Defining Taste: Albert Barnes, Paul Guillaume and African Art

May 19, 2001 @ 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm
California Academy of Science
San Francisco

A Slide Presentation by Dr. Christa Clark

Reviewed by Tom Perardi  (with thanks to Zena Kruzick)

In the early 1920s, Dr. Albert Barnes, a successful pharmaceutical manufacturer and established collector of modern art, formed the first American collection of African art objects, a landmark event.
Although African art had been collected by European artists — including Picasso — early in the century as material filtered back home from French colonies, and some artists had been undeniably influenced by the power of the sculpture and masks, the objects were still seen by most people as curiosities.
That changed thanks to Parisian art dealer Paul Guillaume, who saw the intrinsic aesthetic value of the objects and treated them accordingly. Up to that time, African or tribal collections were displayed by museums in crowded cases with objects packed into geometric arrays to show themes and variations. Guillaume offered his objects for sale in spare, dramatic displays and quickly became not only an important dealer in “Art Negre” but a member of the Parisian avant-garde as well.
Americans discovered Europe — and African Art — during World War I. Around the same time, Barnes discovered Paul Guillaume and his inventory. Between 1922-1924, Barnes collected close to a hundred objects. (He allowed his wife to join him in this enterprise, but only on a small scale, collecting gold weights.) Not content to merely collect, Dr. Barnes developed his own scientific/objective method for evaluating the merit of African art pieces:

-Good art should have a balance of representation and design, including the use of repeated shapes, patterns and directions.
-Art interprets nature in plastic form. The artist uses color, line, light and space to interpret the experience of seeing nature.
-All great art expresses basic human values in plastic form.
-African art liberated Western artists from the constraints of representation.
-Good African art is in every aspect as important as good Western art.
-There are a few “superior regional traditions” in African art: Sudan (Bamana, Dogon, Senufo), Gabon (Fang), Ivory Coast (Dan, Baule), and Congo (Bembe, Luba).
-Benin art was too much influenced by Western taste and so was dismissed.
-Utilitarian objects, such as stools, locks, heddle pulleys, could not be great art.
-African sculpture liberated modern artists from the constraints of classical representation. 

Nor was Barnes content to merely develop his collecting criteria and aesthetic philosophy. He took it several steps further. In order to share his wisdom he established The Barnes Foundation in Marion, Pennsylvania, which he intended to function as an educational institution rather than a museum.
Despite his personal quirks, Barnes was a key influence on the shift in perception — both at home and abroad — of African objects from anthropological curiosities to fine art. In her lecture, Dr. Clarke used archival photographs to demonstrate how Barnes spread his point of view.  Through publications and photographs he promoted the appreciation of African art and culture. From 1923-1927, “Les Arts a Paris” was a veritable mouthpiece for the Barnes Foundation. With Alain Locke, Barnes was also a seminal force in the movement that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. Barnes found in Negro spirituals the elements of repetition and contrast that he also valued in African sculpture.
Dr. Christa Clarke is currently the Curator of African Art at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, Statue University of New York. Her lecture on the Barnes Foundation was based on work she completed for her doctoral dissertation when she had direct access to the Barnes collection and archives. Among her important discoveries was correspondence she found that showed Barnes’s influence on Paul Guillaume. Rather than merely accepting material selected by the Parisian art dealer, Barnes relied upon his own criteria and developing taste to acquire objects and indeed influenced Guillaume to seek finer pieces from African sources.
The Barnes collection is open to the public under very constrained conditions. Because it is in a residential neighborhood, hours and number of visitors allowed are very limited. Dr. Barnes’s iron influence is felt even today, as his will specified that neither the building nor the formalist arrangement of the displays may be altered. His influence can be seen even in the design of the exterior and entryway decoration which juxtapose African designs in tile relief with Doric Columns. He specified the pattern of objects in each case, alternating masks and figures, and mixed cultures randomly, with no labeling of objects. Twentieth century paintings adorn the walls, similarly unidentified, although many are works by world-famous artists.
Despite these idiosyncratic limitations, the Barnes collection contains objects of great merit, some of which, according to Dr. Clarke, are masterworks, and its art historical importance is undeniable.