Friday, May 18, 2012

The Barnes Collection: Old, New, Improved

The reviews are coming thick and fast, so let me add my thoughts, fresh from a first peak at the Barnes Collection in its transplanted natural habitat. All that glorious (and some not so glorious) art is in back in place in the familiar yellow-walled galleries, sacrosanct arrangements intact, in the center of Philadelphia. The official opening this weekend will bring crowds streaming through the doors. The press opening gave me an idea of what that will be like - after my small group tour of the building a few weeks ago (see the archives for the post), the bustling multitude of reporters, journalists and cameras was a bit overwhelming - a relative tidal wave. But how great to see the new spaces in full use - animated conversations, people chatting over lunch on the terrace, exchanges of admiration or puzzlement about the hanging of the art in the rooms. I especially enjoyed a discussion between two newcomers to the Barnes - one from England, one from France - trying to figure out how on earth a museum could possibly hang art from three different centuries on one wall. They might not have hit on the answer, but they had zeroed in on the Barnes way of doing things. If you were worried about the move, rest easy - you'll find the galleries with their jumbles of great masterpieces, slight or more subtle works, ancient metal craft, wooden spoons and tin kettles intact and just as amazing, breathtaking, and sometimes infuriating as ever -  but improved. Better light makes everything fresher and easier to see - thanks mainly to good design decisions, new technology and slightly higher ceilings. Dr. Barnes has in no way been left behind; he is still at your side every step of the way through the rooms (now fitted with simple benches and very helpful brochures) poking and prodding at you to look, really look at the art. You can almost hear him: 'Stop relying on labels or dim memories from art history classes! Pay attention!" There's a slightly musty, hallowed aura that clings to the yellow burlap walls he specified for the Merion galleries (recreated almost exactly), but Dr. Barnes was way ahead of his time. He called his system 'scientific' - the empirical evidence of color, form, composition, subject, and other formal considerations - but it is also very contemporary in the shunning of a conventional academic hierarchy increasingly out of step with our Post-Modern culture of diversity and mixed voices. At the Barnes you remember - Dr. Barnes commands you to notice - 'Pay attention!' - that art has the power to startle, to shock, to hit you with force in the eye, head, and gut. You'll never see it all at this spectacular new addition to Philadelphia's museums - there will always be something you missed, some new puzzle to figure out, some new combination or perspective. You'll need - and want - to come back again and again. (And how nice that you'll now be able to relax with a cup of coffee in the downstairs public lounge!) This move was a struggle on many fronts, but it's a great time for the great Barnes Collection to emerge from the lovely Beaux Arts cocoon of the Merion Building and come fully into view by a much wider world in its sleek, elegant new home.

 Photos by Marilyn MacGregor

Don't miss the fascinating exhibit in the new temporary gallery. 'Ensembles' illuminates Dr. Barnes' life, philosophy and quirky personality in a wonderful display of correspondence with artists and dealers, photos of his family (including the most beloved member, his dog) and collaborators, memorabilia (a bottle of Agyrol among other things.) His caustic, cranky, very lively sense of humor comes across best in letters he wrote rejecting the efforts of the 'high and mighty' to gain admission to see his pictures. Artists and manual laborers had much less trouble. We can all be glad we don't have to ask his personal permission to enter the Barnes, but he can be happy - I hope - that so many more 'common folk' can now be enriched by his art.

Read my article about the Barnes opening in the Broad Street Review