Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Will Barnet's The Golden Frame

Will Barnet. American, 1911–. Study for The Golden Frame,1990-1995. Carbon on synthetic vellum. Gift of Will Barnet and Elena Barnet. SC 2008:53-10. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe. 

It’s easy to see why drawing is so important to Will Barnet’s paintings.  His layered textures are balanced by spare yet expressive lines that delineate the firm, almost geometric forms that make up his figures. Born in 1911 and still painting at 100, Barnet received a classical art training at the Boston Museum School, then under the direction of the painter Philip Hale.

It took Barnet two years to paint The Golden Frame,which was preceded by twelve compositional studies. This group portrait of the artist and his siblings is part of a series of paintings called My Father’s House. This body of work was conceived in 1990 when Barnet, the youngest of his siblings by 11 years, returned to his family home in Beverly to visit his sister Eva who was living in the family home alone following the death of their sister Jeanette. During his visit he observed Eva, in the throes of a fever, wandering through the house imagining the presence of their departed family members.  An evocation of how memory and history surround us, Barnet’s paintings are both highly personal, yet also very inclusive. We may not know all the characters of his story, but we are given enough information to parse it all out, as well as become emotionally involved in the scene.

The surround of The Golden Frameis based on a mirror which hung in the hallway of Barnet’s family home; in it we see the reflections of the artist, his elder brother Benjamin, and his two sisters. It is clear that he struggled with the composition for some time—in each drawing the figures are arranged differently, their positioning, posture, and gazes changing, sometimes quite markedly. A group portrait is not just a collection of likenesses, but of relationships between figures, and the success of the picture hinges on the accurate representation of such qualities.

Will Barnet. American, 1911–. Studies for The Golden Frame,1990-1995. Carbon on synthetic vellum. Gift of Will Barnet and Elena Barnet. SC 2008:53-18. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe.

In the final painting, Barnet’s solution seems effortless and fitting; the artist, the tallest member of the group is in back with his sketchpad, surrounded by his brother and sisters (both living and dead).  Looking straight ahead at the viewer, the artist’s gaze is calm, probing, and frank; recording both present circumstances and memories from the past.

Will Barnet. American, 1911–. The Golden Frame,1990-1995. Oil on canvas. Gift of Will Barnet and Elena Barnet. SC 2008:53-1. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe.

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