This is arguable and, like everything else the founder propounded, now irrelevant. The important question now is how the public should approach the new Museum of the Barnes Foundation, as I choose to characterize it.
This is not so self-evident as it may appear, because now that the collection has been recontextualized, both its strengths and its basic flaws — particularly as a museum presentation — have become more apparent.
A few Sundays back I observed that every visit to the Barnes Foundation was like the first time. This is because the installation is so dense, so overwhelming visually and conceptually, that it’s difficult to absorb.
There are wonders around every corner, so many that it’s hard to concentrate on any one gallery or, more important, on any single artist.
And this is because one has been drawn into a complex mosaic, a three-dimensional textbook designed for a specific didactic purpose. If it’s hard to pull together a composite picture of, say, the collection’s Renoirs or Cezannes, it’s because one artist dominates above them and all others.
That artist is Albert C. Barnes. The collection says more about him than about the painters and sculptors he collected.
This is one of the peculiar qualities of the Barnes collection that I noticed when I first visited the foundation 30 years ago. Individual artists aren’t well served by the Barnesian ensembles. They constantly compete with and interfere with each other, especially in the smaller galleries.
More to the point, they also compete with Barnes’ insistent pedagogical vision. His Big Three — Renoir, Cezanne, and Matisse — manage to hold their own because they claim at least one spot in almost every gallery.
Matisse also has his magnificent Dance mural in the central gallery. But for decades the most important Matisse in the collection, The Joy of Life, languished in a dimly lit stairwell, strongly suggesting that Barnes wasn’t always concerned with giving his prime pictures the best possible exposure.
One could make the same observation about one of the collection’s other prizes, The Models, by Georges Seurat, which hangs in the central gallery, but not to its best advantage.
Likewise, the collection’s important African sculptures are pushed off into a small side gallery, a situation akin to what some museums call study-storage.
A museum’s role is to interpret art, in part by making value judgments and by displaying the best of what it owns to maximum effectiveness.
Because the foundation’s trustees promised to replicate Merion exactly, the Museum of the Barnes Foundation doesn’t do this, nor can it. It does explain how the ensembles work, but it doesn’t offer much edification about the artists, especially their place in the development of Western art.
This means, as it always has, that those Barnes visitors who come equipped with some basic knowledge of art history get more from the experience. This isn’t, nor has it ever been, a museum for beginners.
What, then, to do? Visitors face two basic choices. The obvious one is to passively ride the current that Barnes set in motion 87 years ago, accepting his catechism, trying to see in the ensembles what he saw, and periodically noticing exceptional things, like Matisse’s The Red Madras Headdress, that jump out from the matrix.
It’s best not to try to absorb the entire collection at once, but to concentrate on a few galleries at a time, even if that means repeat visits. (This is a useful strategy for any museum.)
Otherwise, one can treat the Barnes as a treasure hunt by looking for the "masterpieces of impressionism, postimpressionism and early modern art" that the foundation’s marketing promises.
Within these 23 rooms lurk the 100 or so paintings that made up the landmark traveling exhibition of two decades ago, "Great French Paintings From the Barnes Foundation."
All you have to do is find them. This is relatively easy in the larger galleries, but the foundation could help by creating a list that categorizes the collection by artist.
If you’re mainly interested in Cezanne or van Gogh, for instance, the list would tell you where to find them. This would be even more useful for artists not represented in large numbers.
Neither of these approaches is entirely satisfactory for people who have been exposed to conventional art history — the kind that the founder abjured. The galleries are still too small, too dim, and too crowded with art.
The new special exhibitions gallery could play a useful interpretive role in making the collection more accessible.
The opening exhibition, drawn from the foundation’s archives and including art from storage and from the former Barnes residence in Merion, provides an introduction not only to Albert Barnes but also to the history and nature of the foundation.
Here one can read the famously acerbic letters of rejection that Barnes wrote to famous people, including other collectors, who had asked to see his paintings. Admit the public? Not on your life.
There’s a small section on Barnes’ Chester County farmstead, Ker-Feal, where he kept his Pennsylvania German furniture and redware; the foundation’s original charter; a plaster cast of one of the limestone reliefs on the facade of the Merion gallery building; even a bottle that once contained Argyrol, the antiseptic that generated money to buy all this art.
This material helps to soften the uncompromising purity of the galleries, where Barnes’ unorthodox approach to aesthetic theory is expressed through the ensembles that he devised.
In the special show, the doctor is represented by the frequently reproduced portrait of him by Giorgio de Chirico. Eventually the foundation plans to hang this just inside the entrance to the gallery wing.
It should hang closer to the main entrance, along with a quotation from the founder that summarizes the impact of visiting this oddest of art museums:
"I am trying to do the biggest thing for Philadelphia that any one man has ever attempted." He not only tried, he succeeded, but visitors need a lot of help to appreciate his achievement.