City Barnes


Paintings by James Gardner

From all that I have heard about the formidable Dr. Barnes-and his legend is too well known to bear repeating here-I would not have expected him to have amassed the collection that now bears his name. A native of Philadelphia, Albert C. Barnes was a Methodist, and a most methodical one at that. He was reared in the most straitened economic circumstances and raised to exhibit at all times the most rigorous self-control, an injunction that seems to have coincided with the deepest bias of his nature. By training and character he was a chemist, a profession that reduces the world to its elemental particles and that seeks to divine, with exacting precision, the laws of their interaction. If one could imagine that such a being would ever take to collecting art (a frivolity, after all), surely it would be the pallid saints of early Netherlandish painting or the severe and cerebral rectitudes of analytic cubism.

Instead, Dr. Barnes assembled African totems and pre-Columbian textiles, as well as more than eight hundred paintings, among them 181 Renoirs, many depicting pinkly voluptuous women, as well as such exuberant chromatic exercises as Matisse's three panels of La Danse, which greets you as you enter the galleries. Stranger, perhaps, even than the collection, however, is the fact that Barnes himself once harbored artistic ambitions. "I collected my own paintings when I didn't have money," he wrote, "and when I had money I collected better ones."
As with so many great collections, it is not difficult to discern a common quality or feeling to the art on view at the Barnes. Visiting the galleries of the new building, I was struck by an overriding formal harmony that transcended the variety of the objects on display. Despite the presence of everything from Native American pottery to the works of El Greco and William Glackens, the art tends to be small, portable, and well behaved-framed paintings that live within a narrow spectrum and are dominated above all by what was happening in Paris in the seventy years of the Third Republic (1870-1940). German expressionism and Italian futurism, as well as academic art and surrealism, with the fewest exceptions, might just as well never have existed. You have only to consider the greenish-gray coolness of Henry Clay Frick's tall, broad canvases or the exuberant baroque maximalism of Walter Chrysler's collection, to appreciate at once how different is the general cast of the Barnes.
The collection, taken together, is so obviously excellent that any praise is apt to seem superfluous and any reproach cannot be seen as a general condemnation. There is little reason then to draw the reader's attention, yet again, to Seurat's Models or van Gogh's The Postman, to Cézanne's Bellevue Plain or Henri Rousseau's Scouts Attacked by a Tiger. These are the undisputed glories of the collection and we can only thank the doctor for having secured them for the nation. If there is one overriding impression, one flash of recall that lingers in the visitor's memory, it is likely the abundance of Renoirs in nearly every one of the Barnes's galleries. The feathery im¬materiality of those paintings, mostly from late in the artist's career, seems to dominate every one of the rooms, while the sun-dappled blurriness of their impressionistic style imparts a vagueness, a soft focus to the entire collection. But Dr. Barnes didn't have, and perhaps did not care to have, an infallible eye. You have the impression that he saw art in general and Renoir in specific categories: appreciating, for formal and thematic reasons, the category to which Renoir and his paintings belonged, Barnes bought his works literally by the crate. Some of these are very fine, like Chest¬nut Trees, Pont-Aven, from around 1892, or Luncheon, of 1875. But I confess to feeling surprised, even a little dismayed, that this master should have signed his name to so many inferior works and that Dr. Barnes would have scooped them up with so little apparent discrimination. In the Seated Odalisque of 1918 or the Bathing Group of two years before, it is still possible to admire that textured and idiosyncratic touch that enlivens everything by Renoir. But such modest attainments aside, it would seem that Renoir painted these works, and Barnes collected them, according to the aesthetic equivalent of cruise control.
And perhaps it will seem perverse to suggest that one might own too many Cézannes: but after a visit to the Barnes, that thought may occur to more than one visitor with the wherewithal to resist the prevalent doctrine-which has survived even the transition from modernism to postmodernism-that every work by this painter was a model of priestly integrity. His Peasant Standing with Arms Crossed of 1895 is a pretty feeble effort, as is his lumpy and misshapen Leda and the Swan of 1880. Here too, one suspects, that the collector was acquiring art in accordance more with the category into which it fit than with its visual powers.
Above all, even though the doctor deserves credit, and was happy to take it, for having single-handedly discovered the work of Chaim Soutine-his one paramount discovery-it often seems as though his collection was assembled according to someone else's over-arching idea of modernism, specifically as it was understood and glorified in Paris between the wars. For this reason, although the great masterpieces of the Barnes collection achieve that disembodied timelessness that we expect of their greatness, the bulk of the collection-taken together-of ten reads as the distillation of a specific moment in the history of taste. As such it is still highly valuable, but perhaps in a different way from what is usually supposed.
And then there is the manner of its display. Dr. Barnes's collection surely includes bold and brightly colored paintings, but their individuality is often smothered under the tyrannical sameness of their display. Each wall preserves the exact disposition that was devised, after the most painstaking thought, by Dr. Barnes himself according to the strictest dictates of bilateral symmetry. In addition to the paintings, which predominate, these arrangements are enhanced by the occasional chest, an odd urn, and above all an abundance of metal hardware-often of inscrutable function-that form a dazzling and dizzying totality. Any sensitive curator considers the way in which objects resonate when they are set next to one another, but no one has arrayed his strategy with such hell-bent determination as Dr. Barnes. The effect resembles the somewhat bizarre, almost manic orderliness that results when someone stacks several thousand books according to their height.
But there was a method to the madness of Dr. Barnes. Given his truculent demeanor and the fact that he was every bit a self-made man, one might have expected him to conform to the stereotype of a rock-ribbed individualist who had little or no patience for the underclasses. And yet, inspired by the writings of his friend and mentor John Dewey, the apostle of pragmatism, Dr. Barnes devoted a good deal of his wealth and energy to the essentially democratic goal of educating the common man, of using art to open the eyes and hearts of the citizens to the perceptual richness of the world that surrounded them. In keeping with the spirit of the times, and with Dewey's phi¬losophy, this was essentially a formalist approach to art. The rhyming formal motifs that emerge from the inspired juxtaposing of a Renoir nude, a Native American pot, and a meat hook, a similarity in a sequence of curves or straight lines, was intended to awaken in viewers a sense of the art and of themselves that had previously lain dormant.
One may imagine that Dr. Barnes, by all accounts a man of tyrannous self-control, had himself found solace and release in the life of colors and forms and that he wanted, for the noblest of reasons, to com¬municate their liberating powers to the rest of the world.

Fig. 8. Room 18 is filled with nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American paintings, alongside primarily American decorative arts.
Decorative Arts by Bea Garvan

 

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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