I was recently in Philadelphia on a museum trip and I’m still musing as a writer about the experience.
One of my destinations was the Barnes Foundation on Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the Rodin Museum, which I’ve blogged about on The Huffington Post. The Barnes is a work of art itself. The approach and giant entry hall were so stately and cool in 90-degree heat that I felt like I’d taken a Valium, or a sea cruise, or a twenty-minute balloon ride high above the city. Choose your metaphor.
The collection is unique for its stunning array of Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses, and Manets–and how they’re displayed. This is not like any museum you’ve ever been to. Because each room replicates the original collection miles away to the millimeter, with paintings and furniture and objects arranged as ensembles. Of course, the setting is modern all the same, so it’s not like The Frick in New York with its Gilded Age opulence intact in room after luscious room.
At the Barnes, the original mission was to teach underprivileged art students, not stupefy or dazzle visitors, and Barnes was constantly fussing with his collection as he acquired new pieces.
Subjects and objects complement and even interrogate each other in geometric arrangements (as you can see above), or even have amusing dialogues. In one room, there’s a Rubens of an ecstatic King David playing the harp. His eyes are rolling up in his head and he seems to be staring right at the fleshy buttocks of a Renoir nude hanging right above him.
The guided tour I took was informative, but as usual, I found myself drifting from the more famous paintings to unexpected canvases that captured me, like a gripping Modigliani that had a kind of proto-Jazz Age insouciance. She seemed both tender and wild. I wanted to know her story (or possibly write it?).
The Barnes itself and moments like these in museums remind me so much of the writing life.
First, different books I read speak to each other, interact in surprising ways, spark projects I never expected to write. Or stories, essays, even books I write end up going together in ways I could never have imagined: they start an unexpected internal dialogue, even ignite a controversy. Which leads to more writing, more “arrangements” in my mind, in the body of my work. Every story or book I’ve written has added to the whole in ways I couldn’t have imagined. And like Barnes, I’m constantly re-arranging.
Then I have certain projects in mind, might even have launched them with some kind of fanfare, and yet– Something draws me off to another subject, to another vision, to another dream, another journey. My day at the Barnes was like that at every single turn. No matter what I was directed to look at by my smart and friendly guide, I kept drifting to a different painting or room or reflection or vision. I was on my own private tour. But then what can you expect? As Robert Heinlein said, “There is no way a writer can be tamed and rendered civilized or even cured.”
I guess you could say that to write is to wander…..
Lev Raphael is the art-loving, travel-loving author of Book Lust: Essays For Book Lovers and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.