At Philly's Barnes, The Art of Location

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Before beholding the walls blanketed with Renoirs, Cezannes, Matisses, Picassos and other wonders of art, visitors to the Barnes Foundation first have to find the place. Hidden by thick shrubs on a quiet street in a Philadelphia suburb, it's the scavenger-hunt treasure of the art world. Within its surrounding 12 acres are an arboretum and garden, lush with finely landscaped flora. Then there's the building, a French Renaissance limestone beauty. In this era of easy-access museums, the Barnes is clinging to its status as a pilgrimage destination.

But not for long. Barnes trustees have initiated a plan to relocate the collection to a new, more central home in Philadelphia, next to the Rodin Museum, a few blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Permission to move the collection, granted by a special court ruling in 2004, was the culmination of a protracted, controversy-ridden campaign by the trustees. It contradicts explicit orders by Albert C. Barnes, the foundation's creator, that the collection never be moved and that the arrangement of artwork be kept exactly as he left it when he died in 1951. Although Barnes administrators are fuzzy on the timing, the move is expected to occur within two years.

Eager to see the place in its original state, a couple of weeks ago I took a train to Philadelphia and hopped a No. 44 bus to Merion, the Barnes's home base. After following the bus driver's bad directions and fumbling with a map, I trailed a Barnes-bound couple down North Latches Lane.

Somewhere between the two guard stations, I wondered: Is this really worth the hassle? Then, just inside the door, came the answer: Henri Matisse's "Dance," a 1909 mural whose generous use of bright color and movement are awe-inspiring. At 47 by 11 feet, it stretches grandly across the three arches at the top of the room. For the next half-day, eye-catching canvases appeared at every turn of the head.

Even novices pacing the Barnes floors on their own will recognize some landmark canvases. In the main drawing room, covering much of a wall, is Pierre Auguste Renoir's 1896 "The Artist's Family," a depiction of the French master's wife, children and maid. Farther along hangs Paul Cezanne's "Card Players," an 1892 oil whose large scale and vividness make this one of the artist's most ambitious paintings. Then, on the second floor is Matisse's 1906 "Joy of Life," a celebration of nudes captured in bright reds, pinks and yellows that ranks among the most influential paintings of the 20th century.

Amid the hundreds of works exhibited, these three alone would be worthy of a trip. This is fine art in its element: accessible for close-up viewing, displayed in a calm, elegant setting with only a few other observers jostling for a glimpse. Serious art worshipers can stay at the Hilton, dine in the hotel's Delmonico's Steakhouse, walk the 1 1/2 miles to the Barnes and make a weekend of it.

Still, as I wandered the rooms, it was easy to recognize the drawbacks of a place unchanged in the 55 years since the passing of Barnes, the doctor, entrepreneur, art collector and inspiration behind this place.

Dim lighting makes viewing tough. Some of the paintings are hung too high. The wrought-iron fixtures can be more distraction than decoration. The burlap walls don't match the grandeur of the displays. Above all, the paintings bear only the artists' names, lacking dates, titles and other information.

Even the most knowledgeable art critics could benefit from some guidance here. But how to get it? One option is to rent a $7 audio guide provided by the gallery. More demanding viewers can lug along "Great French Paintings From the Barnes Foundation," a heavy but impressive 1995 tome. Those who prefer interaction can take one of the free tours offered by Barnes docents. That was my choice.

Shirley, an amiable, white-haired woman who asked to be identified only by her first name, offered the right mix of art history and anecdotes. As a former student in the Barnes arts school, she also gave an insider's perspective. With a small group in tow, she moved quickly through the rooms, pointing out quirky details along the way.

Her most useful observation was that many of the paintings were grouped according to their common visual elements rather than by period or art school. For example, one wall in the main gallery is covered in 14 Matisses chosen for the hues of red and green the artist used. In other cases, old and new masters are paired alongside each other according to brush stroke, subject matter or other common elements. In an upstairs gallery, a glass showcase full of African sculptures is flanked by paintings by Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Matisse that draw from African art styles.

Shirley also offered insights into Barnes, including his almost obsessive interest in wrought-iron wall hangings and Pennsylvania German furniture. He had "very particular feelings about art," she said. "If you spend enough time here, you'll be able to tell what they were."

After the tour, I took another walk through the museum. As the Sunday afternoon crowd ebbed, I was often alone with the paintings and thus able to absorb elements I had overlooked. From a second-floor viewing station, for example, Ma-tisse's "Dance" was bolder and more expressive than from downstairs. A long close-up look at Picasso's "Acrobat and Young Harlequin" brought out the delicate lines and stark reds and pinks. "Supper Time," like three other works by the African American Horace Pippin, had at first seemed out of place in a space overwhelmingly given over to European painters. But now it seemed right at home.

By the end of the afternoon, the Renoir nudes and Cezanne still lifes began to blend together. Five hours of canvases was as much as my brain could hold.

Outside, I paused to catch the scents and sights of the arboretum. In the fading blue light of an early evening, blue and purple lilacs were just sprouting. The setting -- art, arboretum and all -- makes for one of the country's grandest, if quirkiest, art destinations. Anyone eager to catch a chapter of art history before it ends should go now.

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