Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Farewell to the Barnes - and good riddance?

As I'm sure many Hub Review readers are aware, the world-famous Barnes Foundation (above), which many consider the greatest private collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern art in existence, is closing its hallowed doors in the suburbs of Philadelphia and moving to the city center in two years (the new gallery's design is below). The Foundation is famous for its many eccentricities - all stipulated in the will of its founder, Albert C. Barnes, a self-made millionaire who made his money in antiseptics, and of whom biographers have often tactfully noted that "even his friends thought him a misanthrope."  But Barnes also had a supremely discerning eye for the art of his age, and after becoming a multi-millionaire in his early thirties, spent his middle and later years amassing an amazing number of Renoirs, Cezannes, Picassos, and Matisses at bargain-basement prices (the collection is now estimated to be worth some $20-30 billion).

The kicker to this story, however, is that by the end of his life Barnes was all but determined to keep his fantastic collection from the public (the reasons today now seem obscure, but most certainly had to do with his pique at the snobbish treatment he and his collection received from Philly high society).  Indeed, for many years the collection styled itself a private school, and so was not open to outsiders at all - only through a series of lawsuits and legal wranglings was the art slowly made available to the public, if in a limited way.  For getting into the Barnes remained a laborious process - you had to order a ticket well ahead of time, and only on certain days, and then you had to show up at the security gate at a specific time to be vetted, etc. - which is why I always put off a visit.  Besides, I'd seen many of the collection's masterpieces in a rare tour organized in the early 90's - and by all accounts the new Barnes facility along Benjamin Franklin Parkway will closely mimic the current villa's layout anyway.

Still, I had a little itch telling me that if I wanted to be able to hold up my head at certain cocktail parties,  I really had to see the original Barnes - or at least as much of the original as possible (some of the collection was already in storage).  So I made the pilgrimage down to Philly last weekend - just two weeks before the galleries in Merion are scheduled to close for good.

I confess I went down thinking I would be charmed, in the end, by the Foundation's eccentricities - and, like many, would be able to luxuriate in a pleasurable outrage that through various machinations (only made possible, it must be admitted, by the Foundation's own failing fortunes) the will of the great Alfred C. Barnes had been broken, and the collection re-housed in a simulation of its original setting (from which it would be possible to greatly boost attendance revenue).  In short, I imagined I'd have something like the same response to the Barnes situation that I'd had to the bland "renovation" of the Gardner Museum (and the inexcusable destruction of its carriage house).

The exterior of the new Barnes.
But it turned out I wasn't much charmed by the Barnes.  In fact I had rather the opposite reaction - I'm not only glad the collection is going to be made more accessible, I'm actually dismayed that Barnes's cock-a-mamie gallery scheme is going to survive the move intact!

Henri Matisse may have described the Barnes as the "only sane place in America to see art," but he must have been a bit touched the day he said that, because the design of the galleries is plainly insane.  Pictures are grouped together not by artist, or school, or theme, or historical timeline, but basically willy-nilly, with a hidden agenda devised by Mr. Barnes that the Foundation invites you to guess.  But when I dutifully inquired of the docent leading my tour why, exactly, that Cezanne was hanging next to that Courbet, which was next to an unknown Flemish master from the fifteenth century, I would inevitably get a reply like "Don't you see?  They all feature the color red!" or "Didn't you notice the cross-hatching?" or "That wall (Cezanne, Seurat, Prendergast) makes a comment about the Italian pictorial tradition.'"  To be honest, often I couldn't quite believe my ears, and sometimes even found myself stifling laughter at these sweetly philistine responses.  But I think they were honest, and probably pretty accurate.  And I began to wonder - could the world's greatest collector also have been the world's worst curator?

For the trouble with Barnes, you get the impression, was that he began to imagine (like so many curators) that he, too, was a kind of artiste.  But ah, if only!  The paintings aren't merely hung according to his lack of comprehension of them - their arrangements are also broken up by klutzy metal "ornaments" (door knockers, escutcheons, what look like soup spoons, etc.) which Barnes himself created, and which you get the vague idea he intended as implements of visual organization, or perhaps even rhythm.  Alas, they pretty much fail at that; indeed, they're just mildly distracting - like the puzzling arrangements they adorn (which are all hung, believe it or not, on burlap).  Indeed, walking through these galleries, you find yourself fighting the feeling that old Alfred C. Barnes is actually trying to get between you and the art, with the kind of naively arty instruction you might expect of Miss Jean Brodie in her prime - and so you keep having to pat back feelings of mild irritation.

Of course you could make many of the same claims about our own Isabella Gardner (and many have).  Still, where Gardner dances, Barnes trudges, and you never feel - once you have discovered one of the few masterpieces left at the Gardner - that its founder's ghost is actually trying to tell you how you should experience the art.

Still, none of this detracts from the Barnes collection itself, which is as tremendous as advertised.  The famous Matisse mural The Dance II is there, as is Seurat's Les Poseuses, perhaps my favorite Cezanne still life and an early Card Players, as well as The Large Bathers - they're all there, along with innumerable Renoirs, dozens of Picassos, and as many Courbets, Rosseaus, and van Goghs as you could hope for.  (There are also a number of Old Masters - although most of these have been downgraded to "School of" or "Attributed to" - and looking at some of them, you wonder how anyone ever took them for the genuine article.)

But the thing is, you'll be able to see all of this in the "new" Barnes as well (and, I think, in better light).  What I do count as a loss, however, is the sweet gentility of the faded - but still charming - villa in which the collection has been housed all these years; there's a whiff of Mrs. Gardner's monied bohemianism about the place that's appealing: it's a kind of amusingly dignified suburban pleasure-dome.  By way of contrast, the new Barnes looks elegant, but blankly impersonal - a cross between a monastery and an office park (like so much contemporary architecture).  So more's the pity, in at least one way.  But I can't say I'm shedding any other real tears over the Barnes.

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