The family is an organizing idea, a way of making order out of chaos. The entire composition is vital to me. It’s like someone who wants to build a house that is solid and will last....it's about making a work of art out of human relationships.
Variations on a Theme
Will Barnet's Meditations on Family and Loss
Will Barnet's artistic career spanned nearly the entirety of the 20th century and inhabited an array of styles, but Barnet became most celebrated for his Symbolist family scenes, rendered in a flat, sparing manner with a color palette inspired by the New England landscape. The present lot is an exemplar of Barnet's mature style and decisively marks the middle, or perhaps, center, of his expansive and influential body of work.
Old Man's Afternoon is a title of another painting by Barnet from 1947 and it shows, in a Cubism-meets-Fauvism rhapsody, Barnet's father, with his pet parrot perched on his shoulder and his young son Dickie playing under the kitchen table with the family cat. Though the style of the 1947 painting seems far afield from the present lot, both prescribe to Barnet's coda that "the language of painting is a flat surface" and they build their structure by way of the interpersonal relationships between the subjects. The 1947 painting is also interesting in that it is Barnet, as a young man and a parent, reflecting on his own father, who he saw as not "just a specific person, but an idea—a general feeling of an old man sitting at a kitchen table with light streaming in and surrounded by pets and family.”
The present lot, painted thirty years later, revisits this idea, but through a far more melancholy and pensive lens. Beginning in the 1960s, themes of memory, loss and loneliness emerged in Barnet's works about his family of origin (in contrast, during this same time, depictions of his wife Elena and his children were done more in a spirit of repose and warmth). Shadowy outlines of anxious "waiting women" peering out into the sea or through windows became common. Of these works, Barnet says: "you breathe that kind of lonely air. If that comes into a painting, it comes from experiencing it a great deal when your are very young and it penetrates your body and stays with you—the sense that you are alone in the world."
Barnet was in his mid-60s when he made Old Man's Afternoon, which depicts two women, side-by-side, columnar and stoic, their backs to the viewer and looking out into the placid water and empty horizon. These figures likely relate to Barnet's sisters, Eva and Jeannette, who were agoraphobics and lived in their childhood home their entire lives, sharing the same bed and creating an insular world of their own.
You breathe that kind of lonely air...it penetrates your body and stays with you. –Will Barnet
Barnet said that his sisters "felt that great loneliness of not being part of something." On the other end of the dock is a seated old man and a seated young man, both faceless, both separated from the other figures in the scene, but also inexplicably tied to them. Barnet's ability to create a scene that is "flatly painted but alive in another way" is on remarkable display in this meditative work, which Barnet created over a four-year period and then dedicated to his wife, Elena. Barnet would go on to revisit these themes again in the early 1990s, after his sisters passed away, in a series of works done at his childhood home in Beverly, Massachusetts.
At the age of 10 or 12, I discovered that being an artist would give me an ability to create something which would live on after death.