodies of the dancers, who were largely people of color, became objects of artistic appreciation, especially in the modernist frame of the Annenberg Court with its luxuriously hand-chiseled stone cladding and wool panels by contemporary artist Claudy Jongstra.

As a historical parallel or precedent, from 1929-1942 Barnes hosted a yearly concert of African-American spirituals in the Foundation’s galleries performed by the glee club of the Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth in Bordentown, New Jersey. Barnes greatly appreciated spirituals as an art form and likened them to the African sculpture he collected. 2 On the one hand these performances preserved cultural heritage and promoted open-minded cultural appreciation; on the other hand, it is a fine line to walk between the latter and cultural consumption of the other. Spectatorship in a historical museum setting inevitably brings complexities of class and cultural appropriation.

Maria Hassabi’s work, by contrast, was created expressly for these conditions of spectatorship. Four dancers on a raised wooden platform moved very slowly in turn through a series of movements. They were at times intertwined, leaning on each other, and otherwise in formations that emphasized their interdependence as bodies subject to gravity. The work served as a kinesthetic and conceptual inquiry not only into dance, but also visuality. As a moving, breathing sculpture, the piece was meant for aesthetic contemplation. The dancers’ bodies were deliberately conceived as art objects.

The Barnes, as a framing site for these thought-provoking juxtapositions in the PMD exhibition, provided a historicizing and historically charged context with all its concomitant issues of representation and power. Who gets to tell their stories and to whom? What gets archived and preserved? What is gained and what is lost when a work enters a museum?

To offer a concluding gesture, in thinking about the museum as a frame for dance and the politics of spectatorship, my mind immediately turned to a major popular culture moment of this year—The Carters’ (aka Beyoncé and Jay-Z) release of their music video for “Apes**t”. Shot in the Louvre, the video includes a powerful scene of a line of dancers, mostly women of color, stepping and gyrating in front of Jacques-Louis David’s Coronation of Napoleon (1807). This simple act re-framed, or perhaps completely overturned, the framing site of the museum. David’s representation of male European power was not exactly repudiated but rather reclaimed by a historically marginalized demographic. This scene asserted the dancing body’s potential to reinterpret art, to revise history, and to transform public space. The Philadelphia Museum of Dance at the Barnes pushed these questions into new territory.

1 See Christa Clarke, African Art in the Barnes Foundation: The Triumph of L’Art nègre and the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Skira Rizzoli in association with the Barnes Foundation, 2015), 22-23, 54-64.
2 See Clarke, 37-38.

Cindy Kang Bio

Cindy Kang is Associate Curator at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. Her research and publications have focused on the relationship between painting and decorative arts in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century France, including “Faire Tapisserie: Édouard Vuillard’s Decoration for Dr. Vaquez,” in Visualizing the Nineteenth-Century Home: Modern Art and the Decorative Impulse (New York: Routledge, 2016); and “Georges Rochegrosse, La Conquête de l’Afrique: Interweaving Technology and Colonialism,” in Arachné: Un regard critique sur l'histoire de la tapisserie (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2017). Her scholarly interests also extend to the history of collecting, museum display, and museology, and her forthcoming publications include “The Barnes Ensembles, Again,” in Collections, Display, and the Agency of Objects (Dresden: Sandstein Verlag, 2018).

She was the managing curator for the Barnes presentation of the exhibitions, Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist (October 21, 2018–January 14, 2019) and Renoir: Father & Son/Painting & Cinema (May 6–September 3, 2018) as well as contributing author to their accompanying catalogues. She previously held curatorial and research positions at the Bard Graduate Center, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Frick Collection, and was a scholar-in-residence at the Getty Research Institute. She received her Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

Cindy Kang
Associate Curator, Barnes Foundation