Saturday, September 8, 2012

(No.214) The new Barnes gallery in Philadelphia

"The new Barnes Foundation gallery in Philadelphia: a treasure trove of art"

by Alastair Rickard

It was the autumn of 1994 that my wife Pat and I first encountered the Barnes art collection, or rather a part of this amazing collection of art put together by the the Philadelphia businessman Dr. Albert Barnes in the years between 1912 and 1951.

During renovations in 1994-95 to the home of the Barnes collection in Merion Pennsylvania outside Philadelphia, a selection of works from the collection went on an international tour. The only Canadian stop was at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, an AGO special exhibition that drew almost 600,000 visitors from Sept. through Dec. 1994 among whom were Pat and me. The Barnes exhibition remains the second most attended exhibition in AGO history (the first was 1979's "King Tut").

By the time Barnes died in an auto accident in 1951 his art collection had grown beyond impressive to stunning in its breadth and quality. Today there can be little doubt that it was one of the most impressive and extensive fine art collections in private hands in the modern era and ranks with that of the late J.Paul Getty  and of Queen Elizabeth and the House of Windsor.

I am not making use of hyperbole in my description of the Barnes Foundation collection today. Just a few examples of the Barnes holdings: 181 paintings by Renoir, 69 Cezanne, 59 Matisse, 46 Picasso, 21 Soutine, 18 Rousseau, 16 Modigliani, 11 Degas, 7 Van Gogh and on it goes.

The Barnes collection has been called the finest concentration of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting in the western world. In fact Albert Barnes was more interested in Post-Impressionists than the Impressionists.

He bought only four Monets while literally covering walls with Renoirs. One of his Monets, "The Studio Boat" (1876), is an interesting self-portrait (sort of): an obscure figure who is Monet seated in a small covered boat that Monet used on the Seine in order to be able to paint from a perspective on the river.

Albert Barnes (1872-1951) was financially very successful, a former physician who made a fortune based on an anti-gonorrhea drug called Agyrol. He became a collector of "avant-garde" art and was treated as an outsider by the Philadelphia art and social establishment.

He reacted by continuing to acquire more art scorned by many of the 'elite' of the day and by building in Lower Merion his own gallery to house his collection. So involved in and absorbed by his art was he that he personally decided on the precise positioning of each piece in the gallery which opened in 1925.

Barnes organized and ultimately directed his involvement with art and his collection through the Barnes Foundation and he directed that his collection must remain in its Merion home. Moreover it was a collection which was not open to the public per se. Access to it was strictly controlled by Barnes himself before his death, after which public access became the norm.

Skip ahead several decades. The pressure on the Foundation trustees had steadily mounted to make the Barnes collection far more accessible to a larger audience by moving it to Philadelphia, to the 'museum mile' along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. By 2002 the Foundation board decided to relocate the collection.

Some people remained opposed; indeed some sued (unsuccessfully) to stop it. But in May this year the new Barnes Foundation home in Philadelphia opened its doors to great praise, even from some sceptics. To a great extent I think this applause for the new building housing the collection was both predictable and justified.

The building is a stone clad, box-like structure with impressive atria designed by the architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams. It is strikingly modern and stark on the outside as well as the inside public spaces. Within the museum there has been an impressive replication of the 23 rooms in which Barnes arranged and hung his collection in its former Merion home.

As architecture the new gallery does not put a song in my heart but it has been warmly greeted in all the critics' reviews I have read, as indeed has been the relocation of the Barnes collection to Philadelphia.

The prospective visitor to the new Barnes Foundation location who is unfamiliar with the eccentric Albert Barnes needs to understand that he personally determined the hanging of every piece in his collection and grouped pieces in what he called "ensembles". He frequently revisited the arrangements and reordered them but following his death the "ensembles' have remained frozen, rather like bees in amber.

The grouping of Barnes' ensembles, with distances between frames and placements replicated to the last millimetre, are on view in the new gallery in Philadelphia. It's not the sort of arrangement of paintings that I prefer. Barnes' idiosyncratic approach to the display of art works better in some rooms of the gallery than in others.

A wall of Renoirs is one thing and easily admired. A wall of closely spaced small pictures can be too much like an artistic dog's breakfast. Nor do I feel the "creative flow" supposedly evident to Dr. Barnes in, say, a pair of medieval pliers two inches above a Degas painting or in the placement of a Joan Miro cheek by jowel with a 15th century German painting. However Pat found the "ensembles" arrangements interesting and the "flow" effectively elaborated by the recorded commentary.

So chock-a-block are the works on the walls of the galleries there is no room, even had Barnes permitted it and allowed for it, for traditional information cards posted adjacent to the works carrying for the visitor the usual information about each piece. In the new gallery Barnes' legacy approach is as unchanged from 1951 as was the wedding cake preserved by Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations".

Pat thought the use by visitors of iPod audioguides to the various rooms in the gallery was an effective way to make one's way through from work to work. I did make use of this form of support (there was no alternative on offer) but I did not care for it very much.

But these are quibbles. To view the Barnes Foundation collection is one of the world's great art experiences,  one enhanced by its relocation to its new home in Philadelphia.

Within walking distance of each other on Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway are the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its expanded adjunct in the nearby Perelman Building (see column No.212), the Rodin Museum and the new Barnes Foundation gallery.

Anyone seriously interested in fine art can confidently justify a trip to Philadelphia that will be both rewarding and unique.

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