Last Friday I paid my first visit to the Barnes Foundation, the museum and art school in suburban Philadelphia that is home to Paul Cézanne’s “Large Bathers” and Henri Matisse’s “Joy of Life.” (I was escorted by my old friend Mark Obert-Thorn, the sound engineer whose double-barreled name is known to everyone who collects CD reissues of classical 78s.) The Barnes has been much in the news in recent months, so I won’t recapitulate its widely reported travails save to say that it will be moving at some point in the not-too-distant future from its original site to downtown Philadelphia.
Fortunately, you don’t have to know anything about the convoluted history of the Barnes to be fascinated by the place itself. Dr. Albert Barnes, a man far too peculiar to be sufficiently described by the word “eccentric,” spent the better part of a half-century buying paintings and devising the unusual ways in which they are now displayed in the gallery he built in 1925 to house them. I don’t know any other museum quite like the Barnes, whose walls are tightly packed with hundreds and hundreds of works by the likes of Cézanne, Daumier, El Greco, Klee, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, and such early American modernists as Maurice Prendergast, Charles Demuth, and Alfred Maurer, all of them hung without identification save for a tiny tag bearing the artist’s last name.
Like everyone seeing the Barnes for the first time, I was flabbergasted, not merely by the number of masterpieces it contains but also by the sheer acreage of canvas on display, and it took me the better part of an afternoon to sort out my complicated responses. Here are a few verbal snapshots from my visit, scribbled into my notebook on the spot and amplified at leisure:
• I found the excessiveness of the Barnes Foundation to be central to its total effect. Seeing a dozen paintings at a single glance may not be the best way to appreciate any of them individually, but it’s certainly exciting, even overwhelming, and there’s nothing wrong (to put it mildly!) with being overwhelmed by art.
In addition, I was delighted by the absence of wall labels. As I wrote in this space a couple of years ago, apropos of a visit to “Gyroscope,” an exhibition at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum:
As those of you who know me personally are all too aware, I have reached that unhappy age when I am sorely in need of bifocals. Alas, I’m too stubborn/vain/lazy to go to the trouble of getting a pair, so I continue to do without. I noticed for the first time at the Hirshhorn on Friday that I can no longer read the wall labels at museums without taking off my glasses. At first I found this to be irritating, but before long I realized that it was liberating.
Confession time: I have another little problem, which is that my eyes reflexively go to the labels in a group show, very often before I’ve taken in the works of art they identify. I can’t help myself—I’m a slave to the printed word. Only I can’t do it anymore. To read the labels, I now have to pull off my glasses and move in close, which takes away all the fun. As a result, I looked at “Gyroscope” the right way, meaning what first and who second, and not infrequently, I didn’t even bother to find out who. (In addition to a reasonably generous helping of good stuff, “Gyroscope” contains more than its fair share of crappy art.) Dr. Albert Barnes, who deliberately hung the paintings in the Barnes Collection without labels in order to force visitors to think harder about the art they were there to see, would have been proud of me….
I’ve just admitted to a naïve-sounding disability which I’m sure will make some of you smile. I came late to the visual arts, and I still fall on my face with humbling regularity. I’m no connoisseur, just a guy who likes to look at paintings, though I trust my eye and my taste. On the other hand, I don’t trust them far enough to be absolutely sure I’m always seeing paintings, not reputations, which is one of the minor reasons why I think I’ll put off getting that first pair of bifocals for a little while longer.
Now that I’ve finally broken down and started wearing bifocals, I find myself tempted once again to read before looking. You can’t do that at the Barnes. So much the better. It keeps you honest.
• Barnes hung his paintings in non-chronological groupings intended to help the novice viewer see the similarities between the compositional devices employed by different artists from different periods. Alas, most of his painstaking arrangements struck me as naïve: I quickly tired of their rigid pyramidal symmetry, and the picture-to-picture “rhyming” rarely seemed other than obvious (though I’m sure students find it instructive, which of course is what Barnes had in mind).
The only juxtaposition that I found eye-opening was the wall on which watercolors by Cézanne and Charles Demuth are hung side by side—along with two Japanese fans. That taught me something. (I hadn’t realized, by the way, that Barnes collected Demuth in such depth. Never before had I seen so many of his marvelous watercolors in one place.)
• I was surprised by how many paintings I saw on my second pass through the galleries that I’d failed to notice the first time through—including more than a few of the ones I ended up liking best. (I actually mistook one postcard-sized Daumier for a switchplate.) The problem, I think, is that Albert Barnes’ taste for high-key color was so pronounced, even exaggerated, that the collection as a whole, with its relentless emphasis on the intense reds and oranges of his beloved Renoirs, has the unintended effect of swallowing up smaller and/or less brightly colored paintings of great excellence.
• The Barnes contains 181 Renoirs, most of them late and most of them awful. Indeed, a day at the Barnes Foundation is almost enough to persuade you that Renoir was a minor painter. You have to flee its stifling atmosphere and remind yourself anew of what a really good Renoir looks like in order to recapture your perspective.
• Barnes was as smart about Cézanne and Matisse as he was silly about Renoir. Granted, you can “know” Cézanne without having gone to the Barnes Foundation: it’s a great, great collection, but it doesn’t tell you anything about him that you can’t find out elsewhere. Not so Matisse. Even after a decade of serious and sustained exposure to his work, a single visit to the Barnes significantly heightened my understanding of Matisse’s language and my appreciation of his achievement.
• My favorite individual room in the Barnes was Gallery 10, devoted almost entirely to small paintings. Dominated by Matisse, it’s one of the few galleries that contains nothing by Cézanne. I could live in that room.
• It goes almost without saying that the single greatest painting in the Barnes is “The Large Bathers.” (I almost hate to admit it, but I don’t really care for “The Joy of Life”!) But my personal favorite—the one I’d most like to hang in the Teachout Museum—is a late Cézanne, undated and very likely unfinished, called “Two Pitchers and Fruit.” It reminded me strongly of the Phillips Collection’s “Garden at Les Lauves” and is of exactly comparable quality.
Not coincidentally, seeing the Barnes for the first time redoubled my appreciation of the Phillips. While Albert Barnes and Duncan Phillips were both great art collectors whose underlying sensibilities were very similar, Barnes was both obsessive and provincial in a way that Phillips was not. Phillips spent a lifetime cultivating his eye and mind by engaging with the ideas of others; Barnes seems to have listened only to himself, eventually going so far as to create a closed system of aesthetics whose sole purpose was to justify his own prejudices, unleavened by the kind of broadening experience that ultimately led Phillips in such surprising directions. For all his self-evident passion and seriousness, Barnes was incapable of the kind of interior growth that made it possible for Phillips to embrace Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn in his old age.
• I’m glad I waited so long to go to the Barnes for the first time. It’s not a place for the casual museumgoer. That’s why it will be a crime to move it elsewhere. I’m not talking about the complex legal and fiscal issues at stake in the planned move—I’m not competent to assess those. I’m talking about purely aesthetic matters. The Barnes isn’t perfect, not by a long shot, but it’s unique, and that’s the point of it. Putting aside the distracting effects of the thousands of visitors who will start flocking to the new Barnes the day it opens its doors, the sense of pilgrimage is an essential part of the experience of visiting the Barnes Foundation. You can’t just drop by on the spur of the moment—you have to make a reservation in advance and go well out of your way to get there. That contributes enormously to its special quality. Once the Barnes pulls up stakes and moves downtown, this quality will be lost forever, even if the existing galleries are reproduced exactly in its new quarters (which I’ll believe when I see it).
Go now. I’m glad I did.