Architecture, by Greg Cerio | from The Magazine ANTIQUES, July/August 2012 |
Let’s set aside any recap of the Sturm und Drang that accompanied the move of the Barnes Foundation from its home in suburban Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania, to central Philadelphia, as well as the uproar over the legal legerdemain that erased many of the strictly defined codicils in the indenture of trust established by the institution’s creator, Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951). What’s done is done. In any event, the new Barnes precisely preserves the idiosyncratic installation of what has justifiably been called the world’s greatest private collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern art, as well as the ethnographic works, antiquities, and decorative arts that Albert Barnes amassed. What’s more, the foundation’s new home in Philadelphia is not without its own quirks-some successful, others just, let’s say, alluringly odd. In a way, the building is an architectural version of a Russian nesting doll.
Fig. 1. A view of the exterior of the new Barnes Foundation building in Philadelphia designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.
The Barnes Foundation 2.0 is the creation of the New York-based husband-and-wife team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who came to prominence outside their professional ranks with their acclaimed 2001 design for the bronze-clad American Folk Art Museum in midtown Manhattan. (Over-leveraged on the costs of its new home, the museum has relocated to much smaller premises several blocks north on the borough’s West Side. The Museum of Modern Art purchased the nearby Williams-Tsien building, and its fate is still undecided.) The new Barnes is situated on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and has as its next door neighbor the city’s jewel-box Rodin Museum. That 1929 structure, perhaps ironically, was designed by the French-born architect Paul Philippe Cret (1876-1945)-his surname rhymes with “pray”-who was also the architect of the original Barnes Foundation. The Lower Merion building is generally described as “Beaux Arts” in style, though it is nothing of the kind. Cret’s Barnes is a lean, subtle, pared-down version of neoclassical design-the architectural equivalent of the masterworks of the art deco maestro of French furnishings Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann. “Proto-modernist” may be the best way to categorize the suburban foundation’s design, a term made more apt by the cubist bas-reliefs on its facade, commissioned by Barnes from the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz. The new Barnes is resolutely modernist in form.
Fig. 2. Detail of the textured Ramon limestone panels that form the facade of the new Barnes
The exterior and much of the interior is clad in limestone panels quarried in southern Israel’s Negev Desert. The stone comes in two shades: gray-toned panels, many marked with fossils, form the facade, while the interior panels have a goldenish color. Many sections of the limestone have been hand-chiseled, in striated patterns that the project architect Philip Ryan says are meant to be suggestive of cuneiform tablets-a bow to the antiquities in the collection, and, one imagines, an attempt to give the building an air of agedness. The building is topped by a story-high “light box” covered in frosted glass, which is illuminated at night: a beacon that announces the foundation’s importance and makes the place a vibrant visual landmark.
As with Cret’s suburban design, the new Barnes Foundation is a kind of womblike structure. There is a protective element to each plan. The Franklin Parkway is a busy thoroughfare that serves as both Philadelphia’s “Museum Mile”-the street terminates at its northwestern end at the Philadelphia Museum of Art-and the venue for such raucous celebrations as the city’s annual Independence Day parade. Just as the original Barnes Foundation was meant to offer a respite from the hectic life of a city setting, the new location attempts to buffer the proximity to the streetscape by offering what Ryan calls “a transition from the urban to the gallery” that includes “moments of repose.”
Fig. 3. Le Bonheur de Vivre by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), 1905-1906, hangs in a new gallery.
Much like the old Barnes Foundation, the institution’s new home reveals itself in stages. Visitors enter via a ticketing pavilion (as at the original Barnes, advance reservations are required for entrance), and then proceed through a lush garden-designed by landscape architect Laurie Olin-that reinterprets the arboretum that surrounds the Lower Merion site. The Parkway side of the build¬ing will feature groves of trees intended to eliminate street noise: plane trees, horse chestnuts, and cedars. At the off-street side of the building-via which visitors will enter-Japanese red maples and a framed matrix of climbing vines are comple¬mented by a reflecting pool and a forty-foot tall statue by Ellsworth Kelly titled the Barnes Totem.
Fig. 4. View of the reflecting pool at the entry court of the Barnes Foundation.
As they proceed, visitors enter a space where docents and museum associates will be on hand to offer guidance. That done, they move into a two-story hall, meant primarily for “special events” (read: parties and fundraising events). The flooring in this space is highlighted by a band of ipe wood planks (repurposed from, of all places, the Coney Island boardwalk) laid in a herringbone pattern. The ceiling is canted upward at a rightward angle and opens to a wide slit that admits northern daylight. From the entry, the hall leads to a gallery that will house temporary exhibits. (The first show will present items from the Barnes collection that are not normally on view, as well as archival material that, it is hoped, will enable visitors to, as foundation spokesman Andrew Stewart says, “see who Albert Barnes really was.”) To the right, the hall points to a landscaped outdoor pavilion, over which the rooftop light box cantilevers. The underside of the light box is also canted, but in the opposite direction of the interior hall, revealing a slit that captures southern light.
Fig. 5. Matisse’s three panels of La Danse (1932-1933) are in¬stalled in the first room of the galleries.
Located on a below-ground level are a library, a lecture hall, and seminar rooms-all in keeping with Albert Barnes’s wish that his foundation serve principally as an educational facility. But a story above, directly off the reception halls, through tall metal-framed glass doors, is the entry to the holy of holies: the collection itself. Having moved through four successive buffer zones-the ticket office, the gardens, the anteroom, and the enormous entry hall-visitors will undoubtedly be slavering to see the collection.
Williams and Tsien took precise measurements of the original Barnes galleries, then increased the length by fifty feet to allow for an internal light well and garden that will allow visitors a moment of undoubtedly welcome respite from aesthetic overload from the twenty-four rooms that contain the collection. In terms of sheer accumulation, the Barnes is astounding, if not overwhelming. There are 181 paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 69 by Paul Cézanne, 59 by Henri Matisse, 46 by Pablo Picasso, 21 by Chaim Soutine, 18 by Henri Rousseau, 16 by Amedeo Modigliani, 11 by Edgar Degas, 7 by Vincent van Gogh, and 6 by Georges Seurat. In addition, the foundation’s holdings include works by Rubens, El Greco, de Chirico, Tintoretto, Gauguin, Manet, Utrillo, Goya, Monet, and William Glackens-a childhood friend of Barnes from a working class neighborhood of Philadelphia and later his art advisor.
Fig. 6. Room 3 contains works by Titian, Renoir, and Cézanne, among others.
As mentioned above, only the slightest changes have been made to the singular manner in which Barnes hung his art. In the galleries, paintings are placed alongside such disparate items as baroque keyhole escutcheons, classical objects and artworks from Greece and Rome, Native-American ceramics, and even antique tools-counterpoint aspects of artistry that Barnes felt were illuminating. One of the collection’s masterworks, Matisse’s Bonheur de Vivre, which hung in a stairway at the old Barnes, is now placed in an intimate new gallery. Apart from that, little is altered.
Fig. 7. The ensembles in Room 23 are arranged in dis¬tinct groups around large centerpiece paintings, such as (from the left), Unpleasant Surprise by Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), 1901; Ma¬tisse’s The Venetian Blinds, 1919; and Girl with a Goat by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), 1906.
In his essay of 1942, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus invokes the ancient Greek tale of a man who was condemned to roll a large stone to a mountaintop, only to see the rock roll back down, just short of his goal. Camus, an existentialist, found nobility in the never ending struggle, and concluded “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Albert C. Barnes was no Sisyphus. He rolled the rock that is his collection to the summit, where it sat for decades after his death. Eventually, though, the rock did roll back down. You can imagine Barnes bitter, frustrated, spiteful-yet given the efforts that have been taken to see that his collection bears his imprint, one must imagine him, if not “happy,” then at least not unhappy.
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
Albert Barnes saw design in everything, and a select few pieces from his spectacular collections of decorative arts-Pennsylvania German blanket chests and cupboards, country chairs, ceramics, and especially artistic bits of wrought iron-are installed in the painting galleries of the Barnes Foundation, just as he intended them. Additional objects, such as Native American pots and jewelry, African sculpture, Jean Renoir pottery, and sculptural metalwork from all eras and cultures, can be found in small pocket galleries off the balcony.
The decorative arts play a deliberately provocative role in the gallery compositions by reinforcing an aspect of the painting or paintings placed above them. Take the west wall of Room 4 for example: The abstract heart designs on a Pennsylvania dower chest of 1770, which is placed below Les Ribauds, a painting by Honoré Daumier, make direct reference to the curvaceous bodices of the two women. The painting and chest are also related in their colors-earth tones with strong black contrasts-while demonstrat¬ing differences in design and technique. Then, at the top of this installation, Barnes combined two pieces of wrought iron, one repeats the curves, the other follows the lines of shadow and the flailing arms of the women.
Fig. 9. A diagram with precise measurements was prepared for each room showing the exact placement Dr. Barnes had determined for the paintings and objects in the original museum, so that the arrangements could be duplicated in the new building.
In Room 6, on the south wall, you encounter an exaggerated horizontal arrangement: two sturdy low-back Windsor chairs with saddle seats are placed in two corners, making a clear reference to the paintings of lusty nudes by Renoir hanging above them. Over this combination is a pair of wrought-iron hinges installed vertically, repeating the upward gestures of the figures. To bring the eye back into the center, at the top of the wall is a quiet painting by Renoir of a woman’s head. Her downward gaze leads the eye to a colorful, vertical Paul Gauguin painting placed over another dower chest.
A final example-from the north wall of Room 13: Here a splendid Pennsylvania blanket chest made about 1789 and attributed to John Bieber easily dominates the composition. It is flanked by free¬standing andirons that repeat the chest’s painted pillar forms. The ceramic pot echoes the central flowerpot motif on the chest, which leads the eye straight upward in a vertical composition with Renoir’s canvas of two seated figures.
Other combinations await discovery throughout the Barnes. A chest from the Mahantongo Valley of Pennsylvania, painted with little birds has little carved birds perched on it. They are related by color and are challenged by the scale of the chilling jungle scene by Henri Rousseau above them (Room 14, north wall). A chair placed beside a Goya portrait of a man who is sitting in an identical chair, is a more literal lesson in observation (Room 6, east wall). Pedantic? Yes. Irritating to people accustomed to eye level ribbon-like installations? Probably. Albert Barnes called his arrangements “instructional wall pictures.” The first visit might be intimidating; the second, full of discovery. And ever after a joy.
BEA GARVAN is curator emeritus of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.