An Act of Memory

by Katherine French


Family provided a ready model for this exploration. In addition to his wife and children, the artist made lively studies of his two sisters. We can see that Jeanette was more outgoing, completely relaxed when surrounded by cats, or bending over to let a bird hop onto her back. Eva, however, inherited a nervous personality from their mother. She allows their pet parrot to perch on her hand; holding her body rigid, anxiously covering her mouth. Gradually, as the drawings become more refined we see that their real subject is about decision making. Space is broken into rectangles as Barnet moves away from direct observation toward a conscious arrangement of refined yet powerful shapes. Drawings and paintings from this time are only a small part of a prodigious output which contains some of the artist's best-known work, yet they call attention to all aspects of Barnet's career. Within the same pictorial surface, we are able to discern his love of American portrait painting, an interest in aboriginal design, and a clear understanding of Modernism.

Jeanette and Eva never married, but maintained the family home, enabling Barnet to find occasional respite from the demands of his career in New York. Here, the artist was able to sit in familiar rooms, contemplating the austere geometry of New England. He took his own children, as well as nieces and nephews, to the beach where he had played. He reestablished a relationship with the Beverly library where he'd first been encouraged to enjoy art. Even while developing an international reputation, Barnet was able to revisit the past.

When Jeanette died, Barnet's visits to Beverly became necessarily more frequent. Jeanette had been the more social of his two sisters, going into Boston and even attending a reception when Barnet exhibited work. Eva, however, refused to leave the house after she stopped work. "The house was her refuge," Barnet remarks. "The only contact she had with the world was looking out through the windows, or through the screened door." [6] Rereading the works of Emily Dickinson, the artist was struck by the similarity between his remaining sister and one of New England's best-known poets. "Eva might have been Emily Dickinson," remarks Barnet. "She was an intelligent woman, a very intelligent woman. But afraid of life." [7]

His drawings now show Eva contained by isolation, fearful of advancing age. The World in a Frame, Barnet's title for his illustrated edition of Dickinson's poems, might also describe Eva's world. Once again, Barnet's conception of New England was supported by experience. For him, the myth of Yankee solitude was real.

Eva felt the presence of her family. While Barnet insists that his sister did not hear voices, he allows that she had "visions," [8] gradually populating the rooms in her old house through the sheer force of imagination. In The Family, Eva contemplates her deceased family gathering around the kitchen table. Her father sits with a parrot on his shoulder as her mother and sister turn to face him. In The Three Windows, Eva stands alone, one hand on the bed she had shared with Jeanette, an empty reminder that she was "missing half of herself."[9] To her left, the ghostly pentimento of Jeanette emerges to remind the viewer that the past is always present.

Barnet's technique changed with the series of works describing the Beverly house. The paintings retain the same geometric tension found in both abstract and figurative work, as well as a strict sense of composition; but the artist begins to play with light and dark, introducing shadows to create a somber mood. In The Kitchen, Eva is framed by a door; she faces the light, while her family is caught within a gloomy interior. In The Mantle, a thin strip of window is framed by a door, illuminating the place where Eva stands. A clock placed on either side of the composition marks the passage of time. In The Three Windows, Eva cannot look out onto the world. Instead, the glass before her is dark and foreboding. She turns from the windows toward a faint, but promising, light.

Barnet found no promise in traditional religion. As a young boy, he was surrounded by "friends who all believed in heaven and hell. I didn't believe in any of that." [10] Shocked to hear of the death of a friend's mother in the influenza epidemic, he had been struck by the fragility of life. As he walked through the cemetery on his way to the beach, he began reading tombstones "in order to get to know who lay beneath the ground." [11] The history of colonial Beverly was illustrated by the stone carvings of skeletal heads and Barnet was moved by his first encounter with art. "These were mementos of what had taken place," he remarks. "At the age of ten or twelve, I discovered that being an artist would give me an ability to create something which would live on after death." [12]

This ability sustained a mature Barnet. Conscious of both his family and artistic heritage, he began to place himself in the work. Several drawings show Barnet as a young artist, looking down at his father asleep. We gradually become aware that these complex images are more symbolic than observational. For Barnet, the Beverly paintings are "an old man's pictures." [13] He sees them as "unusual from an historical, artistic point of view. Very few artists have gone through such a depth of feeling about a family, the history of a family, what happened to them and so forth." [14] Barnet painted his family in order to grieve their passing. These late pictures are a kind of thanatopsis, done in order "to extend the memory of my family as a work of art." [15] In My Father's House, his sister stands behind the screened door, terrified to step out beyond her nostalgic visions. "Memory plays an important part in the idea of immortality," Barnet remarked when considering this work. "In the end, all we have left is memory." [16]


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