Mister Kurtz Barnes, he dead

Mister Kurtz Barnes, he dead

A few weeks ago, Kate suggested that we visit the
Barnes Foundation
before it closes, moves, sells its collection, or otherwise ceases to be the cloistered entity it is today.

Things I knew about the Barnes (which wasn’t much):

  • It was founded by an eccentric visionary who believed that his gallery walls should be crammed with art and sculpture, all mixed together;
  • He collected an incredible breadth and depth of Impressionist paintings;
  • He had a *huge* chip on his shoulder (he was constantly snubbed by the established art world),
  • He wanted the gallery to be used by “the common man”, and not by all those damn toffs in beaver hats, and
  • The gallery is harder to get into than a Catholic dormitory.

I also knew that the foundation is in serious financial trouble, after having fought intense litigious disputes over parking in their rich, residential neighborhood, and installing a bazillion-dollar climate control system. And that the board may, in the next few years, decide to break the will — sell some pieces, move the collection, or re-hang the art. They’ve done it before; a traveling exhibition of Barnes pieces was organized in 1993, which was explicitly against the terms of the foundation. Many are watching the board’s decisions carefully, as it will set a precedent for other oddball billionaires who wish to lock up their art with byzantine, restrictive clauses in perpetuity.

So the little history I knew, combined with the rules Kate and I received after her three-step faxback “Mother may I” gallery reservation procedure, were (to say the least) somewhat off-putting. No heels with diameters less than two inches. No bulky jackets. Visitors will be searched at the door. No photographs, sketching, or drawing. Whew!

When Kate and I finally got through the three gatehouses at the Foundation’s estate, after we’d been commanded to strip, don Tyvek jumpsuits and lock all our clothes in a locker, after we’d been through the de-lousing and had our heads shaved, the impression we got actually wasn’t that eccentric. Or, if it was eccentric, you could see where Barnes was going with his vision.

Think of the Appalachian Trail, an ambitious idea begun roughly at the same time as the Barnes. THe Trail’s titular founder, Benton MacKaye, was an oddball who envisioned a series of mountaintop enclaves populated with philosophers, artisans, and intelligentsia; each bastion connected to each other with footpaths. Sure, it was a little grandiose. Now imagine that MacKaye had enough money to buy all the land, build all the mountaintop retreats, and endow the trail with operating capital and rules that kept hoi polloi away. Substitute Impressionist art for footpaths, and cast the art establishment in the role of the riff-raff, and there you have the Barnes: an educational institution meant for those “who toil with their hands”, and in which each room is organized by an educational theme.

In the master gallery, for example, one wall is devoted to the use of complementary colors in the French color system of the thirties. Yellows are paired with violets in two Renoir nudes, a Cezanne still-life, three landscapes, and assorted other drawings and sketches. The paintings are all hung together on a burlap wall, none with cards showing their title or date. Bits of bright ironwork are hung between the paintings, echoing the themes presented.

Frankly, it works. I quickly stopped looking for titles, and almost as quickly stopped missing the dates and other information. Barnes was self-taught, and some of his arrangements didn’t click. Plus, his infatuation with Soutine was misplaced. But some were real eye-openers: there was a display on the influence of El Greco on both Renoir and Modigliani that got a real “a-ha!” from me. And, jeez, how can you argue with 180 Renoirs and a stack of Van Goghs?

Kate and I left the Barnes feeling much more positive about it. So Barnes was an eccentric; it was his money, and his paintings, and ever since the state of Pennsylvania threatened to revoke the foundation’s not-for-profit status, the access rules have been relaxed. The collection is magnificent, though it contains a lot of dreck. The cluttered walls weren’t as off-putting as I’d thought they’d be, and I actually liked the absence of informational cards. Kate and I will go back in the fall, and I’m looking forward to spending more time in front of the Van Goghs. Next time, though, we’ll wear skintight unitards with no pockets, in order to smooth out relations with the guards.

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