Barnes Art Plopped Into Bloated Mausoleum: Lance Esplund

Barnes Foundation
A view of a gallery in the recently opened Barnes Foundation, now located in downtown Philadelphia. Photographer: Tom Crane/The Barnes Foundation via Bloomberg

The creation of the new $150 million Barnes Foundation is the greatest preventable cultural tragedy of our era. And taxpayers footed one third of the bill for this bloated and inferior institution now located in downtown Philadelphia.

In 1922 the medical doctor, chemist and passionate collector Albert Coombs Barnes (1872-1951) created his foundation, a school for the appreciation of art, philosophy and horticulture.

He commissioned Paul Philippe Cret to design a refined, two-story Italianate villa adorned with sculptures by Jacques Lipchitz on a 12-acre arboretum in Merion, Pennsylvania, 5 miles from Center City.

Its intimate suite of 24 interconnected galleries housed Barnes’s unmatched, multibillion dollar collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern art.

Among the hundreds of works are 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses and 46 Picassos.

But the collection, which ironically was initially dismissed by the Philadelphia elite, is much greater than the sum of its masterpieces.

Barnes arranged his Modern artworks salon-style and interspersed them with works by European Old Masters, Egyptian carvings, African masks, ironwork, textiles, furniture, Native American, Greco-Roman and folk art.

Courbet Nude

The revolutionary installation allowed the art of different cultures to speak individually and, further, to open up one another, to sing in chorus.

A splayed, flayed rabbit by Soutine was answered by the figure of Christ in a Gerard David crucifixion, which, in turn, was echoed in the extended arms of an early American spinning wheel.

An inscribed, painted heart on a Pennsylvania-German chest of drawers was mirrored by the heart-shaped buttocks of a Courbet nude who seductively opens her legs as she adjusts her stocking. Flanking andirons transform her exposed sex into a glowing hearth.

One of the most spectacular art installations in the world, the Foundation was sui generis, timeless.

Barnes stated in his will that he wished for the artworks never to be loaned or moved, not even an inch.

In 2004, a judge ruled otherwise, stipulating that the collection could move but that the galleries must be more or less replicated.

Strong-Arm Tactics

Gross mismanagement, propaganda and strong-arm tactics combined to wrench Barnes’s art from its perfectly workable and accessible home and move it to a new building downtown.

Think of it as a form of looting. Just because it was in some way legal doesn’t mean it was ethical.

Nearly everything is wrong. There’s now a “supporting” collection of tasteless, inappropriate contemporary artworks and light fixtures, textured-pizzeria walls and ceilings and intense, even light.

Taken together, the new Barnes is a worst-case example of philistinism, provincialism and avarice masquerading as public service and community outreach.

If you have experienced the old Barnes, you will be shocked by how disembodied and already outdated the new place feels.

Crowding Galleries

Visitors, crowding galleries the size of small bedrooms, are expected to increase fourfold.

An intrusive indoor garden and classroom with an LCD screen have been inserted between galleries. These new spaces disrupt the original flow and destroy Barnes’s orchestrated sightlines between rooms and artworks.

In the main gallery, track lighting interferes with viewing Matisse’s monumental, site-specific mural “The Dance” (1932-33), which is ill-fitting, over-lit and no longer anchored by Merion’s crown molding.

Below Matisse’s mural, instead of Merion’s gardens, windows reveal cars whizzing by on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Many have praised the new galleries’ state-of-the-art lighting system, which automatically regulates its combination of natural and artificial light. Indeed, the galleries are much brighter now.

No one bothers to mention that for years at the old Barnes, which was outfitted with new windows, the blinds and curtains were almost always closed.

I visited the new Barnes on a cloudy morning and found the lighting distracting, overbearing and uniform. Rather than allowing colors to breathe, at times it completely washed out the paintings.

Oversize Mausoleum

Just getting into the place is dispiriting. Crossing a darkened moat and entering the somber, stone building designed by Manhattan firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien is like moving ever-deeper into an oversize mausoleum where the collection feels not installed but entombed.

After a series of confusing twists and turns that culminate in a vast, diagonal trek across the Walter and Lenore Annenberg Court, you enter through a set of ugly bronze doors into a tiny foyer -- a constricted wasteland occupied by a lone, nonworking grandfather clock.

The enormous Annenberg Court, which dwarfs the galleries, is a vacuous space added for crowd control whose other function will be to accommodate parties for the wealthy. Let’s recall that the Annenbergs and Dr. Barnes despised one another.

Barnes’s gift was not limited to his masterpieces. It was an organic whole that included the buildings, grounds and gardens.

Cherry-Picking Art

Crying “sustainability,” improved “access” and “education,” the Philadelphia establishment, Pennsylvania politicians, the Lenfest and Annenberg Foundations and the Pew Charitable Trusts led the charge to uproot the Barnes, cherry-picking the artworks and literally leaving everything else behind.

Still protesting outside the day I visited were members of the Friends of the Barnes Foundation, a group that fought to keep the collection in Merion. One held up a sign: “R.I.P. Donor Intent.”

It’s true. Nothing legitimizes this assault on a benefactor’s wishes and the unforgivable breach of historic preservation: Embedded now in at least one wall in every gallery -- intermingling with the Cezannes, Matisses and Renoirs -- is a large, glowing red “Exit” sign, the new Barnes’s most consistent and prominent feature.

Matisse remarked that the old Barnes was “the only sane” place to view art in America. For Barnes, the Matisse mural, like a “rose window,” transformed his Foundation into a cathedral.

Soulless Shell

A vestige of its former self, the Barnes has been reduced to artificial period rooms housing a great group of pictures. Comparatively, it is a repackaged and rebranded commodity, a soulless shell.

Walking through the galleries, I became increasingly bereft.

Gone forever, the Barnes Foundation deserves a eulogy.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include theater and movie reviews.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE