The art behind the story

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, architects of the new Barnes building on the Parkway. "The Barnes Collection" includes many interviews with those building the edifice.
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, architects of the new Barnes building on the Parkway. "The Barnes Collection" includes many interviews with those building the edifice. (Barnes Foundation)
Posted: August 03, 2012

How did Philadelphia become home to one of the art world's richest splendors, a collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and modernist masterpieces so deep that it borders on overwhelming?

It is the legacy of one of the city's more confounding native sons, the imperious altruist Albert C. Barnes. His character and his signal achievement are fascinatingly detailed in The Barnes Collection, a documentary produced and directed by Glenn Holsten for WHYY TV12.

In one sense, you can't really miss when making a film about Barnes. It's like firing into Matisse's goldfish bowl. All you have to do is point your camera at any wall of Barnes' exquisite catalog and slowly pan across the Renoirs, Cezannes, Monets, and works of other painters. And certainly, The Barnes Collection takes advantage of that stunning series of vistas.

But it also gives us a portrait of the man, using choice archival photos and footage and his own words, either on tape or delivered by the Philadelphia-based actor David Morse ( Drive Angry).

And what a piece of work Albert Coombs Barnes was. Born in Kensington in 1872, he grew up a scrapper in the Neck, a rough shantytown near where the sports complex is today.

He briefly worked as a college instructor after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1892 before throwing it over to become a professional gambler.

His considerable fortune was based on the development, after further study in Europe, of the antiseptic Argyrol, which was used to treat, among other things, gonorrhea.

Neither side of his contradictory background - the roustabout or the scientist - presaged one of the 20th century's greatest aesthetes and collectors.

Barnes is described in the documentary as "voracious" once he began his acquisition campaign in Europe. One of the piquant aspects of The Barnes Collection is looking at the detailed handwritten receipts he kept for lots of paintings he had purchased, as if he were buying building supplies and not priceless works of art.

The man's moment of great triumph should have come in 1925, when he first exhibited his modernist collection in his hometown, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Instead, he was excoriated by the press and civic leaders. The public outcry is suitably amplified in the documentary.

At the risk of generalizing, it seems as if, following that public debacle, Barnes' dealings with people, even the very powerful, became either dismissive or archly sarcastic.

The real accomplishment of the film, and Barnes Foundation executive director Derek Gillman is integral in this, lies in helping the uninitiated understand what Barnes was trying to accomplish with the fastidious arrangement of his hangings.

That ordering and intent has been maintained in the collection's new space on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. And it's well worth hearing Gillman's insights before heading over, especially for first-time visitors.

One complaint: There are too many hard hats in the film, as we hear from construction workers as they assembled the new building. Presumably, they're in there because construction took place during the documentary's production schedule. (More Matisse goldfish.)

But where the rest of the footage in The Barnes Collection seems timeless, the reflections of the welder may seem dated in short order.

Then the camera frames up a Degas or a Picasso, and your jaw drops a little and you wonder if Barnes is really so hard to understand. Because he was right: This does make it all worthwhile.


See The Inquirer's special section and graphics presentation on the new Barnes Foundation building at www.philly.com/barnes


Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv. Read his blog, "Dave on Demand," at www.philly.com/dod.

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