The Barnes Foundation seems to have a thing for flâneurs, a French word that in this iteration would appear to mean urban street artists.
"Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie," a new group show mostly of performance art and video, on view through May 22, is the third Barnes exhibition in the last year to use the rubric.
The Barnes' argument is that the French paintings for which the collection is best known have a kinship with contemporary artists who scavenge and perform on the street. The show tells us that flânerie is a lot harder than it used to be - or, more likely, that the Barnes is stretching to find a term that's glamorous and intellectually trendy as a way to justify showing work that has nothing to do with its core collection.
My desk dictionary curtly defines flâneur to mean "idler, dawdler, loafer," its literal French definition. Little more was needed by the urban wanderers to whom the term was first applied, in mid-19th-century Paris, than a good pair of shoes and plenty of leisure time, both luxuries, along with a lot of curiosity.
Flâneurs drifted through the crowd, exposing themselves to the delights and the sordidness of life in a city of strangers, not to paint it but just to be there. "For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator," Charles Baudelaire observed in his 1863 essay that examined the phenomenon, "it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the intimate."
The artists at the Barnes do not simply walk around and notice. They labor. They suffer. They dress up. They make videos, photographs, and graphic recordings of everything they do. So many of the artists in the show take on such difficult challenges that "Person in the Crowd" might as well be titled "The Art of the Ordeal."
Zhang Huan walks around in a suit made from raw meat, to commemorate the 9/11 attacks. Jefferson Pinder runs naked from a park in Baltimore, picking up clothing that's been left for him as he runs through African American neighborhoods, so that he is in full businessman drag by the time he reaches the business district.
William Pope.L, dressed in a Superman costume with a skateboard attached to his back, crawls the entire length of New York's Broadway, and Papo Colo drags 51 pieces of wood up the West Side Highway. Tehching Hsieh spends an entire year without entering a man-made structure, and Lee Mingwei spends 100 days in the constant company of a lily plant, carrying it everywhere, even after it has apparently died. His art consists of an account of everything he did with Lily, such as eating, sleeping, drinking, and using the bathroom.
Kendell Geers, a white South African, wears a rubber Nelson Mandela mask as he hawks African-mask souvenirs to tourists. But the most impressive costume is unquestionably the one that Cuban artist Tania Bruguera made and wore for Fidel Castro's birthday in 1998. Studded with nails, it is meant to transform the artist into a nkisi nkondi, a Congolese power figure believed to release supernatural forces. Both costumes are in the show.
Suffering has long been a major theme of Western art. The difference here is that artists themselves have become their own St. Sebastian, or Jesus. They sacrifice their comfort, their bodies, or their dignity for a cause.
They work so hard that when I encountered here the work of performance artist Dread Scott, who went around in public for only an hour carrying a sign reading, "I AM NOT A MAN," my first reaction was that he was a bit of an idler. Compared with going homeless for a year, Scott's hour with a placard seems like slacking off.
The works in the exhibition span a period of more than 50 years. The earliest work is a neat bundle of French bourgeois household trash from 1959, collected by the artist Arman.
A few works speak eloquently of what was happening in the moment they were made. Keith Haring's chalk drawing done in an empty subway ad space proclaims, "Still Alive in 85," an almost triumphant statement in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. Haring died in 1990.
Some artists specialize in close observation of their spaces. Ed Ruscha's famous photo book Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) shows a storied locale to be banal and unpeopled, not flâneur-friendly. Ingrid Calame literally gets down onto the streets and sidewalks, and traces the stains and scuffs and skid marks onto Mylar. She uses this work as the basis for decorative paintings that give no hint of the street at all.
The creepiest work here, though the most flâneurlike, is French artist Sophie Calle's Venice Suite (1980-83). She decided, after a casual conversation with a man she had just met, to follow him on his planned trip to Venice. She tracked him down and photographed him using a hidden camera while recounting her pursuit in a diary. The artist became stalker. The photographs are informal yet compelling, the diary fascinating and obsessive, a memoir of an unreliable narrator.
I was delighted to come across, late in my visit, the video documenting the work of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica and his collaborator Ivan Cardoso. Working with a samba school in Rio, they created 30 capes, mostly from found materials. They called them parangolé, street slang for parties, parades, and other spontaneous public events.
The capes were worn to social events - notably the 1965 opening of the Museum of Modern Art in Rio. The garments helped their wearers hide their identities and revealed their passions. They embraced the person and the crowd, the fugitive and the intimate.
By contrast, most of the other artists in the show don't engage or even disappear into the crowd. They just do their personal performances in public and take pictures of themselves while they do it. I can't imagine Baudelaire's flâneurs taking selfies, even if they could.
I don't mean to dismiss this work. I am happy to have seen much of it, even if the Barnes' explanation of it confuses more than it clarifies. And the installation, with video screens of different size set at diagonals in the large gallery, is just superb. The videos are of different durations, with some repeating quickly and others on long cycles. The eye is always drawn away from what you're trying to look at by something else that might be more interesting.
As I was leaving, I just stood in the space and let myself become unfocused, drawn to what I hadn't noticed before, reconsidering what I had. The sounds and the sights ran through me. I stopped trying to concentrate and began merely to experience. To my surprise, I had become a flâneur.
AT THE BARNES
Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie
Through May 22 at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Hours: Wednesday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: Adults, $25; students and youths, (6-18), $10; children, free.
Information: 215-278-7000 or barnesfoundation.org.