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Review: Barnes Foundation museum a bland shadow of once great self

With the Barnes Foundation's move to downtown Philadelphia, it has left behind the irreverent inventiveness once at the heart of the astounding collection.

May 18, 2012|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • The rooms and floor plan of the new Barnes Foundation museum are knockoffs of the foundation's original home.
The rooms and floor plan of the new Barnes Foundation museum are knockoffs… (Tom Crane, The Barnes Foundation )

PHILADELPHIA — Saturday the Barnes Foundation opens its new museum here on the busy Benjamin Franklin Parkway. With hundreds of Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses and Picassos, it's just up the street from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose officials were instrumental in pulling strings to make it happen.

Anticipation has been running high. Eight years ago a local judge granted permission for the incomparable art installation to relocate from its unique home out on the Main Line, available to anyone who wished to visit. And 17 years after the idea of moving was hatched, the deed is done.

Deed is perhaps too mild a word. (The New Yorker magazine called the plan "an aesthetic crime.") A deeply personal, eccentric installation of often jaw-dropping art in a specially designed building within a 12-acre garden, the ensemble was a total artwork. Once the nation's greatest cultural achievement pre-World War II, it has now become America's weirdest art museum.

Starting a century ago, Albert C. Barnes — a cranky, controlling and brilliant patent-medicine mogul — went whole hog collecting French Post-Impressionist, early Modern, African and other art. He was 50 when he opened a foundation for an intimate art appreciation school in the residential suburb of Merion. By the time he died at 79 in a 1951 car crash, he had made lots of establishment enemies. The Saturday Evening Post dubbed him "The Terrible-Tempered Dr. Barnes." Yet he had built something incomparable.

That cultural triumph is no more. With its collection packed up and slipped inside a bland, new 93,000-square-foot building five miles down the road, the Barnes Foundation as we've known it is defunct.

In its place stands a strange hybrid. On a 41/2 -acre site between the Free Library and the Rodin Museum, a small, 12,000-square-foot art building sits within a larger L-shaped structure, which houses the usual museum amenities (cafe, shop, auditorium, offices, etc.). The rooms and floor plan are knockoffs of the foundation's original home. Every Van Gogh and Soutine portrait, each Cézanne and Seurat nude and all the interspersed furniture and decorative objects are installed just as they were before.

The result is one part Colonial Williamsburg, where authentic and ersatz mingle; one part Lehman Wing, where an excellent New York collector's expensive period taste is enshrined in a Metropolitan Museum of Art replica of his apartment; and one partDisneyland's Main Street U.S.A., where a spiffed-up version of what time has torn asunder offers commercial entertainment.

Hundreds of antiquities, African and medieval sculptures, Pennsylvania folk art, Navajo rugs, Old Masters, ceramics and decorative metalwork — from door hinges to silver necklaces — are anchored by hundreds of modern paintings. Not everything is great. Barnes had a fashionable weakness for pretty Renoirs, many just nimble smears. But scores of works are School of Paris masterpieces.

Charged by a local judge with maintaining the benefactor's unique educational vision and driven by pledges to keep things as they were, the new place is a tweaked simulacrum of the old. Rather than re-imagine this astounding collection, the movers chose to copy. The artifact on display is "The Barnes Foundation," pickled in a vinegary brine of good intentions.

The original school was paternalistic, urging personal improvement through contemplation of beautiful art. That's still the museum's official purpose, but it isn't why the collection moved downtown. Nor was it for any of the usual explanations, like financial necessity or solving suburban inaccessibility and administrative mismanagement. Yes, it suffered from all those fixable woes. But most didn't become critical until long after the moving scheme was hatched in 1995.

Instead, it's a routine Rust Belt story. Philadelphia, the Keystone State's premier city, was on a long, slow slide. Between 1951 — the year Barnes died — and the millennium, a robust manufacturing sector all but disappeared. A quarter of the population left the city. The tax base shrank. National civic ranking slid from No. 3 to 4, then 5. Something had to be done.

Philly's partial answer: tourism.

Juicing cultural tourism is the Barnes' new job. (Admission, incidentally, is $56 for a family of four.) It's the Bilbao Effect — museum art as a civic profit opportunity. The gambit isn't necessarily unreasonable, though the track record is poor. Yet, to get court permission to move, no one could admit the aim. And the firm pledge to copy the original prevented taking an imaginative artistic leap.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge," Albert Einstein insisted in the 1920s, shortly after Barnes opened his unusual school. The physicist often noted that he would have been a musician, had he not been a scientist. "For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution."

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