Thursday, September 20, 2012

The beauties of the Barnes: Part I

In this seating area, the dark wood was reclaimed from Coney Island boardwalk. Photo by Tom Crane, Vogue
I highly recommend making the heart of downtown Philadelphia an art destination in the near future, which is what I did last weekend, to view the unparalleled collection of Albert C. Barnes in its newly designed, state-of-the art building. The museum's quixotic and prescient founder arranged his cherished pieces on a textured, burlap background according to his own views of what complemented what, and they've been re-installed exactly as he had them. The difference is that the rooms housing the art have been nestled in a spacious environment of glass, wood, and stone that makes the blood pressure drop and the spirits soar.
Renoir's "Bather and Maid"
With a collection worth upwards of $25 billion, the museum is home to 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, 69 Cezannes, and 181 Renoirs —the largest group by the artist anywhere. As Barnes said in his book on Renoir, "He has achieved a union of expressive force and decorative richness unprecedented in plastic art." Add to that the Greek, Egyptian, and African sculptures; a smattering of Old Masters; the vibrant New Mexican wood-panel santos (saints); the Medieval and Renaissance ironworks; the beautifully decorated American chests; and the hundreds of other paintings, and you have a mind-boggling cabinet of wonders, all collected by just one person.
“Barnes’s exuberant vision of art as a relatively egalitarian aggregate of the fine, the decorative and the functional comes across more clearly, justifying its perpetuation with a new force” wrote the New York Times in reviewing the installation of the collection in its new location. You can get a sense of its uniqueness in this slideshow. And here are several more works by Barnes' "big three." (Images © 2012 The Barnes Foundation)
Cezanne's "Bathers at Rest"
Matisse's "High Tide"
Matisse, who had to come to America to re-acquaint himself with a huge body of his own work, claimed that no one showed it to better advantage than Barnes. If many an artist was a lonely genius, so was Barnes the collector. In an especially poignant letter to Leo Stein, quoted in this PBS documentary, Barnes asks permission of his friend, advisor, and fellow collector to correspond about  modern art, having found a dearth of individuals who shared his sensibilities. “Perhaps the thing that most interests me in Renoir,” Barnes wrote to Stein in 1914, “that most strikes a personal response is, what seems to me, his joy in painting the real life of red-blooded people and his skill in conveying his sensations to my consciousness.”
Renoir's portrait of Jeanne Durand-Ruel ("Portrait de Mlle. J.")
Renoir's "La Source"
Renoir: "The Red Boat"
Tomorrow: More stunning facets of Barnes' collection; attacks on his "revolting" aesthetic.
Further reading: We currently have four books on Renoir; Painters in Paris, 1895–1950 (covering Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Modigliani, Chagall, Soutine, MirĂ³, and others); a profusely illustrated treatise on Henri Matisse; and a collection of his Erotic Sketches.

10 comments:

  1. These are beautiful! Philadelphia is a great city; always worth the drive.

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  2. Agreed! Philly has a wonderful variety. If you plan around a Halloween theme, make sure to hit The Mutter Museum.

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    1. The Mutter Museum is incredible! It's all at once super creepy, very informative, and fascinating. Don't miss the garden of medicinal herbs!

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  3. Looking at the additional photos of the gallery, the way the photos are hung, the colors of the rooms, and the extra furniture is completely different from most galleries. Instead of white, sterile rooms with art placed a certain distance apart, this looks as if you're in someone's home. I guess it really personalizes it for Barnes and makes it much more inviting.

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  4. Yes, The Mutter Museum, Wilhelm!!!! I just checked out the slide show of The Barnes Collection, I think what seems most enjoyable is the arrangement and display of these works of art. The rooms the collection is housed in almost puts off a welcoming feel largely due in part to the antique furniture that accompanies the vast collection. The curator of this collection is right on and brilliant!!!

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    1. A British woman next to me sniffed that one wall resembled "a dog's dinner"—had she ever seen a photo of Gertude Stein's famous wall? (Or the Prado or Uffizi, for that matter.)

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  5. My high school biology class took a little field trip to the Mutter Museum back in the day...while it was certainly interesting, I also had quite a few nightmares about the various things preserved in jars. Needless to say, the Barnes Collection might be a little more down my alley. More beauty, less grotesque creepiness.

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  6. The page did not load correctly. I cannot see the lovely photos or read your comments :>(

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  7. I visited the original Barnes Museum once (it wasn't easy to get in). Barnes was a strange man indeed, who made his fortune by developing a gonorrhea medicine. Too fond of Renoir for my tastes (he had 181!), but then again, the works by Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, Rousseau, etc., more than make up for that.

    A more negative view of the museum's recent history (as opposed to that PBS show) is the fascinating 2009 documentary The Art of the Steal.

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    1. Yes, it would take more than my paltry blog to get into all that--but I've viewed both with fascination. Also, there was a recent heated exchange in the Letters section of the New York Review of Books between a critic and Julian Bond on the ethics of the takeover.

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