Monday, October 5, 2009

One Man's Eye



We started out our day with an excellent breakfast at our B&B, in the good company of a couple from Scotland and a young couple from Dallas, both working in the US Air Force...

... he about to be introduced to her Philadelphia family for the first time today. We wished them luck!

Setting off after breakfast, we drove--this time with our friend Leo's fine directions, and without getting lost!--across to one of the key destinations of our trip, the Barnes Foundation.

We arrived in very good time, and spent a while walking around the streets of the lovely area in which the Foundation is located...


... before checking in to the Barnes itself, an imposing mansion set in this suburban area...




... supposedly one of the problems that set off the controversy around this extraordinary art collection, because the neighbors had started to complain about the parking. Actually, the controversy was more complicated, as I understand it. The original intention of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, whose passion for art led him to amass what has to be one of the greatest collections outside of a museum, was to create an educational institute where people could learn about first-hand from its peculiar installation in his home. Amazingly, he managed to acquire some of the masterworks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including huge works by Picasso and Matisse, along with a vast number of paintings by Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh, Seurat, Rousseau and others. Renoir, it seems, was his favorite--along with Cezanne--since he is represented by more works than any other artist, and is visible on almost every wall. (No pictures allowed, sorry; you'll maybe find some at the Barnes website.) And this is not to mention the dozens of works of wonderful artists of lesser art historical prestige, like Maurice Prendergast, William Glackens and Charles Demuth.

It's not just the art, however, but the installation that Barnes considered vital to his purpose. The paintings are hung very precisely, salon-style--in the way he wanted them to be seen. A collector, too, of metal work from throughout the world, he installed these objects among the paintings to draw attention to their structure or their content, a kind of rhyming counterpart that were visual clues to the juxtaposition of the pictures--sometimes quite humorous and whimsical, and always highly idiosyncratic. The double curve of a decorative object, for example, might serve to draw attention to the anatomy of the adjacent female nudes. Sounds hokey, but it in some ways it works wonderfully well.

So far so good. At the Barnes, you look at the installation of an entire wall before you look at the individual paintings, and then back again. It's a fascinating visual exercise. Barnes wanted it to remain that way in perpetuity. Leaving the collection to the foundation, he stipulated that nothing was to be moved, nothing loaned out, nothing sold. Ever. But then.. parking problem or no, financial problems arose, the foundation needed to raise funds from other organizations, and the funds came with strings attached. The mansion needed maintenance, the display of the art did not suit the ideas of others... Legal proceedings of all kinds ensued, and are still, so far as I know, ensuing. Locals are now fighting hing to keep the Barnes in situ... Meanwhile, a new site has been purchased near the Philadelphia Museum, and plans are already under way to construct a Barnes Museum. In short, it's a mess.

Anyway, Ellie and I were delighted to have seen the collection as Dr. Barnes intended it to be seen, and came away much enriched by the experience. For anyone interested in the art of that period, it's not to be missed. Your eyes will ache with this surfeit of visual stimulation.

We left the Barnes early afternoon and paused for a deli lunch before returning the rental car--good riddance!--at the Amtrak station. I have been thinking a lot about "Witness" along the way, as I mentioned earlier. Remember this location?



Thence by taxi to our friends' and a good walk down to the Philadelphia Museum of Art...



... where we arrived in time for just a brief walk-through and a slightly longer stop at the current exhibition, an important overview of Marcel Duchamp's Etant Donnees and The Big Glass. I actually think that Duchamp is more important for what he thought and said than for his actual creations, but it was certainly a fascinating glimpse into the artist's process. Also quickly noted, two versions of his famous "Nude Descending a Staircase." (Again, no pictures, please!)

With the museum closing, Leo took us out for a lovely walk through the surrounding park and pedestrian areas...


Here he is, with Ellie, enjoying the view down over the river...



And finally, to bring another great day to a close, we met up with Carol...



... for dinner at a fine Italian restaurant. Then back to their home to spend some time in Leo's studio, where we caught up with his recent work--a marvelous array of (mostly family) portraits...

2 comments:

Pete Hoge said...

Most here in Philly don't know
the Barnes actually exists, or
don't care, or just want it to
move into town for the taxes and
jobs, or may be art lovers who
want the collection within walking
distance.

I myself am slightly curious.

Pete.

robin andrea said...

Wow, you remind me that I actually spent a day at the Barnes over 25 years ago, with my first husband. It was quite a place, and I remember thinking that it seemed very busy with a lot of visuals to process at once.