On Thursday 11/26/09, Leslie and I along with my parents, Howard & Phyllis Schwartz, drove down to Philadelphia for the Thanksgiving weekend. We’d made a reservation for 12 noon Saturday to tour The Barnes Foundation in the Main Line suburb of Merion, PA. My folks had visited this unique museum many years before but Leslie and I were seeing it for the first time.
I’m neither an artist nor an art critic, and my museum-going résumé doesn’t include visits to the Louvre in Paris, the Museo del Prado in Madrid, or the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, to name a few notable omissions. But in the span of my own experience, the Barnes was a unique and utterly distinctive way to experience art, specifically the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
And there’s a hell of a lot of it to look at: In the 40-plus years before his death in a 1951 car accident Dr. Albert C. Barnes (born 1/2/1872 in Philadelphia to a poor working-class family) amassed the greatest private art collection in North America. In the 2003 edition of his book Art Held Hostage: The Battle Over the Barnes Collection, investigative journalist John Anderson wrote that the collection “is valued at more than $6 billion [This is not a typo — A.S.] … including some 69 Cezannes (more than in all the museums in Paris), 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, 18 Rousseaus, 14 Modiglianis, and no fewer than 180 Renoirs…”
Barnes made a fortune circa 1900 with a silver nitrate-based antiseptic called Argyrol, which was widely administered to infants in eyedrop form; he began collecting art around 1910, and is alleged to have paid $100 for his first painting by Picasso. In 1925, construction of the building that houses the Barnes Foundation galleries (as well as the founder’s private residence) was completed on a 12-acre estate in Merion, PA; four years later, Dr. Barnes sold his company and devoted the rest of his life to collecting and to the Foundation. In his will, the childless Barnes dedicated the bulk of his fortune to the perpetuation of the Foundation along with a long list of explicit, ironclad instructions. Foremost among these was that none of the works would ever be sold or incorporated in touring exhibitions; that admission to the grounds would be strictly limited (it was by invitation only during Barnes’ lifetime); and that the collection would be displayed, in perpetuity, exactly as the good doctor himself had placed the paintings, furniture, light fixtures, etc. within the galleries.
Barnes’ eccentric and very personal arrangements of his works have the effect of turning Great Art into something more intimate and human, less entombed and intimidating in their Overwhelming Greatness. Compared to, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his displays are very crowded (see photo at right); the paintings are not organized chronologically and there are no title plaques on the walls (viewers use laminated identification sheets instead). Barnes’ singular and stoutly-defended interpretation of what he considered the key elements in any
given work of art led him to add metal wall-hangings, inspired by/akin to certain lines and shapes within the paintings; and to place antique chairs, chests, and candelabra beneath certain canvases. These objects bear what I’d call a quasi-mystical relationship to the paintings, except that for Albert Barnes there was nothing “mystical” about it. Speaking to students, scholars, and artists, he would explain — in concise and almost clinical terms, very different from the language of art criticism then or now — the specific visual ways in which these objects, their lines and planes, related to and mirrored each other. (Excerpts from Barnes’ monologues are preserved on the present-day audio tour of the collection.)
Some of my own favorite works on display at the Barnes included Van Gogh‘s The Factory and one of his seven portraits of The Postman Joseph Roulin; Cezanne‘s epic Card Players (1890-92); Renoir‘s large-scale painting of his family including his infant son, the future film director Jean Renoir; and various works by Modigliani including Young Redhead In An Evening Dress (1918) and Portrait of Leopold Zborowski (1919). The Barnes collection also includes several cabinets filled with African sculptures and masks; and a set of Native American blankets from the Southwest, unusually large pieces that are gorgeously woven and in impeccable condition.
I consider myself very fortunate to have seen the Barnes collection as Albert Barnes intended it to be seen, because that opportunity soon will be lost to future generations. This 12/7/09 article on the Web site of the Los Angeles Times reports that on January 2, 2010, five second-floor galleries will be closed and turned into a conservation suite so that their contents may be dismantled and prepared for eventual transportation to the Foundation’s controversial new $150-million building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in central Philadelphia, now under construction and slated for completion in 2012.
The reasons why and how this turn of events has come to pass are far too complex to discuss here; interested readers should turn, for starters, to John Watson’s Art Held Hostage. In his remarks at the 11/13/09 groundbreaking ceremony for the new museum, Barnes Foundation chairman Bernard Watson said:
“The final decade of the 20th century had seen the foundation incurring annual deficits and depleted financial resources, resulting, in large part, from an endless series of expensive and acrimonious lawsuits, going back as early as the 1950s. The foundation’s ability to prosper, or indeed survive, in its Merion location was exacerbated by local regulations limiting visitation to the galleries…Philanthropists and foundations were simply not giving money to an organization that had a legacy of expensive and distracting litigation, no credible business plan, or a governance structure that would make implementation of such a plan possible. None of the people who continue to raise their voices in angry objection to moving the collection to the Parkway reached into their pockets to support us in any meaningful way in Merion.”
In his L.A. Times post, on the other hand, Christopher Knight noted:
“Most every art and cultural critic who has written on the subject has opposed the plan, which will shutter the astounding Post-Impressionist and early Modern art collection in suburban Merion, dismantle what ranks as the greatest American cultural monument of the first half of the 20th century and relocate the art five short miles to a hoped-for tourist venue downtown.”
Finally, my good friend Jay Schwartz, lifelong Philadelphia resident and dedicated preservationist of the city’s cultural and architectural treasures, wrote me in an 11/30/09 email:
“I do NOT think it makes more sense for the collection to be in Center City. The decision calls into question the validity of all wills. I do not think it was effectively demonstrated that there was no other good option. One…would have been to sell off some paintings to get [the Foundation] back on [its] feet. While this [sale] is also forbidden by the will, I think Dr. Barnes would have preferred this option.
“I also think the current location is perfect, beautiful, and NOT so difficult to find or get to. The collection is more accessible than ever before, and that if someone cannot make the small effort that you just made (‘small’ once you are in Philadelphia, that is), they probably don’t need to see it.
“Of course, another solution would be for the various parties that saw the opportunity to hijack the collection to have donated a tiny fraction of what the move will cost [in order] to keep things as they were — that would have fixed everything. They had no interest in that, though, only in doing things their way and to benefit what they wanted to benefit.
“While I have not read [John Anderson’s] book, I feel I am familiar enough with the events to make these judgement calls. It was a freakish chain of events that made all of this happen, and there were no good guys in the ugly story, except for the hapless Friends of the Barnes (former students), whom the last judge decided had no legal standing.”
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