Colors, shapes and patterns emerge in very distinct works, at times complementing each other, at times enhancing through opposition. Supplementing these are various artistic iron works, furniture, pottery and other objet d'art, again whose lines, patterns, symmetry, spatial relation and colors mimic, complement or contrast. The result? The arrangement of the collection, itself, becomes a four dimensional piece of art: the two dimensions within the paintings, the 3rd dimension that links the objects and the paintings, and the fourth dimension which lies in the imagination of the perceiver. What Barnes attempted to achieve is an experience beyond what is offered in a museum.
To put it into words is difficult, but imagine this. Barnes places you in a room, a room that has a table, a table around which three men are playing cards. It's juxtaposition three times over. Reality suspended, you find yourself in a Cezanne painting, transported through the seamless continuity of still life and real life. This is the type of experience in which Barnes was interested and which he ardently tried to protect.
Which brings us to the controversy of the move. Upon his death, Alfred C. Barnes set up a foundation and left a will establishing a school where students can study and learn at his residence in Merion, Pennsylvania. However, by 2002, the foundation reportedly had little finance and resources left for the upkeep of the site and the preservation and maintenance of the collection. As a result, outside funding was sought to save the foundation. In 2004, three charitable foundations offered assistance but had asked to move the collection Downtown against Barnes' will, which specifically prohibits any such move. The result is a flurry of nasty allegations, political and legal maneuvering by people for and against the move.
If you believe the people against the move, you would take this as a callous takeover of a $40 billion collection that was otherwise unattainable. It was blatant disrespect and disregard for the will of a man who fought all his life to make art accessible to students and the poor. Dr. Barnes
I was not fond of the affluent or the self-annointed intellectual elite. Perhaps influenced by his poor childhood, he sought to equalize in a meaningful way access to great works of art. He was, in essence, fearful that only the powerful and wealthy would have control of important works.
If you believe the proponents of the move, you would say that access to the work by the public provides much needed exposure that in turn brings further funding to the arts. The importance of maximum exposure in this multimedia world is not something that Dr. Barnes could have anticipated before. Perhaps if he were alive today, he may very well be delighted that students from all across the globe are able to learn much from his collection. Further, it is no longer just the wealthy or the students who are interested in are. Art is now more appreciated by many, in all walks of life.
It isn't for us to decide the morality of the move. In the end, the true motivations of all involved remain subject only to their own conscience. Though true to its original mission, the "New Barnes" as it is now called by the locals in Philly remains an institution for education with rooms for study, an auditorium, facilities for conservation and a free library.
But alongside that are other things Dr. Barnes would not have been keen on-- a cafe, tourist center, gift shop, rooms and areas named after people who have nothing to do with the Collection. I-Touches containing explanations by art experts, some of which are fascinating facts, some borderline ridiculous analyses.
It is easy to imagine Matisse, Renoir, Cezanne mocking art critics who try to find the "true" meaning in everything an artist does: why a certain table is tilted or why a hand is misshapen or the head is disproportionate to the body. These experts seem to think of artists as divine and, therefore, perfect. Every stroke must have been done with intention and precision and, as such, must be analyzed ad nauseam. Given this, it is not difficult to imagine Dr. Barnes chasing these pseudo-intellectual art experts away.
Is it not possible that artists make mistakes, that they may produce a flawed piece of work to which for whatever reason they remained attached? Perhaps the artists in a specific piece was more interested in essence rather than the proportion, in perspective rather than location. Perhaps they were toying with the flexibility of time and space. Or maybe they were just having a bad day.
Still, imperfect as they were, there is an undeniable brilliance in these master works. There are points and lines and shapes so delicately drawn or painted that it's almost crazy to believe that they were done by hand. Rousseau, Seurat, Matisse, Picasso. In The Postman, Van Gogh gives us white that is, upon close inspection, a rainbow of colors. Madame Monet Embroidering features fabric that sparkles like multicolored galactic stars. Suspend your reality for a second, concentrate on the genius of the technique and you'll probably arrive as close to an intellectual orgasm as one could get.
In the end, we are torn here. On one hand, we are grateful that we are able to gain access to experience such a magnificent collection. On the other hand, we are also afraid that Dr. Barnes was right. The "kings and queens" of the faux-intellectual world may eventually ruin the experience for all. But until then, we remain hopeful.
One last thing. We met a couple who had been to Merion a few times. They told us that they were absolutely thrilled that the New Barnes has captured the "feel" of the old, something they feared might be lost in the move. This, too, gives us hope.
Yet, there is something we do suggest the New Barnes ought to lose: if the name isn't Barnes, Glackens, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, etc. --- lose it! A true reflection of Dr. Barnes's home wouldn't have his living room named after anyone else. He would consider this, as we do, an insult. Just a thought.