The Barnes Foundation Re-imagined in Philadelphia

Walter and Leonore Annenberg Court. The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Probably close to 15 years ago, my mother and I wandered into remote Merion, PA to experience The Barnes Foundation.  Bookings had to be confirmed two months prior due to the strict number of daily visitors.  This advance seemed to hold also true for the transplanted Barnes collection on the Ben Franklin Parkway in attempts to recreate the Museum Mile of NYC with PMA, PAFA, The Rodin Museum, and now the Barnes.

Regrettably overdue, I shall explain the visit and comment about a deplorable decision physically realized on May 4, 2013.

The looming ceilings and airy space thwart the dwarfed Barnes quarters replica devoted to his idiosyncratically arranged collection.  A wide hall separates a modestly sized gallery room outlining the genesis of UPenn alum Alfred C. Barnes‘s [b. 1972- – d. 1951] wealth via Argyrol (used to protect newborn babies against gonorrhea), which allowed a robust 35 year man to become a millionaire after selling his successful enterprise.  Following that financial ascension, his relative youth permitted spirited pursuit of art that intrigued him.  The cultural and artistic status quo did not mirror his aesthetic sensibilities, and as a result, he cornered an untapped market and capitalized on rash investors who needed to unload material goods to cover worthless stocks post the Great Depression.  During his formative years in 1921 prior to the crash, he commingled with Gertrude and her brother Leo Stein who introduced Barnes to Matisse and Picasso.  The former would adorn his physical home walls in special commissions.  His life was incredibly learned and determined.  Married from 1901 to Laura Leggett, they shared an ability to focus in areas that removed the marking of hobby to their endeavors.  She developed the Arboretum and horticultural program that linked the original landscape in nature’s assemblage in harmony with his housed collection.

This side gallery served as a necessary penance for dissolving Barnes’s will after ‘legally’ eroding the written words for many years.  My post about the documentary Art of the Steal details this process.  Then this seemingly permanent gallery has been re-purposed for temporary exhibits.  Case in point, Ellsworth Kelly (darling of former PMA director Anne d’Harnoncourt) works shall occupy the walls supposed to be celebrating the collector.  Where is the justified uproar?

Walking to the main section that is inch by inch duplicated from the Merion dwelling, one is transported to the collector’s sentiments and painting play.  In that moment, one can almost forget the transgressions and imagine exploring the original.  Visiting this collection for a second time allowed me to ration my attention to the second floor that can be breezed through out of first floor art fatigue (Renoirs aplenty), but I planned accordingly.  This is an entree to be savored  twice.  Delights and rewards could be found in George Rouault‘s paintings [image below] and noticing smaller works from distinguished artists.  Sketches are the best windows in the artists’ freedom in line and expression.

Bonus points: There is a smartly designed free App offered in 4 languages that invites visitors to key-in selected works for extended audio information without the burden of renting gear if you have your iPhone or iPad.  iPad users can snap a flash-less image to retrieve the curated notes.  Maps and basic museum information are also contained within the App.

Safe to say that for seasoned art purveyors, the treasures at the Barnes Foundation do not disappoint or wane.  Under the mission statement of art being available for all, I find no fault until precedents are established against the clearly defined wishes of the individual from which public joy springs.  Removing this issue from consideration, The Barnes Foundation is a must destination for Philadelphia locals and tourists.

Clown in a Top Hat (1907). Watercolor on paper. Georges Rouault. The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA.

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