Saturday, June 23, 2012

Dr. Barnes in Philadelphia

One of Dr. Barnes' "ensembles" contrasts a cozy family portrait by Renoir  with a painting by Cézanne 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.

The Barnes Foundation building
It happened and it's over and undoubtedly a lot of people are and will be grateful. The collection is dazzling and the building that houses it, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, does it justice. Within an understated, 93,000-square-foot building, the architects recreated the rooms that once housed the collection in Merion. They preserved the exact proportions and detailing, including the orientation of the windows, the placement of the objects in each room, the colors of the walls and trim. Their changes were subtle to enhance the luminosity of the galleries.

Each gallery has been outfitted with benches where visitors can sit comfortably and meditate on the art. That's what the doctor wanted — an educational and emotional experience based on observing shape, color, line, spatial arrangement and content transcending the work of any one artist or period — each piece reflecting the others on that wall and in that room in what Dr. Barnes called "ensembles."

The guiding hand remains Dr. Barnes' own. He saw the connections in the art that he owned. It soon becomes apparent that the reason he wanted nothing moved was that the galleries themselves were his art.

The new Barnes Foundation building is on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, right next to the Rodin Museum, which has the largest collection of Rodin's work outside of Paris, and down the hill from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, making Philadelphia a must-see destination for any art lover.

Admission to the Barnes Foundation collection is still by timed ticket, but tickets are easy to come by now. No one will be turned away.