Doing the Tarantella
At the Barnes
FoundationPart Iiolette DeMazia was a study. She had a hawk-like face, sharp nose, thin-lipped mouth. Her eyes were hidden behind green tinted glasses. She dressed like a flamenco dancer, but only on the day that she did the Beethoven-CÚzanne number did she dance like a flamenca.
DeMazia was curator, chief instructor and watchdog at the Barnes Foundation, just outside Philadelphia. Albert Coombs Barnes had grown rich on Argyrol --- a noxious black substance that was, at the time, squirted in the eyes of all new-born babies to prevent pink-eye. In the early part of the century, he grew rich enough to collect fine art.
His taste was impeccable. At a time when people were mocking the Impressionists, he bought them up with a vengeance. In the 1950s, when I first came to the Barnes Foundation, there were, on hand, hundreds of originals, some 180 Renoirs, 70 CÚzannes, 60 Matisses' --- and countless Van Goghs, Modiglianis, Soutines, Serauts, Manets, Monets, Picassos and Rosseaus. Plus a smattering of the older masters, the likes of Titian, Tintoretto, David, El Greco.
It was said that once, in 1924, after he had put together the major part of his collection, Barnes invited the Philadelphia press to the opening of his gallery just outside the city, in Marion. It is said that the press came, didn't stay long, went away, and wrote badly about his taste and his collection. Barnes, definitely a cranky eccentric, immediately closed the doors of the great white marble two-story complex, only allowing friends to view his astounding collection --- and the occasional drunk he picked up on the streets.
A short time later, however, he and his companion, Violette DeMazia, opened the door to specially picked students. They used the collection as bait to bring people to where they could teach people to see art the way they did. That is --- to ignore art history, ignore the artist's life, ignore criticism but, rather, to look at the paintings as if they were in a vacuum. Concentrate on the form, the color, the patterns, the style. To hell with Van Gogh's ear, Rosseau's boring weekday job, Gaugin's adventures in the South Seas, Seurat's suicide. The painting itself was the question, and the painting was the answer. It was not unlike "The New Criticism" they were teaching us in college: ignore the artist, concentrate on the art.
I was studying at Haverford, and one of our "electives" was the course at the Barnes Foundation. The rules were simple. Classes each Tuesday from 2 PM to 5:30 or so. No visitors --- just us students. No cameras. The gallery opened at 1 PM so we could come in early to go through the collection on display --- 150 - 200 paintings, drawings, African sculptures and Pennsylvania Dutch art. Occasionally we were required to attend an extra session on Fridays.
Classes ran from October to May, with time out for Christmas and Easter. If you missed more than two sessions without a medical excuse, you were out. No exceptions. Once we graduated (no ceremony), we were allowed --- during the course of our lives --- to visit twice more.
The folding chairs were hard. There was but one break. Thus, from 2 to 3:45, and 4 to 5:30 --- for almost three hours --- we were in the thrall of Violette DeMazia, in her dark flamenco-style dress and tinted glasses and hair pulled back into a severe knot.
I wish I could report to you that she was a scintillating teacher, surrounded as she was by this stunning collection. Alas --- it just wasn't so. Now, years later, I can barely remember what she said. I know that, for each session, she would concentrate on two or three paintings, speaking of them, as I have said, in an ahistorical fashion. There were occasional diversions into the life and works of the late Dr. Barnes.
I also know that most of the forty of us students were bored to death. Heads would droop, people would fall asleep, inadvertently catch themselves as they began to tumble from their seats. Nothing stopped Violette's heavily accented, monochromatic ramblings.
I also remember why I kept coming back. Imagine a classroom in which to the left of you is a Renoir nude, and next to that, a Braque study, and Picasso's Acrobat and Young Harlequins. Right above where Violette was declaiming was the huge and lush La Grande Jatte by Seurat --- with a Gauguin flanking it to the right, a Modigliani to the left.
On the opposite wall was a late Van Gogh --- the countryside at Arles --- with a Manet to one side, a Courbet to the other. There was a smaller Titian in the corner, and next to that, one of Soutine's hung-up dog carcasses. By the door was a Degas ballet dancer, and just outside the door, in the hallway, a Lipchitz sculpture. In the arches of the main studio, over the high windows, Matisse had come, in person, by invitation of Dr. Barnes, and left behind a wall of merry dancing figures.
All the paintings were closely hung, sometimes vertically stacked three or four high. All were original, original, and were there for us to observe intimately, for as long as we wished. In those days, there were no barriers, no glass panes, no guards --- nothing between you and some of the most delicious plastic art in the world.
In between the paintings, on walls covered with what looked to be burlap, there were hung traditional rustic Pennsylvania Dutch hardware --- locks and bolts and hinges and clasps and decorative figures. In the other rooms one would find more of the usual (the usual!) Degas, Matisse, Gauguin, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Van Gogh, Cassatt, and, scattered here and there, Pennsylvania Dutch furniture, desks and chairs and cabinets. There was no artificial light, even on the darkest days.
When we left at the end of the day, we were pooped. I can assure you, it wasn't the hard seats, or the heavily accented drone of Violette. It was the plethora of pure artistry. The swirl of one of Renoir's gorgeous lush ladies; the harsh dark angles of one of CÚzanne's landscapes; the gentleness of a Matisse form; the thousands of tiny points in Seurat; the soft waters of Monet; the grotesquery of a bloody Soutine.
§ § §
The tale I am telling you now is one of epiphany. That's the word we used in the 50's. It came straight out of Joyce, and it had to do with a sudden violent explosion of insight, the magic aha! moment. If we are lucky, the theory goes, we might have three or four epiphanies in our lifetime. The Barnes Foundation was kind enough to give me one of the best.
It didn't come from Violette DeMazia --- at least not directly. Most of her words were over my head, except during those few times she turned out to be a bit inspirational --- those times when, for instance, she did the Beethoven-CÚzanne Tarantella.
That day, they seated us facing the Card Players. There was an old --- I mean antique --- record player on a table to one side. For an hour or so, DeMazia told us that there was a connection between the arts. I can't remember for the life of me what she said, but I can remember the moment when she started to dance. That was when she became the flamenco dancer I had always imagined her to be. She cranked up the Victrola, and put on an old 78 rpm disc, Beethoven's 5th. The record was old, the sound was scratchy.
She turned and start dancing in front of the CÚzanne. She banged her fist at the painting --- close, very close to the canvas. Dah-dah-dah-DUMM. Bring down the fist, three times near the heads of the card players, the fourth time on a shadow-head in the background. Dah-dah-dah-DUMM. Hit at three hanging smoking pipes, then another shadow. Dah-dah-dah-DUMM. The legs of the table, and the legs of the players. Dah-dah-dah-DUMM. The cards on the table, then the glass off to the side. Repeated patterns of one-two-three-FOUR.
Even as I sit here I can see the back of a suddenly swiftly moving Violette, back and forth in her swirling dress in front of that magnificent painting, with that magnificient --- albeit scratchy --- music. She'd be doing the dance of life, the supreme dance of art, a dance with the ghost of Barnes --- dancing the vision of all of us --- swirling skirt, hair beginning to unravel, twirling in the caught passion now finally coming unhinged in the great work of artistic vision --- passion carefully caught on canvas, between the frames, hung dying on the walls.
I wish I could tell you that my Moment of Truth came on that day, Violette in her tarantella --- but, no, that wasn't it. It came, rather, a couple of months later, on a fecund, warm day in April, towards the end of my last year --- just before I was to leave college and the Main Line and art and Meaningful Study and the frozen card players and Beethoven's Fifth --- to go off in a far different direction from what we then referred to as The Fine Arts.
There was something about Violette DeMazia that I liked, and it had nothing to do with the caves of Andalusia, or her tinted glasses. Too, there must have been something about me that she liked. For I came to her once before the end of the class and asked her for the unthinkable --- and she said yes.
My sister was living in the art maelstrom of New York City at the time. She was friends with Ad Reinhart and several others in his circle. She was as intrigued by the Barnes as I was. Would it be possible for her to come down some day and view the collection? Violette thought about it for a moment --- no more --- and said, "The two of you can come in at eleven-thirty a week from today. But she has to leave at one-thirty. You'll stay on for the class." That was it.