It’s been a long time since I visited the Barnes in Merion, Pa., but I definitely experienced a déjà vu upon entering the galleries of the Foundation’s new $150 million re-creation on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.
Perhaps it was the view of the Navajo rugs on the upper balcony, or the salon-style hanging that has become the hallmark of the Barnes, surrounded by escutcheons, hinges, Pennsylvania Dutch furniture and other tchotchkes.
Here are Seurat’s models putting on stockings in his studio in front of “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” and Cezanne’s iconic card players.
Just as in Merion, there are no labels on the walls, but benches where viewers can take it in, form their own impressions, and then read more in little booklets provided.
Outside, in the Fountain Plaza that is open to the public, with an allee of chestnut trees
and reflecting pools filled with river rocks, protestors are carrying “RIP Dr. Barnes” placards. Art of the Steal notwithstanding, I want to say RIP, protestors – it’s over. The Barnes is here to stay on the Parkway. And it’s beyond anyone’s wildest dreams – even Dr. Barnes’ – so come on in and enjoy it.
This is undoubtedly not the first story you’re reading about the greatest art event of North America this summer – and one has to remember that the Merion location never received a fraction of the press, aside from the controversy over Dr. Barnes’ will. Even my own visit to Merion was sparked by the “last chance to see it as Dr. Barnes intended” hype.
Here in its new home, hundreds of thousands of visitors can marvel at the visionary brilliance of the chemist who made his fortune with Argyrol, an antiseptic for treating gonorrhea, to have collected all this Impressionist and post Impressionist art.
While the interior galleries have been re-created to the millimeter, the exterior is completely new and modern, and amenities such as a café and shop are on the lower level, along with restrooms and a library that is open to the public. In the center is an enormous court, where docents and teachers can gather groups. The space, lit with natural light from above, has a restaurant and can also be used for special events, seating 250. And an auditorium, with 150 cognac leather seats, provides ample space for lectures and films.
The walls are made of a gray stone that has been chiseled to resemble cuneiform text, making the space look timeless and contemporary at once. The floors are made from ipe, a Brazilian walnut reclaimed from boardwalks at Coney Island.
The galleries themselves still have tan canvas on the walls, barrel-vaulted ceilings and
parquet floors, although the black tape to warn visitors to stay away from the artwork has been replaced by a wood strip in the parquet. You still feel close and intimate with the paintings hung at human scale: Van Gogh’s postman, Cezanne’s rooftops in Provence or “Still Life with Skull”; Soutine’s eviscerated rabbit, Demuth’s dandies having lunch. If art is your religion, this is a fine place to worship.
If you are an art student, you can get so close to Renoir’s pastels and examine each line and how it settles into the paper’s tooth. Walk up to and then away from Maurice Prendergast’s women in various states of undress to see how the daubs of brushstroke form leaves or dress patterns.
Did I mention the light? The architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, principals, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, used state-of-the-art lighting and glass on the windows to allow the paintings to be seen in a way they never have before, yet protecting them from damaging rays.
“You can finally see the paintings as the artists intended,” said Derek Gillman, Barnes Foundation executive director and president, recounting how Ellsworth Kelly, whose sculpture is in front of the building, asked if some of the paintings had been cleaned. “You can see the true colors of Cezanne. The violet in the background was blue-gray in Merion. The entire collection is more luminous now.” He pointed out a Cezanne painting of a woman reading a book with a reflection – the reflection was not visible in Merion.
The lighting is controlled by a computer in a dollhouse on the roof; when it measures too much light, the computer tells the lighting system to diffuse.
When Matisse’s “The Dance” was brought in, Ms. Tsien recounted, it brought tears to her eyes. Mr. Williams remarked how this was not only a collection of individual works of art, but itself a larger work.
“This world-class collection needed a world class home,” remarked Joseph Neubauer, vice chairman, board of trustees. “The donors and enlightened civic leaders realized how much it would mean for Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.”
Indeed, when built, the Ben Franklin Parkway was envisioned as a Champs-Elysees of Philadelphia. The city now feels closer to that goal.
Dr. Barnes had to adjust his walls every time he collected, says Mr. Gillman. His true love was the Impressionists, but he collected Old Masters to help make sense of Modern paintings. Calling Barnes an autodidact in art, Mr. Gillman says, “He worked with the best assets of a collector: great resources, a great eye, and the best dealers, Leo and Gertrude Stein. This was contemporary art when he collected it.
“He wasn’t radical and didn’t embrace abstraction,” continues Mr. Gillman. “He didn’t collect Klee until the end of his life.”
Barnes collected 800 paintings over 40 years, according to Mr. Gillman, including 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 46 Picassos, 18 Rousseaus and 16 Modiglianis.
He sure liked Matisse, too (there are 59); a room on the upper level is like Matisse’s greatest hits: “The Music Lesson,” “Red Rug,” “Standing Nude Near Window,” Moorish Woman,” “Young Girl on a Balcony Over the Ocean,” “The Madras,” “Woman and Screen, “Studio with Goldfish,” “Domino Players,” “Interior with Two Figures” and three “Three Sister Paintings.” I found myself hyperventilating.
And Matisse’s “Joy of Life” has been given its own gallery, and is ADA accessible. Just when you think it’s safe to go back in the water, you come upon more Matisses. And Bonnard. And Lautrec. Oh my.
Barnes was obsessive-compulsive, according to Mr. Gillman, and color was more important than subject or artist – that’s why the Pennsylvania German furniture and glazed pottery were selected as complements.
Gaugin’s painting of an almond-skinned woman in a floral sarong gazing at a reflection in the water seems so appropriate over an 18th century painted chest of drawers with a pewter teapot and candlesticks.
To see so much great art at once is overwhelming, to be sure, but at this location you can pick and choose what strikes you at the moment and return easily for more. Or just visit the cafe for a break.
It is delightfully appropriate to have minimized technology – no distracting videos — so you can examine, say, a Miro, or discover a small painting by Alexis Gritchenko, a Ukrainian artist who painted sailors on a wavy sea against puffs of blue mountains. Even sweeter, there’s a duck-shaped cookie cutter over it.
But in between the galleries, state-of-the-art classrooms have been inserted, with large walnut tables, chairs by Mira Nakashima, Belgian linen acoustic panels, video monitors in wood cabinets, and an additional seating area behind bookshelves.
A word about what the Barnes is: It may look and feel like a museum, but Dr. Barnes wanted the collection to be first and foremost a teaching institution, used as a classroom.
In order to move the Barnes, $200 million was raised – an amount organizers say could never have been possible in Merion. After building costs and moving the artwork, $50 million has been set aside for an endowment. The city gave four-and-a-half acres of land, the site of a former prison. In Merion, the Friends of the Barnes numbered 400; today, it’s 20,000, and the Foundation is debt free.
You may recall that the location in Merion was surrounded by an arboretum. That arboretum will still be maintained, but in keeping with Dr. Barnes’ desire to combine art and horticulture, columns of green space have been designed into the galleries and planted with native trees.
It was Dr. Barnes’ will to make this accessible to people from all backgrounds, says Mr. Gillman. “He believed art opens eyes and hearts and deepens engagement in life. This campus has been designed to meet the needs of a new century. It is a jewel box in Philadelphia that will elevate you.”
It’s as if the paintings, having survived the controversy and the move, are cavorting in their new rooms. A long-ago New Yorker cartoon caption is appropriate not only for Dr. Barnes, but for the Foundation that raised the funds to build this shrine: “I like what you do with your money.”