Completely uncoupled from reality, Mathew Barnes' singular expressions of haunted and distorted landscapes addressed the issue of self-expression that blanketed the art world in the decades following his establishment in San Francisco as a preeminent leader of the modernist movement.
Table Of Contents
Born in 1880, in the countryside of Scotland near Kilmarnock, Matthew Rackham Barnes’ childhood doubtless shaped his artistic future in the states. His imagination immersed in the mysterious world of Scottish folklore, Barnes’ childhood instilled a taste for terror and the morose that would later bleed into his art. Before eventually moving to New York with his family at the age of twenty, he apprenticed with a decorative plasterer. This career-move would pay dividends since, in 1906, almost as soon as he had reached New York, Barnes moved to earthquake-devastated San Francisco. With San Francisco in shambles, a considerable demand for architectural reconstruction left an ornamental plasterer such as Barnes with plenty of work.
Inspired by painters he encountered in the bustling San Francisco art scene, Barnes took the initiative to acquire painting materials and began his painting career. Receiving no formal training or education, he approached painting as a means of expression, as a personal retreat from everyday life. Consequently, Barnes paid little mind to the current schools of artistic thought and found himself under-appreciated for most of his career by critics and patrons.
His first exhibition came in 1916 with the San Francisco Art Association at the California Palace of Fine Arts, with whom he would continue to exclusively exhibit with for the next decade with little attention from the press, critics, and fellow artists. Though in 1927, Barnes received honorable mention for The Flood, his first formal acknowledgement. Additionally, after the success of this show, he was invited by his peers to join the Modern Gallery, an organization that promoted the work of younger artists to influential critics and patrons. The following year, sponsored by the Modern Gallery, Barnes held his first one-man show at the East West Gallery. In the same year, at the 50th Annual San Francisco Art Association Exhibition, Barnes split second prize with Ralph Chesse for March Moon. Despite this onslaught of critical success and admiration from other artists, Barnes’ painting career was, financially, little more than a hobby. That is, he still had not sold a single painting.
However, this fact was probably of little importance to Barnes, who pursued means of artistic expression
outside of painting. In 1929, he initiated a minor theater career by designing the stage set for Singe’s Playboy of the Western World presented by a stock company in New York. He would go on to write plays of his own, some of them stage-bound, which he starred in. The degree to which artistic mediums allowed for creative cultivation played a bigger part in Barnes’ motives than the pursuit of elevated status.
Barnes even found ways of utilizing his more practical plaster-decoration skills for the sake of large-scale artistic projects. When Diego Rivera visited California for the completion of mural decorations (which incited much controversy), he took on Barnes as his assistant, mainly employing Barnes’ plastering skills for the preparation and application of plaster, but also for other assorted duties. Rivera, in the California School of Fine Arts mural, portrays himself with Barnes amidst other San Francisco artists.
With his rejection of conventional artistic formulae as well as his mere association with Leftist artists viewed as politically subversive, Barnes encountered his share of resistance from certain exhibition spaces. As such, he found his interests aligned with many young San Francisco Modernists. In 1933, he and many other artists that comprised the Society of Progressive Artists were rejected exhibition space at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor due to their greatly questioned merits. The Society, led by Joseph A. Danysh, resolved to show at the City of Paris Galleries. Success from this exhibition led to his second one-man show at the City of Paris Galleries, which stirred a great deal of critical controversy. So great was such controversy, in fact, that Danysh [Barnes’ sponsor and longtime admirer] offered a cash prize for the best essay on the phases of Matthew Barnes’ paintings.
Despite the belated interest in his work, he had still (after nearly 20 years) not sold a painting. Finally, after traveling to New York for the First National Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Barnes finally sold four paintings. Whether due to stingy patronage of the arts in San Francisco or his lack of stylistic congruence, Barnes never fell into favor with collectors during his life, which met a tragic end in 1951; shortly after the death of his wife, he suffered from a heart attack and fell down a hospital stairwell, taking his life.
20" x 24"
oil on canvas
The lone figure walks through an enigmatic, nocturnal scene. The house is the point of light while the natural environment seems to promise trouble. These elements are often revisited in the artist's work.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
Matthew Barnes openly admitted in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that he was not a portrait painter. This mindset, this total lack of consideration for finances, reputation or fashion, is central to Barnes’ enigmatic body of work. Painting as a hobby, or (one might say) as a means of therapeutic self-expression, Barnes rummages through the recesses of his mind, summoning the disturbing visions that dwell there. He traces these visions back to his Scottish Heritage, citing traditional folklore and the wildly gloomy countryside of his childhood as his initial creative inspiration. In his words, ours is a country where goblins, fairies and ghosts walk in the night. These creatures of ancestral folk imagination recreate themselves at the end of my brush.
However, understanding Barnes’ work only as a direct transcription of these stories or the Scottish countryside would be a vast oversimplification. For the canvas was an opportunity for him to escape from the turmoil of work and the real world; only through this creative process could he retreat into his subconscious, combining his aforementioned heritage as a vehicle to articulate his disdain. Barnes’ struggle to capture this fleeting ideal on canvas yielded a body of work comprised almost entirely of nightmarish visions of blasted, desolate landscapes.
Because of this ideal, Barnes’ oeuvre undergoes very little development. Nearly every painting presents a nebulous world draped in a harmony of dark, cold tones accented by glows of peculiar light. Vaguely anthropomorphic figures often find themselves stranded in this disturbing world accompanied only by a twisted tree or unwelcoming house. Regardless of what is shown, Barnes withholds any more detail than is necessary to maintain these elements’ dreary anonymity. And yet, the figures are unified in this anonymity. In 1947’s Incident, a sinking house blends into land occupied by an obscured human form constructed in the same distorted fashion as an adjacent leafless tree; each of these elements connects to form a single amalgamous whole that endures the night’s stark isolation.
This abandonment of detail in favor of the conveyance of mood was often noticed by reviewers/admirers of Barnes. In the words of Joseph Danysh, one of Barnes‘ dealers, The scene, the external form, is merely a symbol of an emotion, so why need it be literal? His deserted streets and chaotic hilltops are really these deep, still paths of the soul that one must tread alone, and in which one meets constant conflict of darkness and light, […] Many reviews similarly mentioned this raw something evident in Barnes, often doing using terms that evoke other mediums of artistic expression, such as music. That Barnes uses paint to express himself is irrelevant; it merely functions as a means to the end of the expression.
20" x 24"
oil on canvas
Exhibited: Washington State Fair, 1946 & San Francisco Museum of Art, 1946
Available for acquisition
The artist paints another surreal nocturne. Here, the dreamer is represented by a sailing ship. The moon peaks out from behind a cloud in a nod to pictorial realism. Like Milton Avery, the proportions and perspective of objects are distorted to charge the painting emotionally.
(Titles of works mentioned within parentheses)
1916 San Francisco Art Association - (Union Iron Works)
1918 Second Jury-Free Exhibition, California Exhibition of Fine Arts (Telegraph Hill)
1918 42nd Annual Exhibition at California Palace of Fine Arts (Oakland Creek)
1919 43rd Annual Exhibition at California Palace of Fine Arts (Boat House, Butchertown)
1921 45th Annual Exhibition at California Palace of Fine Arts (Represented)
1921 Third Jury Free Exhibition, California Palace of Fine Arts (Truck Ranch, South City)
1922 46th Annual Exhibition at California Palace of Fine Arts (Fog Belt, Yellow Road)
1924 47th Annual Exhibition at California Palace of Fine Arts (Fog Farm, Recollections, A Stiff Grade)
1927 49th Annual Exhibition at California Palace of Fine Arts (Flood, Summer’s Night)
1928 50th Annual Exhibition at California Palace of Fine Arts (March Moon)
1928 Landscape Compositions, East West Gallery of Fine Arts
1928 Modern Gallery Group at the East West Gallery (Summer Landscape, Winter Landscape, Ghost of Darkness, Moon and the Movies)
1928 One-Man Show, Modern Gallery (Deserted Cabin, The Flood, San Bruno Hillside, Outskirts, Telegraph Hill, Truck Ranch)
1929 Barnes-Hagedorn Joint Exhibition, East West Gallery (Night Radiance, Crime and Concrete, Gossiping Ghosts, Flats, Russ in the Fog, Summer Storm, Trinkets and Toys)
1929 51st Annual Exhibition at California Palace of Fine Arts (Gossiping Ghosts, Night Radiance, Russ in the Fog)
1931 53rd Annual Exhibition at California Palace of the Legion of Honor (Playful Snakes)
1932 54th Annual Exhibition at California Palace of the Legion of Honor (City Corner, Memories)
1932 1st Summer Annual Traveling Exhibition, California Palace of the Legion of Honor (Sea Lyric)
1933 Society of Progressive Artists, City of Paris Galleries (Crime and Concrete, Dancing Trees, Playful Snakes, Portrait with Trees, Storm)
1934 One-Man Show, Adam-Danysh Galleries (Moon and the Movies, Nude, Telegraph Hill, Three Houses)
1934 Traveling Exhibition, Adam-Danysh Galleries (The Storm)
1934 Society of Progressive Artists, 2nd Annual Exhibition, Adam-Danysh Galleries (Represented)
1934 California Palace of the Legion of Honor (Houses, Night Scene)
1935 De Young Memorial Museum (Night Scene)
1935 55th Annual Exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art (Christmas Night)
1935 Paul Elder’s Gallery (A Moment of Dream)
1936 Federal Art Project Exhibition (Represented)
1937 57th Annual Exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art (High Peak)
1928 Berkeley League of Fine Arts Annual (Night)
1932 Annual Traveling Exhibition, Oakland Art Gallery (Sea Lyric)
Los Angeles, CA
1932 1st Annual Traveling Exhibition (Sea Lyric)
1935 California Pacific International Exposition (Night Scene)
New York City, NY
1936 1st National Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art
1927 Honorable Mention for Flood, 49th Annual San Francisco Art Association Exhibition
1928 Second Anne Bremer Prize for March Moon ($100 divided with Ralph Chesse), 50th Annual San Francisco Art Association Exhibition
1937 First Anne Bremer Prize ($300 for “High Peak”) 57th Annual San Francisco Art Association Exhibition
Federal Arts Project (five unnamed, Twilight)
Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art
G. Breitweiser Studio 2, Santa Barbara, CA
Oakland Museum of Art
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
VI. CLUBS & JURY SERVICE
Modern Gallery Group
San Francisco Art Association
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Society of Progressive Artists
- 1. Hughes, Edan Milton. Artists in California, 1786-1940. p. 72. San Fran.: Hughes Pub., 1989.
- 2. U.S. Census, Birth Date, Marriage Dates, Children, Death Date. Accessed through ancestry.com
- 3. Most biographical information, including exhibition history, life chronology, and analytical inspiration based on WPA monograph, which uses magazines and periodicals as its main source.
- 4. Correspondence (3/21/05) with Bruce K. Chesse, son of Barnes’ contemporary Ralph Chesse, providing background information on historical circumstances surrounding contemporary artists in the 1930s.
- 5. Correspondence (3/23/05) with Spencer John Helfen, of Spencer John Helfen Fine Arts.
- 6. Correspondence (3/21/05) with G. Breitweiser, of G. Breitweiser Studio 2 in Santa Barbara, providing information regarding the current disposition of Barnes’ works.