Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 30, 2016
Christa Clarke African Art in the Barnes Foundation: The Triumph of L’Art nègre and the Harlem Renaissance New York and Philadelphia: Skira Rizzoli and Barnes Foundation, 2015. 296 pp.; many color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780847845217)

Christa Clarke’s African Art in the Barnes Foundation: The Triumph of L’Art nègre and the Harlem Renaissance represents the latest scholarship on objects from the Barnes collection. As the title suggests, Clarke is concerned with recounting the history of Albert C. Barnes’s little-discussed yet incredibly significant collecting of artworks from Africa, as well as the relevance of these objects to the larger institution. Barnes amassed a sizeable and important collection of art at the beginning of the twentieth century and established the eponymous Barnes Foundation with the goal of using his collection as a pedagogical tool for students of the foundation’s institute. By the end of the twentieth century, the collection was often overshadowed by the Barnes Foundation’s financial troubles and ensuing legal arbitration, the settlement of which culminated in the 2012 move of the collection to a new location in downtown Philadelphia. With the foundation’s legal disputes resolved, and access to the collection made much easier than in years past, scholars are once again evaluating and analyzing the collection.

Clarke’s book consists of a substantial essay detailing the history of the African collection in the Barnes Foundation and its centrality to the institution and Barnes’s pedagogical mission. The remainder of the book is dedicated to excellent quality images of all 123 African items in the collection, accompanied by texts and analyses provided by fifteen scholars of African art: Arthur Bourgeois, Nichole Bridges, Kevin Dumouchelle, Kate Ezra, Sarah Fee, Till Förster, Christraud Geary, Kathryn Gunsch, Genevieve Hill-Thomas, Alisa LaGamma, Louis Perrois, Constantine Petridis, Mary Nooter Roberts, Monica Blackmun Visonà, and Susan Mullin Vogel. Together, these two components of African Art in the Barnes Foundation form a catalogue of artworks of African origin in the Barnes Foundation. The object analyses inform the reader of the particularities and character of the items in the collection, while Clarke discusses the larger meaning of the works within the foundation. Overall, the catalogue entries emphasize the connections that each object has with other objects in the collection, as well as connections to modernism. For example, in her analysis of a Bamana Female Figure (pl. 3), Ezra relates it to similar artworks in the Barnes collection and to European modernism, as the figure once belonged to the Fauve painter Maurice de Vlaminck (82). Vogel highlights the Guro Face Mask Surmounted by Bowl (Gu) (pl. 24), attributed to the Bouaflé Master, as an illustration of the progression of knowledge about African artworks from when the mask was collected to the present time (132). The authors emphasize such intersections by treating the artworks as distinct masterworks and describing their original contexts, as well as by highlighting the individual works as integral components of the foundation’s larger goals.

Barnes began collecting African art through Paul Guillaume, a Parisian dealer. Clarke mentions Guillaume’s dubious methods of acquiring artworks from the continent, but does not connect it to the larger issue of Western looting of African cultural patrimony. Despite his shady dealings, Guillaume is credited with introducing the Parisian public to African art and defining the style of its display. Although Barnes acquired nearly every object in his African collection through Guillaume, Clarke handily rejects the notion that Guillaume might have had more to do with the shaping of the Barnes collection than Barnes himself, pointing to the strict criteria by which Barnes selected artworks. Clarke stresses the selective process of Barnes’s purchasing, but the objects in the collection are limited for the most part to the French colonial regions of West and Central Africa, regions to which Guillaume had easier access. The reader may wonder what shape the collection would have taken had Barnes chosen to work with another dealer.

African cultural objects were already present in natural history museums in the United States when Barnes assembled his collection, so he was keen only to purchase objects that he deemed of high artistic value and saw as distinct from—and in his mind, superior to—those already in the country. His application of specific aesthetic criteria informed his choices and defined a cohesive, if not continentally comprehensive, collection of 123 artworks from western and central Africa. Barnes’s choice to exhibit his African collection in conjunction with European modern art reflected his belief in the artworks’ coeval value. Clarke argues that in addition to Barnes’s desire that items in the collection be viewed with equivalency, he harbored the goal (as previously mentioned) of this presentation being pedagogically useful.

Clarke’s access to Barnes’s correspondence reveals a man who believed in the power of art to transform society. Barnes frequently described his first aesthetic experience as an encounter with “Negro spirituals” at a gospel meeting as a young child. He claimed this experience inspired him to collect art in adulthood. Clarke writes that much like he viewed African American music, “Barnes regarded African sculpture as a visual reflection of the ideal social organization he believed was found in African communities of the past, before Europeans arrived” (38). Through his collection, Barnes believed that he could exalt African art to a position that would encourage white Americans to appreciate both the artworks and black people.

Clarke argues that Barnes’s social mission was realized in the important role his collection played during the Harlem Renaissance. Barnes met Alain Locke, a philosopher of the New Negro Movement, at Guillaume’s gallery in Paris. After their meeting, Locke invited Barnes to attend the Civic Club Dinner of 1924, the seminal event that can be considered a launch of the Harlem Renaissance. The National Urban League’s journal, Opportunity, devoted issues to African art and promoted images of Barnes’s African artworks, including a 1926 issue focused solely on the Barnes collection. The New Negro: An Interpretation, a hugely influential anthology edited by Locke and published in 1925 (New York: Albert and Charles Boni), included images of Dogon and Guro sculptures next to Countee Cullen’s poem “Heritage,” a reflection on the poet’s connection to an African past. Barnes became acquainted with Charles Johnson, an African American sociologist, who like Barnes believed artistic creativity could bring about racial advancement. It was Johnson who recommended that Barnes provide a scholarship to the young artist Aaron Douglas, whose work at the Barnes Foundation provided his first extended opportunity to study African art. Douglas’s unique style of Afro-modernism is perhaps the most enduring visual language of the Harlem Renaissance.

While Barnes’s African acquisitions are in no way representative of the scope of artistic production on the continent, Clarke shows that his assemblage is the result of carefully measured rumination on artistic intent. His preference for figural sculptures and naturalistic masks reflects certain popular tastes of the period, but Barnes was one of the first Western collectors to distinguish African sculpture as the product of skilled, professional intent rather than the result of “instinct” (39). In addition to insights gained from Barnes’s personal correspondence, Clarke investigates Primitive Negro Sculpture (London: Cape, 1926), an important tome authored by Guillaume and Thomas Munro that, despite its patronizing title, is an important touchstone in the history of evaluating African art. Primitive Negro Sculpture relied almost exclusively on artworks in the Barnes collection presented as the result of purposeful artistic decisions and refined skill. As such, it negated the popular understanding of the era that African objects reflected “primitive” intuition rather than studied proficiency. Though not listed as an author, Barnes was significantly involved in the shaping of Primitive Negro Sculpture, and Clarke argues that the text imparts Barnes’s discerning aesthetic criteria. Like Barnes, the book’s authors anticipated a movement toward classifying artworks by regional styles. Clarke suggests that while some of their attributions are erroneous, and the classifications were broad and overly simple, Barnes and his collaborators were attempting to place African art on an equal footing with Western art. Barnes’s involvement with the construction of Primitive Negro Sculpture therefore reflects the desire to posit African artistic production as sophisticated, valuable, and uncorrupted by Western capitalism (45).

Aside from collecting African objects, Barnes instructed architect Paul Cret to implement African motifs into the plans for the original Barnes Foundation building in Merion, Pennsylvania. The entrance to the facility featured designs replicated from African masks and other sculptures in the collection, thus making a strong visual statement that African art has a place among other great art. It is noteworthy that Barnes chose to emphasize African decorative patterning over European examples in his collection. Once inside the building, Barnes specially arranged his collection into what he called “ensembles,” arranging disparate works of art in relationship to others to provoke formal connections for greater aesthetic appreciation. He displayed African and European artworks alongside each other to emphasize the relationship of modernist painting to African sculpture. In the collection’s current location in downtown Philadelphia, the artworks are displayed in Barnes’s original ensembles. However, the new building does not invoke explicit connections to African art like its predecessor, although a few visible references remain.

The reader will ultimately take away from African Art in the Barnes Foundation a sense of how influential Barnes’s collecting practices of African art were in the twentieth century and its significant role in African American scholarship and arts education. Clarke’s catalogue offers the reader a comprehensive case study that illustrates the reception of African art from the early twentieth century to the present.

Mallory Sharp Baskett
PhD student, Department of Art and Architectural History, University of California, Santa Barbara