Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Barnes - 'New' and 'Old'

It's time to talk about the Barnes Collection, whose days in its suburban Philadelphia mansion are fast coming to a close. I last commented on Barnes matters after seeing the plans for the new Center City building at a city hearing. I was enthusiastic about the move then and I remain so, even with the understanding that some things will be lost in the translation. These include the experience of Dr. Barnes's original setting and with it the aura of the master's touch, with the knowledge that he stood here and placed that there, on occasion conversing with the visiting Matisse to inspect the placement of his Bathers mural, or with Bertrand Russell, whom Barnes hired to lecture in his classes in the building. The mansion in Upper Merion is beautiful in its own right, as are the surrounding gardens which were a haven for Dr and Mrs Barnes when they resided there and continue to be important to horticulturalists. The original Barnes residence will, after July, become an archive open to scholars, an fitting and enduring role for this singular collection and its interesting history. But much will be gained in the move. Most obviously, better access to the jaw-dropping, over-the-top incredible collection. The 'New Barnes,' now nearly finished, sits in pride of place along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (the Champs Elysees of Philadelphia - with its allee of trees and long views it is one of the great urban spaces of America) in easy proximity to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, the Franklin Institute, the Free Library, etc. The design seems jarringly modern after the earlier Beaux Arts gentility, but my understanding of the plan from what I saw is that it is respectful of the fact and spirit of the original while also accommodating the practical needs of a modern art museum. The designers, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, took pains to replicate the exact orientation of the galleries to light and even to the details of the landscaping visible through the windows. The arrangement of the collection will, of course, continue to reflect the valid, if idiosyncratic, ideas of Dr. Barnes with all the bits and pieces of metalwork stuck between the masterpieces. Dr. Barnes would probably not be happy - from what I know he was quite a grump and was not often happy - he had quarrels with the Philadelphia Museum, the Philadelphia art establishment of his day, even with Bertrand Russell and Matisse - (this painting by Giorgio di Chirico captures him nicely) but he made clear his intentions to make his collection accessible and he showed a strong belief in the value of African art and in the African-American community - the move will allow more space to show the breadth of this astonishing collection as well as to show it to more visitors including school groups, most especially those for whom the trek to Upper Merion, with accompanying rules for reservations and parking allotments, was difficult, if not impossible. The legal hassles and the vitriolic assertions about the Barnes have been exhaustive and acrimonious to a ridiculous degree (if you need to know more, it's easy to find the history going back many years.) It is now time to celebrate this extraordinary treasure and be glad that it is intact and available - it's a new jewel for Philadelphia. What do you think? Were you ever at the 'Old' Barnes? Do you think the advantages of the move outweigh the experience of the original?


Anonymous said...

I agree. The advantages of the Barnes Collection reaching a far larger audience and being accessible to Philadelphians of all socio-economic status is more important than the intentions of the collector. But then, shouldn't ALL museums be free and open to the public?????

Bill Brookover said...

I'm of two minds about the Barnes. I love it in Merion, but I have high hopes for it on the Parkway. The unity of art, building and landscape is really important. But the Board and the neighbors drove it into the ground.

So off to the Parkway. The architects are first rate so the new building should be wonderful. The collections will be more accessible to the broad public, not just art junkies in the know. I'd also like to see the art hung 21st century style at times. After all it is about Cezanne and Matisse, not about Dr. Barnes.