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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

That's faith in art, as Philadelphia's terrible-tempered doctor would agree. But the new museum shuns adventurous imagination. Instead, it's a dull display of reconstructed knowledge.

Cold comfort is offered in one obvious improvement: There's some better lighting. Many, though not all pictures are easier to see. The light motif is hinted in a lobby window, where a perfectly awful prism "sun-catcher" mobile by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects hangs. But the benefit comes at the expense of intangible atmosphere, not to mention the building's $150-million cost.

The loss is vivid in one place where the installation doesn't mimic the old. Matisse's 1905 "The Joy of Life," arguably the museum's most important picture, is an Arcadian vision of nude bathers, musicians and dancers. It used to hang in a stairway landing. Odd placement — and revelatory too.

Matisse's landscape view is visual theater, flanked by trees that pull back like curtains to reveal the scene. Revolutionary color harmonies create shifting optical space. Undulating linear forms keep the eye circulating. Hanging this radical picture in a stairway — a circulation space where nothing is static and spatial penetration is the purpose — connected strange-looking modern art to ordinary life.

Barnes surely knew that in 1910 the Russian art collector Sergei Shchukin had commissioned from Matisse stairwell paintings for his Moscow mansion. So he took a risk. Academics and museum curators winced, but Barnes' imaginative installation was genius.

Emphasis on "was." Now the great Matisse sits demurely in an ordinary room. Why? In a new tourist museum, impeding stairway traffic flow is a problem.

Typical museums juxtapose art objects according to traditional knowledge categories like period, style or place. Not Barnes. His irreverent inventiveness used formal qualities — physical context, color, line, composition, texture, scale, space, etc. — to jump-start imagination. The result demanded that a visitor look and look hard.

A pattern-painted Pennsylvania Dutch chest, an African mask and a willowy Modigliani portrait visually chat among themselves. The conversation might be obvious, obscure or odd, but it helps you see the way artists do.

Say what you will about Barnes: He had the courage of his imaginative convictions, sparked by great artists. He shaped them in Merion with the help of his horticulturist wife, Laura, and philosophers like John Dewey. In the weird downtown Barnes museum, wandering a simulacrum with better lighting, you wish the same could be said for today's Philadelphians. They should have left it alone or completely re-imagined it.

For anyone who admired it in Merion, as I did, a visit to the new Barnes will be painful. In a generation or two the old art experience will be forgotten, replaced by the new. Sure, it's great to see the art. But what had been a singular place, its eccentricity key to a powerful art experience, is now just a strange display with many masterpieces, plus lots of door hinges and a cafe.

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