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.

August 14, 2013

Let There Be Light - Two Great Summer Expos

As August coasts toward Labor Day and we realize that the "dog days" are behind us, here are two museum exhibitions that focus on light - the element most synonymous with summer.

Let's start at the Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue at 89th Street.  Until September 25, the famous Frank Lloyd Wright designed rotunda has been completely transformed into a captivating sensory encounter that will amaze you.  "Aten Reign" is a site-specific installation created by California artist James Turrell (b. 1943) who is known primarily for his work in the Light and Space Movement.  This is Turrell's first solo exhibition in a New York museum since 1980 and it is a stunner.

Imagine entering the Guggenheim's normally bright and open atrium and finding it transformed into a elliptical core with bands of color of diminishing intensity rising up to the oculus.  The museum has thoughtfully provided seating around the perimeter and even mats in the middle of the floor so viewers can sit back or lie down and gaze into the enveloping color.  My initial reaction was just to smile at how beautiful it was, but then, as the colors slowly changed, the experience became more contemplative and peaceful.

James Turrell uses a combination of natural and LED lighting to create an environment that explores perception, light, color and space and challenges the viewer to be more aware of these elements as tangible substances.  This re-imagination of Wright's iconic architecture was fresh and captivating and, if the queue of people waiting to get in is any indication, hugely successful!

Moving downtown a few blocks to the Whitney Museum of American Art and their revival of Robert Irwin's installation "Scrim veil - Black rectangle - Natural light", last seen at the Whitney in 1977.

A contemporary of James Turrell, Robert Irwin (b. 1928) is another California artist linked with the Light and Space Movement.  Unlike "Aten Reign" at the Guggenheim, this installation is not an homage to color and light, but an almost disturbing distortion of light and space and our perception thereof.  "Scrim veil - Black rectangle - Natural light" was created specifically for the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum and began with Robert Irwin emptying out the entire area and leaving just the architectural elements - the honeycomb cement ceiling, the grey stone floor and the trapezoidal window.  He then encircled the room with a black band of paint, just at eye level, and finally hung a huge white scrim, from end to end down the middle of the room.  The scrim is anchored with a black steel rod at the same level as the painted band.  This steel bar ostensibly serves to hold the fabric taut, but it also acts as an optical illusion giving visitors who step off the elevator into the gallery a feeling of disorientation.

With the deliberate intention of forcing the viewer to "perceive himself perceiving", Robert Irwin's very simple, but very clever alterations add a totally new dimension to the room.  It takes almost a minute to figure out just what the heck is going on - is there really something there?  With the only light source being the large window fronting on Madison Avenue, the mood changes depending on the time of day and the weather, but the impact is always the same.

With my personal predilection toward color and movement, I was more fascinated with the James Turrell installation at the Guggenheim than this one, but both exhibitions posed the same valid questions - how much do we really see and how do we perceive what we are looking at?  Provocative topics and interesting to ponder in these two stimulating summer exhibitions!

August 04, 2013

Search for the Unicorn @ The Cloisters

In celebration of its 75th anniversary, The Cloisters has mounted a special exhibition on a topic that has engrossed people of all cultures since the beginning of time - the "Search for the Unicorn".  It's an appropriate subject for the medieval branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art as the main attraction to lure visitors up to the northern tip of Manhattan has got to be the beloved late Gothic masterpiece "The Unicorn Tapestries" on view in Gallery 017.

Let's take a moment to recap the history of this marvelous museum.  The original Cloisters opened to the public in 1914 as the brainchild of noted sculptor, collector and dealer of medieval art, George Grey Barnard.  Situated on four acres of land overlooking the Hudson River and the Palisades of New Jersey, the building comprised elements from several medieval cloisters removed from France and other sites in Europe and re-assembled in chronological order.  Thanks to the generosity of John D. Rockefeller, Barnard's Cloisters were acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1925, as was a 56 acre site that was transformed into Fort Tryon Park, the idyllic setting by which visitors now approach the museum.  Mr. Rockefeller not only financed the expansion of the museum property but also donated many works from his own collection and provided an endowment to fund operations and future acquisitions.  The new Cloisters opened to the public in 1938.

Of course the history of the unicorn goes back much further.  References to this magical white horse with the spiraling horn can be found in ancient Hebrew scripture, Greek philosophy, Julius Caesar's campaigns, Christian bestiaries, Shakespeare's plays, the Persian "Book of Kings" or "Shahnama", the Bible, and elixir vitae prescribed by the 12th century nun and mystic, Hildegard of Bingen.

Early Christian authors professed the unicorn to be an allegory for Christ and by the 13th century the unicorn had assumed mythical status.  It became the symbol for purity, grace and worldly love and was often depicted in works of art celebrating matrimony.  Legend had it that the unicorn could only be captured by a virgin and that its horn was capable of cleansing tainted water.  During the 15th century the unicorn as adopted by Scottish kings as their symbol of royalty and it remains to this day, along with the crowned lion, on the British coat of arms.

Depictions of unicorns can be found in all manner of art and objects dating back to the 14th century.  On display at The Cloisters are items as varied as a engraved playing card of a "Wild Woman and Unicorn" printed in Germany in the 15th century, a copper "Aquamanile" (a vessel that dispensed water for washing hands) also made in Germany circa 1425 (see right), a silver "Torah Crown" made in Poland in the 18th century, and an Italian painted "Desco da Parto [Birth Tray]" executed in Florence circa 1450 and featuring Chastity riding a chariot being pulled by a unicorn (see above left).

The exhibition concludes in the gallery where "The Unicorn Tapestries" hang in quiet splendor.  Although the origin of these magnificent objects is as mysterious as the mythical unicorn itself, they are assumed to have been executed circa 1495-1505 in the region of Brussels or Liège.  An intertwined "A" and "E" repeated several times in each panel gives no clue as to who commissioned the series but a coat of arms engraved on the collar of a dog may hold the key to their identity.

The tapestries tell the story of "The Hunt of the Unicorn" in seven chapters beginning with huntsmen and hounds entering the woods in search of their prey, the Unicorn being attacked and the Unicorn defending himself.  In one scene the Unicorn is using the magic powers of his horn to purify the waters (see below) but eventually he succumbs to the charms of a lovely maiden who traps him and he is captured.  Sadly the poor beast is killed and is transported back to the castle but in the final and most famous panel, he miraculously returns to life, albeit in captivity, chained to a pomegranate tree surrounded by a field of flowers.

The legend of the Unicorn remains as enthralling today as it was in the Middle Ages and despite modern research and technology we are no closer to solving the mystery of its genesis.  Indeed, there is no tangible evidence of such an animal ever having existed, but how to explain the claims of sightings and the multitude of mentions in art and literature throughout the ages?  A visit to The Cloisters will not answer these questions, but it will give you a lot of visual testimony to think about, and will make you wonder what exactly inspired such adoration through the ages.  The "Search for the Unicorn" closes on August 18th, but the tapestries remain on permanent view.

"The Unicorn Purifies Water"