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4.1.04

A French Viewpoint on the Barnes Situation

I know that Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes (soon to hit the big time by becoming an ArtsJournal blog) has the Barnes story covered (I treaded on his territory once, in a post called More Renoirs Than You Can Shake a Stick At, August 8), but it can't hurt to hear about how foreigners react to American news. It appears that Geneviève Breerette has been to Philadelphia recently: she has just published a long article in Le Monde about the Barnes Foundation, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, the plans for a Calder Museum, and the proposal to move the Barnes to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to create a Museum Mile. It is published as three articles online: L'héritage en péril du Dr Barnes et de son anti-musée [The heritage of Dr. Barnes and his antimuseum in danger], La collection exilée sur le "Museum Mile" de Philadelphie? [The collection exiled on Philadelphia's Museum Mile?], and La justice appelée à défaire un testament verrouillé [The courts called upon to undo a locked-up will], all published on January 3 and signed from "Low [sic] Merion (Pennsylvanie)." Mme. Breerette does not say anything you probably haven't heard before, but here are some excerpts:

The Barnes Foundation is an unusual case. Visiting it is a delight because of the works it contains, obviously, but also because of the approach to art put forward by a one-of-a-kind collector, whose personal view on art is much more current today than ten, twenty, and thirty years ago. Those tired of modern, antiseptic museums with a very strong flow of tourists will discover a rare pleasure in visiting the Foundation's private universe.
[. . .]
By choice the works are side by side everywhere, or one above the other, obeying demands of symmetry that lines of forged iron underscore: the locks and fittings that Albert Barnes began to collect in the 1930s. This strange formal punctuation, loaded with a symbolic weight that reminds one of Masonic signs, contributes to the singularity of a hanging contrary to current curatorial principles. One wants to say so much the better, even if the meaning of the imposed order escapes us a bit: neither by artist or style, without chronological direction, but by association, contrast, and secret relationships . . . An undertaking that is not unpleasant today and that the greatest museums use from time to time, but only temporarily.
[. . .]
There is a good chance that one day or another the Barnes Foundation collection will leave Merion for downtown Philadelphia. The municipal government seriously sees it happening and supposedly has even reserved a choice location for it on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a wide avenue lined with trees and cultural institutions, leading directly to the Art Museum, its classical colonnade, its pompous stairways, a museum that was built, after all, shortly after the opening of the Barnes Foundation.

So the Foundation would be on the path of the institution that Albert Barnes hated the most, along with the Académie des Beaux-Arts. He was deathly irritated with Fiske Kimball, the museum's director from 1925 to 1955, who gave the museum its current size and with whom the collector was a rival and willingly accepted battle over acquisitions. For example, that of the central panel of Matisse's triptych of the Trois Sœurs, which Barnes, who already owned the side panels, ended up taking down from the wall. Or that over Cézanne's Grandes Baigneuses: the version acquired by the museum in 1937 was vaunted by labeling that in the Barnes a "second version," when in fact it had been created several years earlier, and so on. As a result, when the museum organized a Matisse retrospective, Barnes (who categorically refused to receive visiteurs like Kimball and his friends, whom he found too high-society) refused to lend any works for a snobbish or superficial public, to let himself be "used like an American movie-star with her song and dance act."

So we may think that, if the move to Philadelphia's Champs-Elysées occurs, Albert Barnes, angered as he was with the city's high society, would surely turn over in his grave. [. . .] In the meantime, the Foundation's former students are worried. How would the Barnes collection be installed in a new building? Even supposing that the Merion rooms could be reconstructed, they risk losing the genius of the place which is what makes the Foundation as it is today so charming.
Two notes about the paintings mentioned in this quotation. First, the left panel, center panel, and right panel of the Trois Sœurs triptych are all now on display at the Barnes. Second, a third version of Cézanne's Les Grandes Baigneuses is in the British National Gallery in London. Cézanne probably was working on all three of these paintings simultaneously over a long period of time.

If you want the latest American news on the Barnes move, Don Steinberg's recent article (Adding up a move for the Barnes, January 4) for the Philadelphia Inquirer gives the lowdown on what it might cost to move the Barnes into what could very likely be a wild, modernist building.

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