Saturday, June 23, 2012

Dr. Barnes in Philadelphia

One of Dr. Barnes' "ensembles" contrasts a cozy family portrait by Renoir  with a painting by C├ęzanne of nudes in a hostile landscape
With jubilation and some residual sour faces from the bruising legal brawl that preceded the occasion, the Barnes Foundation opened its Center City Philadelphia campus on May 19, 2012. A hundred years ago, Dr. Albert C. Barnes began buying Impressionist, post-Impressionist and early 20th-century art, assembling one of the world's great collections, larded with old masters such as El Greco, Hals and Goya and African and Native American work that intrigued him. He was also interested in Pennsylvania German folk art and furniture and in centuries-old metalworking. He liked the inventive shapes of hinges, locks and keys and ornamental metalwork.

Dr. Albert C. Barnes as painted by Giorgio de Chirico
The doctor, who was born in 1872 in what might politely be called a "working class" neighborhood of Philadelphia and whose father was a butcher before he lost his right arm in the Civil War, made a fortune with his invention of the antiseptic Argyrol. Barnes used his money to buy art, which he installed in a building that he commissioned in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia. From behind that barred door, he spurned the art critics, socialites and celebrities who had spurned him. He turned down their pleas to see his collection, admitting factory workers, young artists and others who gratefully feasted on the wonders that Dr. Barnes had amassed and carefully arranged.

Under the tutelage of the educator John Dewey, who became a friend, Barnes developed his own methods of education. There would be no mind-numbing curatorial explanations in his galleries. He wanted his visitors to look, not to read. Barnes stipulated in his will that his collection was to remain exactly as it was at the time of his death and that of his wife, Laura. Nothing was to be loaned or moved.

Dr. Barnes was killed in an automobile accident on July 24, 1951. Laura died in April 1966. For the ensuing 40 or so years, the Barnes collection remained sequestered in Merion with comparatively few visitors and insufficient funds to maintain the building and the grounds of the doctor's estate. But the legal wrangling necessary to break Barnes' will and move the collection to Center City Philadelphia was intense.