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300 N Latch's Lane
open by appointment from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. call 610 667-0290 or go to
A well-planned jumble
Dr. Albert Barnes saw art not as a discipline of facts and figures, but as a vehicle connecting mortal history. To experience his genius unaltered, move quickly.
By LENNIE BENNETT, Times Staff Writer Published March 20, 2005
small gallery in the Barnes Foundation groups paintings by Modigliani, Demuth
and Picasso with African tribal sculpture, European religious carvings,
hand-forged metal door handles and an early American ladle. [Images
from the Barnes Foundation]
PHILADELPHIA - A visit to the Barnes Foundation can be confounding and frustrating, and you should make every effort to experience it. Because it is also, ultimately, transcendent. And fleeting.
The confounding and frustrating part comes from our expections of museums to educate and inform with arrangements of art in a quickly identifiable chronology or theme, accompanied by copious wall text.
You will find none of that at the Barnes because, though it is certainly a repository of great art, it is not and was never intended to be a traditional museum.
Dr. Albert Barnes made a fortune in pharmaceuticals and was a self-taught collector. Before his death in 1951, he had assembled one of the finest collections of French impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern paintings in the world. He also had a number of Old Master paintings, Asian, African and American Indian art and artifacts, and early American furniture.
In 1925, Barnes opened an imposing building for his treasures on 12 acres in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, known as the Wilson Arboretum, a distinguished garden famous for its collection of trees. He stocked the galleries with his growing collection, which was eventually to number 9,000, and established the Barnes Foundation "to promote education and the appreciation of Fine Arts."
In recent years, though, the foundation has been the center of controversy. Financial troubles have threatened its existence. Some trustees fought to move it to a more accessible location in downtown Philadelphia, with the guarantee of millions of dollars from donors and foundations. Opponents took them to court, but they lost and it appears the move will happen, possibly as early as 2007. A stipulation is that the galleries will be faithfully reproduced in a new building.
But nothing will ever be an exact replication.
Barnes' approach was both learned and eccentric. He arranged his paintings, salon style, in stacks on the walls with what appeared to be random abandon, mixing them with antique metal hinges and sconces, Pennsylvania Dutch wedding chests and African sculpture. He banished all labels except for small brass plaques on the frames with the artists' names. Labels on paintings highest up on the walls would require a telescope to read.
The first time I walked through the galleries, I didn't get it. I took the whole thing to be like one of those art history tests you take in college in which you are flashed slides and asked to identify them. No problem, I thought, ticking off Renoirs, Cezannes, Matisses, Picassos, Modiglianis. Those metal things and quaint furniture? The cases of tribal figures with no explanations? A collector out of control, in need of firm editing, I thought. About halfway through my hubris-induced journey, I stopped, realizing I was missing the point entirely.
Barnes did not want us to know what we were looking at.
He was interested in "demonstrating the continuity of great art throughout the ages," he once wrote, of encouraging viewers to make connections and understand the aesthetics of art without the prejudices and preconceptions of traditional art appreciation and academic ideology. He wanted us to have a direct intellectual confrontation with and an emotional response to art.
Here's an example.
On a wall in one gallery, Barnes arranged 14 paintings in varying sizes by Cezanne and Renoir, though we don't have to know that. Our eyes are first drawn to a large portrait of a woman in a dark green hat, then above it to a small still life of oranges. We roam left and right, among paintings, small above larger ones, of bathers, a landscape and more portraits of workmen and a boy. Farther up on the wall, a horizontal reclining nude is flanked by vertical portraits of clothed females. At the top is another portrait of a woman in a hat.
You could stare at this wall and think, simply, what beautiful paintings. Or you could take the bountiful lessons being offered.
Color theory is one of the easiest. Green and red, complements on the color wheel, are explored richly here. I was mystified by Barnes' predilection for Renoir (he bought 181), an artist I find insipid when seen in quantity, until I understood that Barnes was really buying some of the best available examples of the use of red. (Doubtful he could have found - or afforded - enough Titians to make his point.) Renoir was a sensual experimenter in his quest to find the perfect Venetian red, and you see it in numerous paintings, including the top painting in this arrangement of the hatted woman wearing a dress with rich red sleeves. The red is reiterated in the skirt and scarf of two other Renoirs in the group and set off by the rosy pink flesh tones of the nudes, the peaches of the still life. Cezanne's greens, burnished with golds and yellows, pop in contrast.
Cezanne is another revelation on this wall. Look at the fabulous Boy in a Red Vest (of course you won't know its title unless you get a catalog) with its more strident scoop of red and the dashing manipulation of green in the shadows of the boy's white shirt, its blending with lavender in the background.
The metal objects nailed to the wall between the paintings are the periods, semicolons and commas in this narrative, punctuating the curve of a thigh or the arabesque of a flower.
In other galleries, Picasso's and Modigliani's portraits hang with African masks whose conical headdresses and exaggerated features prefigure much 20th century art. A Pascin nude raises her arm in another portrait, and those angles are echoed in a door hinge. The curling feathers and v-necked bodice of a portrait of a woman by Glackens is mirrored by his self-portrait with tousled hair and the lapels of his suit. The splotches of color on a Moravian vase pick up the daubs of clouds and vibrant colors of another Glackens' painting of a racetrack.
The similar way El Greco and Cezanne drape white fabric is explored; you contemplate the different treatments of light by Hals and Soutine. A Roualt tapestry hangs near Navajo rugs. A luminous carved panel by Charles Prendergast is paired with small medieval paintings and Persian miniatures.
Every wall in the two dozen galleries has such juxtapositions, inviting you to dwell on what Barnes called "transferred values." It's exhilarating and exhausting. I spent about five hours there; I could easily have spent five weeks.
Barnes never bought a work of art based on its greatness. It also had to work as part of the ensemble. Sometimes, though, you can't help but be caught up in the magnificence of an individual work: Seurat's Models, a monumental work in which he reproduces his famous Sunday in the Park as a painting within a painting; Cezanne's The Card Players; Matisse's Red Madras Headdress and The Joy of Life; Van Gogh's Joseph-Etienne Roulin; Manet's Tarring the Boat.
Barnes, for all his scientific bent, was a humanist who wanted to redraw the line of mortal history, making us see our interconnectedness through art. And he wasn't using the easy, superficial appropriation approach we often invoke (Van Gogh saw Japanese woodblocks and - behold! - his paintings began to have a Japanese influence). He was after something more profound, in finding the subliminal links of our cultural heritage absorbed over generations.
His fondness for impressionists was probably due to their love of the everyday moment. Barnes was less enamored of tortured saints and Renaissance Madonnas. Thematic tension was good, ecstasy and misery of less interest.
In his youth, he was fascinated by the revivals and camp meetings of African-Americans, which led to a study of African art. Barnes amassed a large group of African art and a number of 20th century African-American artworks, admiring especially Horace Pippin.
Barnes tried to affiliate his collection and his education program with the University of Pennsylvania but was rebuffed and, instead, left control of the foundation to Lincoln University, a small, traditionally black institution.
For many years, the collection has been something of a sleeping beauty, not widely known by museumgoers because Merion Township restricts the number of days it can be open and the visitors it can accept. Nor is the collection on view ever loaned out except for one rare instance in 1993 when the building was being overhauled and had to close for a time. (Works kept in storage may be loaned, but they are not the masterpieces.) Like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, nothing can ever be rearranged. Everything stays as it was when Barnes put it there.
In many ways, the move to downtown Philadelphia will be good for the Barnes and the public. The lighting in the old building is terrible, with harsh overhead fixtures that look like those from an old library. Even with limited numbers of visitors, the rooms are cramped, some galleries narrow to the point of constriction. Merion limits the Barnes to opening three days a week, with only 400 visitors a day. (It sits in a residential neighborhood.) With its endowment gone, it can never hope to survive economically under those restrictions.
But there is something deeply moving about Barnes' vision, which included this building. So that is why I urge you to see it now, as it is. The collection will not go away, but a part of the man who made it will.
- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
You must make reservations to visit the Barnes Foundation, 300 N Latch's Lane, Merion, Pa., usually several months in advance. The galleries are open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For information, call 610 667-0290 or go to
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