MEET THE NEW BARNES: SAME AS THE OLD BARNES -- ONLY BETTER
After a half-century of misguided intentions, a will interpreted every which way, deteriorating infrastructure, neighbors wanting it gone then wanting it back again, and outrage over the thought that art should ever be viewed under any rules but its owner’s, one of the greatest and Frenchest and most oddly displayed collections of post-Impressionism and early Modernism is back on view. The roughly 800 paintings in the Barnes collection have been reinstalled precisely as Albert Barnes hung them, tightly crowded and flanked by odd bits of hardware and other hoarded artifacts, in a meh-looking new building on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Although the motives behind the move may have been all too human and therefore tragic, and those involved may look back in anger, the effect is epic. After being virtually impounded, cut off from the outside world by its brilliant and dictatorial connoisseur-owner who forbid it ever to be moved, loaned or even sketched, this lost tribe of paintings and sculptures has been reunited with the family of art. Almost.
I’ll explain that “almost” in a minute. First let me report that the art in the Barnes Collection has never looked better. My trips to the old Barnes were always amazing, but except on the sunniest days, you could barely see the art. The building always felt pushed beyond its capacity. Crowds were common because of the restricted hours. You had to book way in advance and felt rushed because of the pileup behind you. (The new Barnes, by contrast, is open six days a week, eight hours a day, plus Friday nights.)
In the new building, highly controlled natural light and ultraprogrammed, unobtrusive artificial lighting bring things out of these pictures that have been dormant or invisible. Rooms that are no bigger seem bigger; time slows as gaggles of works unfurl into constellations of changing configurations and overlapping meanings. Color bursts forth. The blues of Cézanne, once indistinguishable from the greens, come crashing back. Schisms and rifts between things reappear. The lush brushwork of Soutine, Manet, Degas and Courbet glows red-hot. The close-toned, backlit majesties of Rousseau rise and loom as never before. Matisse’s paintings return to being fiery impassioned tapestries.
In one painting, Picasso’s 1903 The Ascetic, a gaunt, opalescent man against a Mediterranean blue ground radiates like a living phosphorescent organism, and he may change the molecular structure of Philadelphia (I imagine the Phillies gathering in front of it, drawing mystic energies). It spellbinds. Many of the 181 Renoirs -- 181! -- look structurally august, not just cheesy. Rather than madly clashing, van Gogh’s palette turns finespun, exquisite and controlled.
Which brings us closer to that “almost.” Albert Barnes had a preternaturally great eye, but he had revolutionary, and often flaky, ideas about how art must be seen. Shunning hierarchy, style, chronology, artist, dimension or any system at all, the Barnes collection is a visual language unto itself. Call it Smorgasbord Mundo. The paintings are wedged into 24 small galleries with vast amounts of folk art, crafts, New Mexican retablos painting, Pennsylvania Dutch furniture, Tang-dynasty Bodhisattvas, archaic Greek incense burners, Roman busts, paper silhouettes, pewter pitchers, iron pincers, cookie-cutters, coffeepots, weather vanes, horseshoes, letter openers, lock mechanisms, one of the world’s outstanding collections of wrought iron, thousands of other objects including over 200 pieces of Native American jewelry and textiles and 125 African art pieces and masks. It’s ruthless, unrelenting, almost inhuman.
As a result, the Barnes is not a collection so much as an unyielding optical labyrinth -- a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art unto itself, that can change the way you think about what you see. It can also blind you. With no retinal breathing room, no psychic rests, no spaces of silence, you can find yourself rushing past masterpieces, overloaded by the optical onslaught.
As much as I love the Barnes, I don’t want any other museum on Earth installed this way. No matter how greatly you admire it, you have to admit that the artists who made this art might be horrified by how their works have been used. I imagine the ghost of Georges Seurat trying to remove his giant masterpiece series “Models” from its spot eight feet above the floor. (I picture Renoir’s ghost hovering nearby, gloating, and I flinch a little.)
Yet the madman was onto something. In one gallery I boggled at a Ptolemaic-period Egyptian bas-relief of a woman squatting with her knees facing one direction, her trunk seen full on, her head facing another. Then I saw the Egyptian pose in Matisse’s monumentally powerful 1907 Red Madras Headdress, picturing a woman in the richest blue-and-maroon dress ever. Then it recurred in several Modigliani portraits, then abstractly in a Cézanne still life seen simultaneously from left, right, above, below, and straight on. Then it all exploded in Picasso’s 1907 proto-Cubist portrait of a woman whose presence would end up squatting like the Egyptian figure in his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. That never would have happened anywhere but here.
Soon the dust will settle, the feuds will fade and art will do what it does. Till then, remember this: owners of art are temporary caretakers. Their wishes are not to be sacrosanct in perpetuity. The move of this singular jewel in the crown to a more accessible location, into a far better-equipped, much more flexible building, allows this monumental testament to art’s possibilities to shine forth more magnanimously and generously than ever before. When art wins, everyone wins. Even Albert Barnes.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.