Will Barnet’s New Book Highlights Artist’s Beverly Paintings Exhibited at Montserrat

November 13, 2014

Will Barnet’s career took him from Beverly to the heights of the art world.

By Will Broaddus, Staff writer November 5, 2014

The painter and printmaker taught for many years at the Arts Students League in New York and was awarded a National Arts Medal in 2012, not long before he died at the age of 101.

But Barnet traveled home over the years to see his family, and some of his most powerful work drew from his roots on the North Shore. A visit he made to his sister in 1990 resulted in a group of paintings that are analyzed in a new book, “My Father’s House, On Will Barnet’s Painting” by Thomas Dumm.

“He was actually checking in on Eva, as he was wont to do,” said Dumm, a professor of political ethics at Amherst College.

Eva was 11 years older than Barnet, the youngest of his three siblings, in a family that had left Russia in 1906.

She lived alone in the family home at 7 Pierce Ave. following the deaths of her parents and her sister Jeanette, who, like Eva, never married.

“He felt obligated to check on her. She was ill, suffering from a fever, but she was also declining,” said Dumm, adding that she was talking to deceased members of the family in his presence.

That led Barnet to create nine paintings between 1990 and 1995 that focused on Eva’s haunted existence in the house in Beverly.

“The paintings are dramatic; some might even say tragic,” Dumm writes in his introduction. “In a strange way the series is a family album.”

Most of the paintings depict Eva inside the house, staring toward an unspecified source of light, while the rest of the room is filled with shadows. She is typically touching her face with one or both of her hands, an anxious gesture that Dumm discusses, while one or more deceased family members occupies the darkness.

“I never asked Will specifically the order in which he painted the paintings,” Dumm said, but he does know that the first was “The Dream.”

Dumm first met Barnet when the artist donated “The Dream” to Mead Museum at Amherst College, as part of a bequest in which each of the nine paintings were given to different colleges in New England.

“The idea was and is that these colleges and universities, as a condition for taking the paintings, would publicize the fact that they are a group,” Dumm said. “In the case of Amherst College, a Web page is devoted to the whole series of paintings in the Mead archives.”

Four of the paintings appeared at Beverly’s Montserrat College of Art in October and November of 2004 in an exhibit curated by Katherine French, the gallery director at the time. She had approached the artist about doing a show, and Barnet suggested using the paintings that focus on Eva and the house on Pierce Avenue.

“This body of work had been shown once at a gallery in New York,” French said. “He felt it was given short shrift. It wasn’t abstract and not his prints — not what he was known for.”

Like Dumm’s book, the Montserrat exhibit borrowed its title from another one of the nine paintings, “My Father’s House,” which depicts the front of the house and the ghostly figure of Eva, who is standing behind a screen door.

“I chose to tell the story of his familial connection to this particular house,” said French, who is now director at Danforth Art in Framingham. “I showed a selection of paintings and drawings with that story.”

Where the exhibit focused on Barnet’s creative process and his earlier connections to Beverly, Dumm’s book searches for the universal significance in his paintings.

“My sense is that in exploring both the family and how it has been figured and configured by the artist, we may learn more about our own condition now,” Dumm writes, “something of the state of our relationships to each other and ourselves and the predicaments we find ourselves facing in a time of turbulence and trouble.” 

After interviewing Barnet in front of an audience at Amherst in 2009, Dumm struck up a friendship with the painter, and they discussed several plans for a book about his art.

“We probably met 10 or 11 times in person, and he would always have me lunch with him,” Dumm said. “But we spoke on the phone every couple of weeks. I spoke to him the day before he died.”

He eventually focused on this series of paintings because they echoed so many themes in his own work, which includes a study of loneliness.

“The more you think about it, the more you dive into it, the more things you see,” Dumm said. “I’m astonished by the whole series.”

Courtesy of The Salem News

Published by College Relations Intern Josh Ramsey