If you’ve been a Barnes Foundation watcher during the past several years you know all about the bitter dispute over the relocation of this art collection from its leafy suburban mansion in Merion, Pa to Philly’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway museum neighborhood. Rodin is next door; the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a few blocks northwest.
The vultures visited the original Barnes back in 2010 and dropped in to see the new place yesterday. We remain in awe of the expansive collection of Renoir, Cezeanne, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Seurat, Monet and Manet. Who needs Paris when you’ve got the Barnes, right? Barnes had quite the eye for impressionist and post-impressionist art and built a collection that left us speechless and our mouths slack-jawed–not typical for us. It was—and is—stunning, especially when you see it displayed like your grandmother’s parlor. Crowded groupings—oops, the Barnes called them ensembles–mixed with decorative hinges or doorknockers or weather vanes or tools situated above a Windsor chair or side table or rustic Pennsylvania German wooden chest. Oh, and don’t forget to dress up that table with a little Native American pottery or vase created by Renoir’s son Jean. It’s a masterpiece of mish-mash. Yet it’s charming and odd. Soaring yet intimate and unlike any other museum exhibit we’ve ever seen. In this way the new Barnes is just like the old Barnes.
But not so fast. This perfectly ordered, precisely duplicated version of the old place sits inside an oversized box of contemporary light and air which left me slightly chilled and not stirred. Yes, it’s beautiful and serene and lushly landscaped. But it’s also coolly heartless. At least for this vulture. I believe all of us missed the cozy. We liked the feel of the old place and missed the garden and tall trees of the Barnes’ arboretum. Something was missing. The art was just as we left it, glorious and fine. But the concrete and glass and hard edges pressed down upon my soul.
Whoa–that was serious. But I had to get it off my chest. The day, despite my eeyore-ish review, was a masterpiece all its own because we were together. Consuming high art leaves somewhat less time for talking and general silliness, but we did have lunch together in the Barnes dining room and several us arrived early enough for some tea and catching up. Last time we tail-gated out the trunk of my car in a Giant grocery store parking lot along City Line Avenue before we arrived for our appointed tour in Merion. This time we dined in the Barnes cafe with a view of the Whole Foods on Callowhill St. So much classier.