The Elusive Barnes Foundation

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

On a four-lane
road called City Ave., about 20 minutes outside Philadelphia, past a Popeye’s
Chicken & Biscuits and an undistinguished strip mall, a discreet blue sign
provides the only clue to the whereabouts of one of the world’s greatest
private art collections, amassed with bloody singlemindedness by a pharmaceutical
magnate named Albert C. Barnes between the years 1912 and 1951. The eponymously
named Barnes Foundation sits on a modest 13-acre plot of land in a quiet, tree-lined
residential neighborhood. Dotted with mismatched houses and condominiums, the
street leading to the Foundation’s limestone mansion speaks–like the
Foundation itself–of better times.

Lane, which runs in front of the Barnes’ bunker-like, Renaissance-style
villa, is a quiet place these days. Gone are the groups of protesters that have
bedeviled the Foundation in recent years, the alert squad cars and yellow police
tape. Gone, too, are the buses full of tourists it once hoped to lure to its
23 galleries chock-full of art treasures. In their place, a smattering of visitors
drifts in and out of the Foundation’s new parking lot, following the attendants’
martial-sounding calls to stick to the circular path that leads to the front
gate. After some 10 years of acrimony and litigation involving neighbors, township
officials, benefactors, the state attorney general, the Montgomery County Orphans
Court (which supervises changes to wills) and self-appointed guardians of the
Barnes legacy, stepping inside the iron doors of the Barnes Foundation has hardly
gotten any easier.

into the Barnes Foundation has never been less than a complicated affair. Unlike
most art museums that one may visit any time during operating hours, the Barnes
requires not one but two separate reservations: one for one’s person and
another for one’s car. Like the best Michelin restaurants, strict arrival
times are closely adhered to. No bags or coats may be brought inside, so visitors
are instructed to leave their belongings at the mercy of distracted parking

But things
were much worse when old man Barnes applied the astoundingly restrictive rules
he established for viewing his singular art collection. T.S. Eliot was unceremoniously
rebuffed when he tried to visit, as were Le Corbusier and the sculptor Jacques
Lipchitz, whose two friezes adorn the Foundation’s austere building. Officials
from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with whom Barnes maintained a less than
cordial relationship (he called their museum "a house of artistic and intellectual
prostitution"), were repeatedly forced to don disguises to view the Foundation’s
masterworks. More recently–presumably trapped between the twin pincers
of Barnes’ cumbersome will and the township’s hostile zoning demands–the
Foundation turned away another name-brand personage: the gaudy celebrity and
art collector Elton John. He had, it seems, dared to arrive without a reservation.

For those
who manage to access the forbidding cloister that is the Barnes, a glorious
reward awaits them that is just this side of fantastic. For art lovers, the
experience compares only to a child’s first Christmas visit to FAO Schwarz.
The shock of myth materialized is present–yes Virginia, there is a Santa
Claus!–and also an awesome sense of bounty. The collection contains 2500
pieces, including, incredibly, 180 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes (more than in all the
museums in France put together), 60 Matisses, 46 Picassos as well numerous other
works by artists like Titian, Tintoretto, Chardin, Delacroix, Manet, Monet,
Van Gogh and Seurat.

into "ensembles" by the irascible but knowledgeable Barnes himself,
the works are hung from floor to ceiling on the museum’s specially designed
burlap-lined walls (a dated innovation that transforms the space from neoclassical
formality into an interior wrapped in sackcloth). An El Greco rubs up against
a Milton Avery that in turn shoulders a Rubens. A Bosch painting is set cheek
by jowl with a Cezanne, pulling the viewer’s eye toward a tiny, gem-like
Goya. Paintings by Corot and Gauguin wait patiently on an adjoining wall. Filled
to the very brim, like the coffee cups of air-traffic controllers, and spurning
the trappings of more up-to-date museums, the smallish rooms of the Barnes struggle
to hold back their objects’ wealth, conservatively valued at some several
billion dollars.

The Barnes
Foundation’s collection, greater and more purposeful than the collections
accumulated by Isabella Stewart Gardner in her palazzo on the Fenway and Henry
Clay Frick inside his 5th Ave. manor house, is bullishly strong in impressionist
and postimpressionist painting but ranges far afield to encompass early Christian
art, African masks, Native American rugs, pre-Columbian objects, rare furniture
and unique works of folk art from the Americas. Jumbled together inside the
Foundation’s rooms with hardly a label among them (paintings will sometimes
sport a single prosaic word on their frames, identifying the artist: "Cezanne"),
the Foundation’s physical organization remains unchanged since its patron’s
death, following his stringent prescriptions to the letter.

Albert Barnes,
a connoisseur idiosyncratic enough to originate his own homemade esthetics (with
a push from his friend and mentor, the philosopher John Dewey), believed chiefly
in two things: using art as a "civilizing influence" on working people
and American blacks and shocking folks into fresh perceptions by avoiding traditional
artistic categories and chronologies. Born poor and drawn to black American
and later African culture as much by genuine fascination as by his visceral
rejection of Philadelphia’s blue blood establishment, Barnes refused to
treat any of his beloved objects with the distance of anthropology. He embraced
his entire collection through a peculiarly ahistoric, formalist approach that
emphasized the social value of art appreciation, mixing and matching eras and
genres according to his highly sophisticated sense of color, light and line,
producing strange combinations of art works in the most unexpected places.

A climb
up an otherwise mundane stairwell of the Barnes will, for example, make one
wheel around to encounter Matisse’s bright and sprawling Joy of Life,
a work that, like much of the collection, suffers in public appreciation only
because of its relative inaccessibility. Pennsylvania Dutch and Egyptian pieces
prod the viewer toward questions about line and space in a room full of impressionist
paintings. A gaggle of amazing Cezannes, including the darkly monumental Woman
in a Green Hat
, are weirdly complemented by turn-of-the-century American
barn hinges. One of Modigliani’s famously elongated and sensuous portraits
hangs above a cabinet of African tribal masks and a shallow horizontal relief
hailing from Madagascar. In an eerie note, scores of grandfather clocks chime,
almost in unison, every hour on the hour.

The Barnes
may prove a hassle to get to, but the time spent there is, to say the very least,
well spent and never, ever boring. The most eccentric setting possible for viewing
one of the world’s premier art collections, the Barnes sets an impossible
standard for quality in a collection, outpacing money-rich museums like L.A.’s
Getty Center, itself no slouch in the Weird Tales from the Art Crypt department.

The Barnes
Foundation is currently open three days a week and allows for a maximum
of 1200 visitors per week. Call ahead. Drive straight there, past Philadelphia’s
worthy art institutions. And bring cash. You never know. Just to spite you,
they may decide not to take American Express.

The Barnes
Foundation, 300 N. Latch’s Lane, Merion Station, PA, 601-667-0290.