Saw the fabled Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia today. I'd been looking forward to a pleasure like that in the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston, where the joy of great art was enhanced and refracted by the inspired curation of a collector unconstrained by museum conventions. Alfred C. Barnes' collection, which had long languished in a hard to access villa, arrived in Phillie not quite four years ago after epic legal wrangling with a will which, like Gardiner's, insisted that the layout of the exposition could never be changed. The new Barnes recreates the
rather pokey rooms of the old. The ceilings have been raised to allow more light, which is a blessing, as the burlap walls, wooden floors and gilt frames still make for an oppressive experience of faded warmth. Or is it oppressive because there's so much art, jammed together in Barnes' distinctive manner of symmetrical "ensembles," leavened by a collection of antique metalwork which accompanies the stacks of works like diacrtitics from a forgotten language? Or the fact that the ensembles deliberately scramble context and history, in aid of a democratic understanding of artistic creation evidently shaped by John Dewey's ideas? Or that you make your way through the dozen rooms of the ground floor, thinking you've cased the joint, only to find an upstairs with almost as many rooms - and rooms with more stuff, ancient sculptures in glass cases, furniture, etc.? Or is it that there are so very many Renoirs (usually not my fave)? The delirious incredulity attending the discovery of each new room started to feel more and more deranged as we went on. I felt I was going mad a little, trapped in Barnes' head.
I wrote that yesterday. Today, I find I'm already looking forward to another visit, if not right away. I'm not sure if it's Barnes' ideas about art I'd like to learn about and see at work, or if it's works of art I'd like to rescue them from his clutches by giving them individualized attention.