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New Barnes Foundation offers up its treasures in Philadelphia

June 10, 2012|By Susan Spano, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The Barnes Foundation's exhibition rooms in Philadelphia are better-lighted than those in the original museum.
The Barnes Foundation's exhibition rooms in Philadelphia are better-lighted… (Matt Rourke, Associated…)

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia, the city that gave us Poor Richard, cheese-steak sandwiches and the American Constitution, just opened a new treasure: the Barnes Foundation, one of the premier privately assembled collections of painting in the U.S. with more dreamy Renoirs and searching Cézannes than in the whole of France.

Its arrival in May halfway between the landmark City Hall and Museum of Art on Benjamin Franklin Parkway — Philly's Champs Élysées — gives visitors a chance to see what was once an almost secret stash of great art.

The catalog is astounding, even apart from Renoirs and Cézannes: "The Joy of Life" and "The Dance," by Matisse, Seurat's "The Models," Van Gogh's "The Postman," Manets, Modiglianis, Sisleys, Picassos and more than a dozen Henri "Le Douanier" Rousseaus, all previously hard to access, thanks in part to the collection's former home in Merion, a 45-minute bus ride from downtown. The foundation rarely lent works to other museums, prohibited reproductions and restricted visitation.

Curmudgeonly founder Albert C. Barnes, a medical doctor, chemist and self-made millionaire with a boulder-size chip on his shoulder, once called Philadelphia "a depressing intellectual slum." He started buying art in the early part of the 20th century and conceived of his collection as an educational institution, not a gathering place for high-society "Sunday" dabblers in art.

When he died in 1951, locking his collection in a tightly regulated trust, it was assessed at more than $6 billion, but experts can't begin to estimate its current value. Cezanne's "The Card Players" alone is said to be worth $500 million, four times the record-breaking price paid for Edvard Munch's "The Scream" this year.

I'm a populist when it comes to art, which is why I felt vaguely depressed on a visit a decade ago to the old Barnes. It was in a French revival mansion full of tiny, ill-lighted rooms groaning with paintings and decorative metal work arranged choc-a-block by Barnes, who wanted students to note the recurrence of themes and forms regardless of how each work fit in the history of art. A fascinating method, radically different from the chronological approach most museums take.

It recalled the arrangements of 19th century French salons, but it was hard to appreciate in that setting, even if you were one of the lucky ones who got to see it.

It took more than 50 years to give the collection a new home that is open to the public. Not everyone loves it. L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote, "Once the nation's greatest cultural achievement pre-World War II, it has now become America's weirdest art museum." L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote, "Effective architecture, it turns out, is tougher to copy than you might guess. Even tougher is re-creating the relationship between art and the personality of the rooms where it's displayed — a relationship that was unusually strong inside the old Barnes."

There were a few picketers when I visited last month, opponents who call the move downtown a financially motivated plot to add another world-class tourist attraction to Philadelphia's Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall. "The Art of the Steal," a 2009 documentary predicted the move would have the "economic impact of impact of three Super Bowls, without the beer."

Standing at the threshold of the new museum, I couldn't help but smirk when I thought about how angry its relocation would have made old man Barnes — unfair because it fails to credit the founder's genius for finding and championing art that Philadelphia philistines once scoffed at. Soon mean-spiritedness gave way to excitement.

The bold new Barnes, designed by New York-based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, comes wrapped in an unmarked white marble box, approached along a walkway lined by a round stone-bottomed reflecting pool and young Japanese maples. For art museum habitués there are no amazements at first: a foyer yielding to an attractive garden-side restaurant and a wide assembly hall topped by a light-diffusing canopy; lower-level visitor services, including a gift shop, library and auditorium with handsome seating, ordered in imitation leather, then delivered in the real thing as a gift from Poltrona Frau.

The surprises begin in a mezzanine overlooking the exhibition entrance decorated with a row of stunning Navajo rugs Barnes displayed near the early modern paintings for which the collection is far more famous, together with African sculpture, antique metalwork and Pennsylvania-German chests. I knew about his penchant for artistic mélange but hardly expected to find that the new museum's 24 rooms would be assiduous replications of the old Merion galleries — albeit better lighted — complete with the ensembles he designed.

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