Friday, September 07, 2012

Ever been to an open-casket funeral in which the mortician had to do a lot of reconstruction on the deceased and gets it almost right, maybe the cheek bones just a little too high or the eyes a smidgen too close together? That’s pretty much my experience of the new Barnes collection in Philadelphia. And yet, because I loved the deceased, I know I’ll be back.

I finally got around to visiting the new location in central Philadelphia the other day, an ambivalent experience for anyone who fondly remembered the masterpiece of high modernism that the collection had been in its 1924 mansion in Merion just outside the city limits. Put together for what was not much more than $250,000 by pharmaceutical magnate Albert C. Barnes, a self-made millionaire & autodidact who hobnobbed with the likes of John Dewey, Albert Einstein & the Steins of Paris, Leo & Gertrude (he much preferred Leo), Dr. Barnes’ collection is one of the great gatherings of visual art as it passes from impressionism into modernism, heavy on the European focus, and with his likes & dislikes. He never much cottoned to cubism, dada, surrealism. Photography is absent; women are the subject of nudes, not artists. But he clearly saw the connection with African art and the decorative folk arts that were not often acknowledged by the artists themselves. An irascible character who held a dim view of the moneyed elite who both ran Philadelphia and, in Merion, were his literal neighbors, Barnes’ will gave them all the finger as he left his worldly goods, including the world’s greatest collection of Renoir paintings, plus more than a few masterpieces by the likes of Rousseau, Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso, Demuth, Hartley, Soutine, Gaugin et al to Lincoln University, a black college initially set up for former slaves and freed men at the far end of Chester County near the Maryland border.

But, befitting his nature & his sense of himself as a man who understood what was right for all, Barnes set up some distinct limits as to what the university might do with this windfall. No divestiture of the work, the building was to be a school more than a museum and Barnes’ ideas of order – modernist art combined with primitive works set in Victorian clutter¹ – were to be basis of the curriculum. His neighbors responded in kind, noting that the mansion was on Latches Lane, not even remotely suitable for the sort of traffic that might be expected to descend on one of the great collections of the past century, setting limits on the number of visitors, the number of cars, hours of operation, etc. It was a standoff that really benefited nobody, & when the university itself – one of whose alumni was Langston Hughes – declared itself to be in an economic crisis, the good moneyed elite of Philadelphia were only too happy to step in & offer their idea of a solution, which was to move the whole shebang next to the rather sad Rodin Museum down the parkway from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, helping to extend a “museum mile” (as it’s starting to be called already) that descends from the “Rocky” steps in the general direction of City Hall. One can virtually hear old Dr. Barnes spinning in the grave.

Recognizing that they were about to lose the most distinct facet of their community since Jojo Bryant’s kid Kobe attended Lower Merion High, the locals belatedly organized to fight the move, but Pennsylvania is a state in which capital mostly gets what it wants. An existing juvenile hall was torn down – probably a good thing – & up went this new late-modern building, a sleek, airy structure that has, almost detail for detail, the whole of the original mansion & its collection replicated inside, right down to the giant Matisse fresco over the main gallery. But where the mansion had a terrific arboretum, largely the work of Mrs. Barnes, the new building has lawn & plaza and a pool. Where the old museum had a tiny basement gift-shop, the new locale still has it on the lowest level, but it’s perfectly suited to the contemporary marketing tchotchkes of a mid-sized museum. You want magnets, t-shirts, ties? Upstairs is a better-than-average restaurant and there’s a coffee bar in the basement for those who need a pick-me-up before wading into the gift shop. Also new is an exhibition hall – currently devoted to the life and correspondence of Dr. Barnes (including a letter to Leo Stein commiserating with the latter’s frustration at critics taking his showboating sister as the serious thinker in the family) – and an auditorium named for (Barnes would love this) Comcast.² There is even a newly commissioned giant metal lawn sculpture by, of all people, Ellsworth Kelly. It looks exactly like a cubist version of a one-fingered salute.

But still there is the art, pretty much all of it, positioned as before, so that you have masterpieces set up literally chock-a-bloc among iron door knockers, pewter candelabra & bird decoys (Thomas Maling’s sculptures that use clamshells & lobster claws as the bodies of owls & the like are worth seeking out). The burlap backing of the wall – a feature copied from the Merion mansion – is a richer tone than before and there is a lot more natural light (there being no arboretum canopy right outside the windows), but the art is the art and in the long run, even with timed tickets still being the order of the day (albeit quite a few more per day now than previously), it’s a lot more accessible. First Sundays of each month are free, just like the other museums on the strip, so one can imagine CAConrad someday pulling one of his flash poetry readings (Stein anyone?) in an upstairs gallery – tho you still need a timed ticket even then.

Because the experience of the Barnes is so dense, it is impossible to digest it all in a single trip, even if you hang out there all day. Nor are things organized by artist or period. But this is a small museum with over 50 works by Matisse, and he’s a minor part of the collection. Charles Demuth, something of a local who was picked up by Dr. Barnes & understood just what access he was being given to the best in European painting, has watercolors spread out everywhere, especially over doorways, but there is only one room that has an actual cluster of them. Still, in the new location, it’s not going to be impossible for a local to spend an entire day looking at Matisse, another at Demuth, another still at Soutine. In fact the new setting almost calls out for that sort of reiterative immersion.

The one thing you cannot do, in spite of all the inch-by-inch replication, is get any true sense of how the old collection in Merion actually felt. That’s gone. And it’s not coming back.


¹ If you have seen photos of the home Gertrude Stein & Alice B Toklas shared in Paris, you have a very good idea of what Barnes’ conception of how art should be laid out looks like.

² The current board of directors is a virtual who’s who of the sorts that Barnes himself would find perfectly appalling.