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More Renoirs Than You Can Shake a Stick at

Yesterday, I heeded Artblog's advice (see post from July 30) and finally went for a visit to The Barnes Foundation outside Philadelphia. (There has been a dispute between the people who run the foundation and its board, dominated by people nominated by Lincoln University, over whether to move the art collection to a more central location in Philadelphia. Furthermore, the present director says flatly that the foundation is nearly bankrupt, and the people who live around the museum have brought legal action to limit the number of visitors, meaning that the possible income cannot meet operating expenses.) How this place could be in financial trouble is beyond me, however: they have an eclectic but highly valuable collection (estimated value of $6 billion) and a good if peculiar facility, and Barnes left a generous, but not extravagant, endowment. Some blame the former chairman of the board in the mid-1990s, Richard Glanton. He is the one who led the foundation into a legal battle known as the Ku Klux Klan suit, because he accused the neighborhood of opposing a new parking lot for the museum because of racial bias against him. (Lincoln University in Delaware is the oldest black college in the United States.) The settlement against the foundation cost them $6 million. The folks at the BarnesWatch! group are not all that happy with present director Kimberly Camp either.

All I can say about this from my visit is that it would be a shame to show the collection anywhere but in the space that Barnes designed. However, it would be a greater shame for the museum to close altogether: 400 visitors a day is better than zero. I agree with Modern Art Notes (see post on August 6) that the three most important collectors of modern art in America were Duncan Phillips, Alfred Barr, and Albert Barnes. Barnes was probably the strangest of the three, and what you really see playing out at the Barnes Foundation is the man's eccentricity. The collection is stunning if narrow, limited by Barnes's tastes. I stood for a long time looking at Matisse's Le Bonheur de Vivre. At one point this painting was owned by Gertrude Stein, whom we may credit with getting Barnes interested in collecting art when she met him in 1906. For some reason, Barnes had it hung in the stairwell, making for uncomfortable viewing. It's a big, bright, beautiful painting, the famous foil to Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon. As brash and worthy of the name fauve as it is, I also spent a long time sitting in front of the even larger, cool, loving and decidedly un-fauve portrait The Music Lesson. I never tired of the succession of Cézannes, although I do admit that I stopped paying careful attention to the Renoirs after seeing about 75 of them. There are also beautiful examples of African masks, Greek marbles and vessels, and a splendid Benin warrior.

One thing is clear about Barnes: he liked representational art. The examples of purely abstract works in the collection are few and far between, and to judge only by the way Barnes collected art Cubism had very little influence on the history of art. The arrangement of works on the walls was intended by Barnes to reinforce his theories about art education: Picasso's Head of a Man hanging right above a case filled with African masks. You can almost hear Barnes giving his talk to his factory workers (apparently he actually hung some of the things he collected in his factories for his workers to enjoy). All in all, I think it would be a tragedy to separate the Barnes Foundation from Barnes.

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