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Entertainment & Arts

Review: Barnes Foundation museum a bland shadow of once great self

PHILADELPHIA — Saturday the Barnes Foundation opens its new museum here on the busy Benjamin Franklin Parkway. With hundreds of Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses and Picassos, it’s just up the street from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose officials were instrumental in pulling strings to make it happen.

Anticipation has been running high. Eight years ago a local judge granted permission for the incomparable art installation to relocate from its unique home out on the Main Line, available to anyone who wished to visit. And 17 years after the idea of moving was hatched, the deed is done.

Deed is perhaps too mild a word. (The New Yorker magazine called the plan “an aesthetic crime.”) A deeply personal, eccentric installation of often jaw-dropping art in a specially designed building within a 12-acre garden, the ensemble was a total artwork. Once the nation’s greatest cultural achievement pre-World War II, it has now become America’s weirdest art museum.

Starting a century ago, Albert C. Barnes — a cranky, controlling and brilliant patent-medicine mogul — went whole hog collecting French Post-Impressionist, early Modern, African and other art. He was 50 when he opened a foundation for an intimate art appreciation school in the residential suburb of Merion. By the time he died at 79 in a 1951 car crash, he had made lots of establishment enemies. The Saturday Evening Post dubbed him “The Terrible-Tempered Dr. Barnes.” Yet he had built something incomparable.

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That cultural triumph is no more. With its collection packed up and slipped inside a bland, new 93,000-square-foot building five miles down the road, the Barnes Foundation as we’ve known it is defunct.

In its place stands a strange hybrid. On a 41/2 -acre site between the Free Library and the Rodin Museum, a small, 12,000-square-foot art building sits within a larger L-shaped structure, which houses the usual museum amenities (cafe, shop, auditorium, offices, etc.). The rooms and floor plan are knockoffs of the foundation’s original home. Every Van Gogh and Soutine portrait, each Cézanne and Seurat nude and all the interspersed furniture and decorative objects are installed just as they were before.

The result is one part Colonial Williamsburg, where authentic and ersatz mingle; one part Lehman Wing, where an excellent New York collector’s expensive period taste is enshrined in a Metropolitan Museum of Art replica of his apartment; and one partDisneyland’s Main Street U.S.A., where a spiffed-up version of what time has torn asunder offers commercial entertainment.

Hundreds of antiquities, African and medieval sculptures, Pennsylvania folk art, Navajo rugs, Old Masters, ceramics and decorative metalwork — from door hinges to silver necklaces — are anchored by hundreds of modern paintings. Not everything is great. Barnes had a fashionable weakness for pretty Renoirs, many just nimble smears. But scores of works are School of Paris masterpieces.

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Charged by a local judge with maintaining the benefactor’s unique educational vision and driven by pledges to keep things as they were, the new place is a tweaked simulacrum of the old. Rather than re-imagine this astounding collection, the movers chose to copy. The artifact on display is “The Barnes Foundation,” pickled in a vinegary brine of good intentions.

The original school was paternalistic, urging personal improvement through contemplation of beautiful art. That’s still the museum’s official purpose, but it isn’t why the collection moved downtown. Nor was it for any of the usual explanations, like financial necessity or solving suburban inaccessibility and administrative mismanagement. Yes, it suffered from all those fixable woes. But most didn’t become critical until long after the moving scheme was hatched in 1995.

Instead, it’s a routine Rust Belt story. Philadelphia, the Keystone State’s premier city, was on a long, slow slide. Between 1951 — the year Barnes died — and the millennium, a robust manufacturing sector all but disappeared. A quarter of the population left the city. The tax base shrank. National civic ranking slid from No. 3 to 4, then 5. Something had to be done.

Philly’s partial answer: tourism.

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Juicing cultural tourism is the Barnes’ new job. (Admission, incidentally, is $56 for a family of four.) It’s the Bilbao Effect — museum art as a civic profit opportunity. The gambit isn’t necessarily unreasonable, though the track record is poor. Yet, to get court permission to move, no one could admit the aim. And the firm pledge to copy the original prevented taking an imaginative artistic leap.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” Albert Einstein insisted in the 1920s, shortly after Barnes opened his unusual school. The physicist often noted that he would have been a musician, had he not been a scientist. “For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

That’s faith in art, as Philadelphia’s terrible-tempered doctor would agree. But the new museum shuns adventurous imagination. Instead, it’s a dull display of reconstructed knowledge.

Cold comfort is offered in one obvious improvement: There’s some better lighting. Many, though not all pictures are easier to see. The light motif is hinted in a lobby window, where a perfectly awful prism “sun-catcher” mobile by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects hangs. But the benefit comes at the expense of intangible atmosphere, not to mention the building’s $150-million cost.

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The loss is vivid in one place where the installation doesn’t mimic the old. Matisse’s 1905 “The Joy of Life,” arguably the museum’s most important picture, is an Arcadian vision of nude bathers, musicians and dancers. It used to hang in a stairway landing. Odd placement — and revelatory too.

Matisse’s landscape view is visual theater, flanked by trees that pull back like curtains to reveal the scene. Revolutionary color harmonies create shifting optical space. Undulating linear forms keep the eye circulating. Hanging this radical picture in a stairway — a circulation space where nothing is static and spatial penetration is the purpose — connected strange-looking modern art to ordinary life.

Barnes surely knew that in 1910 the Russian art collector Sergei Shchukin had commissioned from Matisse stairwell paintings for his Moscow mansion. So he took a risk. Academics and museum curators winced, but Barnes’ imaginative installation was genius.

Emphasis on “was.” Now the great Matisse sits demurely in an ordinary room. Why? In a new tourist museum, impeding stairway traffic flow is a problem.

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Typical museums juxtapose art objects according to traditional knowledge categories like period, style or place. Not Barnes. His irreverent inventiveness used formal qualities — physical context, color, line, composition, texture, scale, space, etc. — to jump-start imagination. The result demanded that a visitor look and look hard.

A pattern-painted Pennsylvania Dutch chest, an African mask and a willowy Modigliani portrait visually chat among themselves. The conversation might be obvious, obscure or odd, but it helps you see the way artists do.

Say what you will about Barnes: He had the courage of his imaginative convictions, sparked by great artists. He shaped them in Merion with the help of his horticulturist wife, Laura, and philosophers like John Dewey. In the weird downtown Barnes museum, wandering a simulacrum with better lighting, you wish the same could be said for today’s Philadelphians. They should have left it alone or completely re-imagined it.

For anyone who admired it in Merion, as I did, a visit to the new Barnes will be painful. In a generation or two the old art experience will be forgotten, replaced by the new. Sure, it’s great to see the art. But what had been a singular place, its eccentricity key to a powerful art experience, is now just a strange display with many masterpieces, plus lots of door hinges and a cafe.

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christopher.knight@latimes.com


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