The first thing that annoyed me about my visit to the Barnes Foundation museum in Philadelphia was the building.
The taxi dropped me off right in front of the place and, as I stood there staring at it on a cold Sunday morning in January, I could not tell where the entrance was. At first, I thought that this was just a too-clever design by an architect trying to be relevant in a world that tolerates whatever Frank Gheary throws at it. But now I understand that the museum’s imposing facade is simply in keeping with its mission to make sure that visitors are thoroughly demoralized by their experience of the people and the art of the Barnes Foundation.
By following someone who looked as if he knew where he was going I discovered that the entrance to the museum is located on the back side of the building. Once inside, the lack of signage in the lobby gives you ample opportunity to be scolded by attendants when you wander past the inconspicuous gallery attendants, searching for a coat check or an admissions desk or the art as you blunder your way through the elaborate entrance formalities — guards tapping your tote bag with a wooden stick to appraise its girth, trudging downstairs to secure a locker for your over-sized tote, the quest for officially-approved see-through plastic bags withheld by unhelpful coat check staff for the stuff you don’t want to leave in the flimsy lockers…those were the second, third, and fourth things that annoyed me about the Barnes. Finally, you are permitted to find your way towards the galleries, which are located in an airy, well-lighted inner sanctum of the museum.
Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872 – 1951) was a Philadelphia physician and chemist who made a huge pile of money in pharmaceuticals at the turn of the last century and spent a lot of his fortune acquiring a connoisseur collection of 20th century art.
The Barnes Foundation faithfully preserves Dr. Barnes’s highly eccentric theories on art appreciation by meticulously reproducing the way he hung his pictures…
…in groupings that allegedly highlight his important theories of line, light, color, and space. (You can’t take pix inside the Barnes so I’m showing you the rooms as they appear in the Barnes catalog.)
Dr. Barnes mixed his pictures with furniture and industrial hardwares that “enhanced” the esthetic philosophy that he wanted to teach to all classes of people so that they could achieve enlightenment.
Dr. Barnes was, by all accounts, a liberal and generous man. He paid his pharmaceutical factory workers very well and encouraged them to find uplifting things to do in their leisure time and welcomed them to visit his collection to study fine art for their betterment.
I have not bothered to learn a thing about Dr. Barnes’ philosophy of art because:
1. He takes art waaaay too seriously.
2. His writings are still in manuscript form and are about 1,000 pages long.
3. His theories of art are clearly wacky.
Now here is where I tell you about the docent that pissed me off. When I turned in my $40 ticket for my docent-led tour, I was told that I’d have to wear a headset in order to hear the docent who was scheduled to do my tour because he had a very soft voice. I don’t know about you, but I do not pay $40 for the privilidge of wearing some greasy old previously-worn headphones. So I complained that I would not have booked the tour if I’d known I’d have to wear their cootie-ridden headphones. (I didn’t say cootie, I’m not that crazy.) And the gallery attendant tried to cow me with, “But Jonas is one of our best docents!” And I , not having been born yesterday, said, “Well, jeeze, you would say that.” And I meant it to sting.
So Jonas the docent shows up and he’s about 90 years old, cadaverously thin and stooped over, and I’m going to be generous and say that those wet spots on his grimy khakis were drops of Darjeeling tea that he’d just spilled on his pants. And he tells me, when I refuse to put on those filthy headphones, that “all the museums in Europe use headphones”. “I don’t [give a rat’s ass] care what they do in Europe,” I told him, and he shrugged and whispered in his delicate wheeze, “There’s always one in every group.” Whatever that means. So I listened to him for five minutes and it was obvious that old Jonas was giving the Impressionism for Dummies version of art history. Nothing that you wouldn’t have already known if you’ve ever read a Wikipedia entry on the subject. So I went rogue.
I went through the Barnes all on my own, and this is when I found the next-to-last thing that annoyed me about the place. It was all those ugly pictures! In my opinion, Dr. Barnes’ collection suffers in quality and relevance by its preponderance of paintings by that over-rated hack, Pierre Auguste Renoir:
I loathe Renoir. His stuff looks like it should be decorating tins of cheap butter cookies sold by WalMart. His work looks so knock-off to me.
Dr. Barnes bought 181 Renoir paintings, and many, many, many of them are pictures are of what Barnes himself called “fat nudes”:
I detest the way all of Renoir’s figures look to be boneless, arms and legs as limp as worms and torsos that look as if they were made of bread dough. I abhor the way his brush strokes seem tentative, as if he has no idea where the edges are and can only guess where the background ends and the foreground begins. I detest his garish sense of color. And I find his subject matter insipid. And look at the faces of these ladies: they are UGLY!!!
The only painter I like less than Renoir is Cezanne:
Dr. Barnes has 70 paintings by Cezanne, and they are all depressing. Cezanne also can’t paint a figure that looks remotely human (see above) or attractive (see above). I, for one, would not pay one cent to look at an ugly nude (see above) least of all if I had to pay $5 million for it (the going rate for a Cezanne these days — it’s said that the entire Barnes collection is worth $25 billion, so Dr. Barnes certainly knew how to invest his money).
Cezanne is famous for inventing a style that look as if the canvases have been vigorously scrubbed with paint, as if painting is a really, really, REALLY hard thing to do. I, for one, am not hoodwinked by the theatrics.
And here’s the last thing that annoyed me about the Barnes: I was the only person I saw without a head set. Because even if you don’t take one of their lame docent-led tours, people gobble up the self-guided audio tour that lets you use your smart phone as your guide. That, coupled with the fact that the galleries are designed to enforce a certain viewing experience that conforms with Dr. Barnes’ weirdo-o “vision” of fine art, means that the Barnes goes out of its way to mediate every interaction you will have with the art that is hanging on its walls. It’s like the Barnes is the Matrix of the art world.
Jeeze. If I’d wanted such a passive, consumerist experience I would have just stayed home and watched TV.
But, unfettered by Barnes propaganda, I did manage to have a few delightful moments with art as I roamed untethered in its halls. I adore this little portrait by an unnonymous North German Master:
I would have hung that portrait between these two superlative Van Goghs:
Instead, Dr. Barnes made these Van Gogh pictures the book-ends to some icky Renoirs and some drab Cezannes:
It was near this room that I again crossed paths with Jonas the docent, still whispering his insights to his sheep-like followers, telling them that “when you look at a medieval religious painting and you see someone with a halo that means that’s a saint.” As my mother used to say…”No shit, Sherlock.”
I should mention that I went to Philadelphia to meet my brother, who went to the Barnes with me and who also ditched the docent and wandered around looking at all the cool stuff I liked. We spent an hour and a half in the galleries and then Jimmy (my brother) loaded us in his Camry and drove us up Broad Street towards the ancestral home in the Philadelphia suburbs. At one tricky 5-point intersection a guy driving a beat-up Honda in front of us made a bone-headed left turn into traffic and as my brother hit the brakes he said , “What a docent.” And he meant it to sting.
The weather experts tell us that we’re going to be blasted with the first real Winter Blizzard this weekend in the Northeast of the U.S.A.!! Yes, I have my Champagne-o-Meter at the ready and in case we get snowed-in I have my survival plan all set. I’m reading the biography of the most fabulous governor that Texas ever had, Ann Richards, and I have plenty of popcorn and strawberries in the larder. What more do I need?
Have a great week-end, y’all.