May. 18th, 2010

starlady: Gryffinclaw: "Don't believe what you're told. Double check."  (question everything)
(In honor of International Museum Day.)

Last month I went to the Barnes Foundation again.

The Barnes Foundation, located pointedly outside Philadelphia in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, is without question the greatest single collection of Modern art in the United States and quite possibly anywhere: it has more Cézannes than the entire city of Paris, to quote just one statistic; the collection is valued conservatively at $25 billion, but in reality it's simply priceless.

There are three other museums I can think of like the Barnes: both the Frick Collection in New York and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston were built by wealthy, eccentric industrialist money, but both Frick and Stewart Gardner were drinking the Old Master Kool-Aid (which is great stuff, to be certain); Barnes remained pointedly contemporary in his tastes. I also find the Miho Museum in Shigaraki, Japan to be an interesting comparand, since its collections were acquired by a mother and daughter purely on the basis of their aesthetic appeal, recalling Barnes' arrangement of his collection along his own aesthetic principles.

These works of art were collected and arranged by the late Dr. Albert Barnes, self-made man, staunch Democrat and anti-establishmentarian. Despite the fact that Barnes employed the strictest language possible in his will to keep his paintings where he wanted them, in the arrangements he chose according to the layout he designed in accordance with the art education principles devised by him and John Dewey, at the end of this summer the Foundation will close its permanent home and decamp to a new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, the victim of a concerted effort on the part of state and local politicians and 'philanthropists' to deface Barnes' vision. It is without question tantamount to getting away with murder; though the new building will keep Barnes' arrangements, it will very much offer the sort of en masse, cattle call-experience that is the opposite of everything Barnes, who taught classes in art appreciation at his collection almost until the day he died, wanted for his art. If you can go, do it this summer.

Henri Matisse, who created an in situ mural just for the Foundation, said that the Barnes was the only sane place to view art in America, and for my money, I'll take Matisse over people like Ed Rendell and Ray Perelman any day. But when I first went to the Barnes five or six years ago I knew much less of the story, and I found the experience somewhat overwhelming; in particular, I can't share Barnes's evident love of Renoir, whose works comprise probably 1/3 of the collection.

This time around the experience was just as engrossing, but much richer; it's impossible to convey how it feels to be able to stand in the corner of one room and look into other rooms, and to see how Barnes's arrangements work not only within the walls, not only within the rooms, but among the rooms too. The reason Barnes was able to amass such a stunning collection is because he was buying this stuff when no one else liked it, which goes against a lot of the popular wisdom about how to spot art for the ages; no one bought Impressionist paintings, right? But Barnes's life defies such clichés, as do his defiant mixtures of medieval Greek icons, twentieth century modernist masters such as Míro and Picasso, high 19thC painters like Renoir, and Old Mexico paintings of the 17thC with pre-colonization African and Olmec masks and stonework, to say nothing of the early American furniture and metalwork interspersed liberally amongst the art. It's a heady brew, and Barnes's installations insistently make the point that the divisions we impose on art and art history are arbitrary at best and invidious at worst, masking commonalities and ghettoizing human creativity from knowing itself (and preventing the acknowledgment of inspiration). These ideas are still things the art world doesn't want to hear. The best I can hope for in the Barnes moving to Philly is that maybe Barnes's truly radical message will reach more people, but my cynical soul doubts it. The fate of the Barnes is nothing other than a tragedy.

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