Why Philadelphia, you might ask? There may have been other reasons in the past – cheese steaks, Dr. J., Philly soul -- but the big reason now is THE BARNES FOUNDATION. The Barnes Foundation is simply one of the most interesting, attractive small museums I've ever been to. It's on par with the Frick Collection and the Norton Simon in Pasadena as an art-viewing experience and, if you like art, must be seen.
The history of the Albert Barnes and his collection is absolutely fascinating. Born in 1872, Barnes made a fortune with Argyrol, an early antiseptic used to treat gonorrhea. Barnes sold his company and devoted the rest of his life to collecting art and promoting his theories of education.
And when I say "collecting art," I'm not kidding. Barnes' collection includes 181 paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 69 by Paul Cézanne (more than in all the museums in Paris), 59 by Henri Matisse, 46 by Pablo Picasso, 21 by Chaim Soutine, 18 by Henri Rousseau, 16 by Amedeo Modigliani, 11 by Edgar Degas, 7 by Vincent van Gogh, and 6 by Georges Seurat. There are also wonderful paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, Paul Gauguin, El Greco, Francisco Goya, Édouard Manet, Jean Hugo, Claude Monet, Maurice Utrillo, William Glackens, Charles Demuth, Jules Pascin and Maurice Prendergast.
But Barnes' collecting was not limited to paintings. He also collected furniture, folk art, African art, medieval art, sculpture, and metalwork. He believed that all creative endeavors – from the "high" to the "low" -- are related. He created "ensembles" of his paintings, furniture, and objects from various time periods on the walls of his "educational institution" – it was not intended to be a "museum" -- to show how creativity works across the eras and races. There is still much evidence of Barnes' theories at work in the Foundation today. Barnes was hostile to the art establishment, and even now, there is no curatorial or historical commentary on the walls: just tiny ID plates on each work. (We were lucky that there are audio guides, but they cover a small percentage of the works displayed.)
Barnes was guided in his early collecting by his friend, the painter Williams Glackens, and by Leo Stein, Gertrude's brother, who steered him to the four main painters he collected: Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, and Renoir. Barnes also benefited from the fact that he began to collect in earnest during the Great Depression, when prices were low. He never spent more than $100,000 on any single painting and once bought a Picasso for $300. But as great an eye as he developed, Barnes never really like Van Gogh's work. He turned down the chance to buy "Starry Night."
As prodigious a collector as he was, Barnes was also a considerable crank. The terms of his will were extraordinarily rigid, creating barriers to the collection. Founded in 1922, the foundation was originally located in suburban Merrion, with parking spaces for only fifty cars. Barnes seemed to enjoy making it difficult for people to see his trove. He once responded to T.S. Eliot's request to see the collection with a single word: "Nuts."
Because of pressure from the neighbors, the collection was open only two-and-a-half days a week. It took a combination of factors including the Foundation's dire financial condition to force a change. In 2013, after a huge legal brouhaha, a new "museum" was opened on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, in the heart of Philadelphia's museum district, right next to the tiny but sweet Rodin Museum. The move from the original setting to the new building transferred the design of the original walls of the Foundation – just as Barnes assembled them – into a modern, well-lit beautiful setting. Some curmudgeons objected to the move, but they are wrong; this is a collection that should be seen by the maximum number of people.
The experience of walking around the Barnes Foundation is extraordinarily pleasant. One of the benefits of being in a small museum is that you can't get lost. The TG and I – and the two friends of ours who joined us -- just wandered around the place, room after glorious room, for hours. There is nothing quite like the Barnes: a Cezanne next to an El Greco above a Pennsylvania Dutch trunk next to a case of African masks, with silver hinges and keys hung between. And everything is beautiful. Crank or no crank, Barnes had an amazing eye. Some amazing Rose Period Picassos and giant Matisses!!!
Just as Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao made that city a "must-see" stop on the World Tour of Art, the newly revived Barnes Foundation is a new mandatory destination for all art lovers.
If you like Art, you have no choice: you must now go to Philadelphia.
(To be continued.)