August 20, 2013

A Visit to The Barnes Foundation

The story of the Barnes Foundation is a contentious one.  Established by Dr. Albert Barnes in 1922 ostensibly as an educational center intended to promote his theories on the appreciation of fine art, the institution also served as a showcase for his by then world famous collection of paintings and objects.  A rabid and well financed collector, Dr. Barnes operated his eponymous foundation in the small town of Merion, PA, where he lived with his wife Laura, a noted horticulturalist.

Albert Coombs Barnes was born in 1872 to a working class family in Philadelphia.  He put himself through college and was graduated from the University of Pennsylvania medical school at the age of 20.  From there he went to Germany where he continued his studies in chemistry, specifically pharmaceuticals.  In 1901, he and a partner developed the antiseptic drug Argyrol used to prevent infant blindness and as a cure for gonorrhea.  The product was wildly successful and Dr. Barnes soon became a very wealthy man.

With his new financial stability, Dr. Barnes turned his attention to learning about and collecting art.  Initially he commissioned William Glackens, a good friend from high school who was then living in Paris as an artist, to find and buy several "modern" paintings for him.  This initial $20,000 expenditure netted 20 paintings, the seeds from which a mighty collection was born.

By his late 30s Dr. Barnes was a fixture on the European and American art scene.  Trips to Paris included visits to important collectors such as Gertrude and Leo Stein who introduced him to Matisse and Picasso.  His passion for acquiring great works of art led him to the gallery of Paul Guillaume, one of the great dealers of both modern and African art and a major source of treasures for the collection.  Through Guillaume, Barnes became acquainted with Soutine, Modigliani and de Chirico (who did the 1926 portrait of Dr. Barnes, above left) and he purchased their works with the same fervor as he pursued masterpieces by Cézanne, Renoir and Rousseau.

Paul Cézanne "Still Life", 1892-4

Dr. Barnes was an obsessive collector.  He loved art and objects and he pursued the finest examples money could be.  But he was also interested in art theory and education and eventually established The Barnes Foundation both as a showplace for his vast holdings and as a center for art appreciation.  The Foundation was housed in a mansion designed by French architect Paul Philippe Cret, but the interior was entirely of Dr. Barnes' own making.  In gallery after gallery, Dr. Barnes' vast holdings of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist art were displayed according his own personal aesthetic ideas of color and relationship.  He further embellished the display with his curious stock of early American metal objects including hinges, locks, spatulas, bread cutters, hooks and other hardware.  All of this was enhanced with his superb holdings of early American furniture, ceramics and andirons, Navajo Indian pottery, rugs and silver jewelry, and an outstanding collection of African masks.

Word of this fine but decidedly unusual collection spread and people from far and wide wanted to come for a look, but Dr. Barnes was very particular about who could gain admission to his private lair.  It was Dr. Barnes' creation and in effect his fiefdom, but because he had established the Foundation as an educational institution he was obliged to give in to some degree and allow very limited visitation.  Would-be visitors had to write a letter requesting an appointment and Dr. Barnes seemed to take inordinate pleasure in turning people away.  He particularly seemed to snub members of Philadelphia society, perhaps a reaction to his difficult childhood, but he also rejected many artists and writers many of whom had traveled great distances to get to Merion.

Georges Seurat "Models", 1886

When Dr. Barnes died in a car crash in 1951 his will left very specific instructions as to the future of his Foundation.  Specifically, nothing was to be moved and certainly not lent to an outside exhibition, no color reproductions were permitted and nothing could ever be sold.  Eventually, the trustees of the Foundation felt that it would be in their financial and collective interests to make the Foundation more accessible to the public and they began to operate it as a more regular museum.  This move proved very unpopular with the residents of Merion who were now living with tour buses, parking lots and a large influx of day trippers in their small town.

Henri Matisse "Red Madras Headdress", 1907

By 2002 the Foundation's trustees decided to petition the courts to allow the collection to be re-located to Philadelphia.  This ignited a maelstrom of protest but the decision was ultimately made to retain the Merion property as a horticultural center and move the entire kit and kaboodle into a yet to be designed facility close to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Fast forward to May 2012 when the "new" Barnes Foundation opened the very fancy doors to its new home on Logan Square. 

Vincent Van Gogh "The Postman", 1889

I have to admit that I was, and still am, philosophically opposed to the idea of acting so completely against a person's directive and totally disregarding the terms of his will and for this reason dragged my feet in going for a visit.  But finally curiosity got the better of me and last Thursday I boarded the Bolt Bus for a two hour ride to Philadelphia with my pre-paid, timed-entry admission tickets to the Barnes in hand.

The new facility is indeed state of the art - so much so that something as mundane as an entrance sign is no where to be found.  After passing an enormous trough-like fountain, some specimen trees and reflecting pools, I found my way in to the museum.  But there was still the massive event space, about 5,000 square feet worth, with an another immense trough - this time a permanent wet bar - to get through before one came to the galleries.

 Pierre-Auguste Renoir "Nude Woman Reclining", 1917

The galleries, a sort of museum within a museum, are a re-creation of Dr. Barnes' vision in Merion.  Every detail has been preserved right down to the little scraps of antique wallpaper that served as coasters to protect the furniture from scratches.  The paintings are hung exactly as Dr. Barnes had intended, complete with the quirky metal decorations and the examples of period American furniture are positioned exactly as he had placed them.  There are no wall labels, rather each of the 24 galleries has a stack of very well worn paper guides that visitors can refer to to identify the artist and title of an artwork or a brief description of an object.  There is no in depth information offered as far as subject, maker, provenance or importance in the scheme of either the collection or art history in general.  Despite attempts to limit the number of visitors at one time, the galleries are very crowded and with the salon hanging it is often difficult to see the pictures on the wall.

Paul Cézanne "The Card Players", 1890-92

As Dr. Barnes had envisioned, the paintings are hung very symmetrically and very densely.  He followed his own distinct idea of how the works would best be appreciated and bowed to no one else's opinion no matter how distinguished he or she was.  Interestingly, there is no hierarchy of quality - masterpieces hang next to unknown artists and New Mexican retablos are alongside Flemish Baroque works.  It is all according to the doctor's plan.

Henri Rousseau "Eclaireurs attaqués par un tigre", 1904

While I was thrilled to finally see Dr. Barnes' collection live in person, and could truly appreciate his voracious appetite for acquiring works of art, I left the foundation with mixed emotions.  While there is no arguing with someone who managed to acquire 181 Renoir paintings (the largest single owner in the world), 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos and the countless other superb examples of major artists, it often seemed that he was more interested in quantity over quality.  There is no doubt whatsoever that Dr. Barnes was the owner of some of the greatest works of the 20th century but there is a lot of lesser material mixed in.  But the pervasive feeling that continues to haunt me is "what would Dr. Barnes think of this new incarnation of his beloved foundation?"

There are many accounts of Dr. Barnes and his feuds with the art and museum authorities of the day and there is no question that he was a difficult person who antagonized a lot of people in the art world.  I appreciate the financial burden of preserving such a collection (now valued at $20-$30 billion) and the benefit of giving as many people as possible the chance to view such a magnificent collection - one is, after all, just a custodian of a great work of art.  But in in my heart of hearts it bothers me that his wishes were so totally disregarded and I felt almost guilty in looking at his private treasure trove without his permission.  I think Dr. Barnes must be spinning in his grave.

1 comment:

Margie Barclay said...

I saw the Barnes Foundation several times, including a wonderful elderhostel four day seminar. To me it's the arrangement on the walls that are the most significant "Barnsian" effect and those arrangements (which are visual journeys) have been preserved. I look forward to seeing the collection in its new location. Certainly easier to get to than before! I'm sorry that the galleries were crowded.