A feast for the eyes and the intellect

Albert Barnes’s distinctive approach to art is missing from a blockbuster show, but there is much to admire in the collection

CAROLE CORBEIL September 26 1994

A feast for the eyes and the intellect

Albert Barnes’s distinctive approach to art is missing from a blockbuster show, but there is much to admire in the collection

CAROLE CORBEIL September 26 1994

A feast for the eyes and the intellect


Albert Barnes’s distinctive approach to art is missing from a blockbuster show, but there is much to admire in the collection


In this era of blockbusters, little can compare to the drama behind the current tour of paintings from the legendary Barnes collection, now on display in Toronto. The script is a marketer’s dream. Masterpieces created in France, collected by an idiosyncratic American physician and hidden away in his own museum for more than 70 years, end up as pawns in two court cases attempting to break provisions in the collector’s will. Devotees of the deceased Barnes, who want to adhere to his wish that the paintings never travel, clash with the new president of the Barnes Foundation, Richard Glanton, and name-calling ensues. The judge rules in favor of Glanton, who wants to tour some of the paintings to make money to restore the antiquated private museum where they normally reside in Merion, Pa., near Philadelphia.

Then, public museums make bids to capture what is called the world’s finest private collection of impressionist and Post-impressionist paintings, and the exhibition goes on to sold-out success in Washington, Paris, Tokyo and Fort Worth, Tex. Further controversy erupts over the safety of the works when one large canvas, Seurat’s Poseuses, is pulled from the tour, confirming the misgivings of Art Watch International, an art restoration watchdog that advised against the tour.

This protracted foreplay, culminating in the Art Gallery of Ontario beating out 20 other institutions to become the fifth museum to host the onetime tour, is finally over. Last week, Toronto’s AGO opened its Barnes doors, and all signs point to the drama paying off as it did elsewhere. Advance ticket sales for the 83painting show, which runs until Dec. 31, now exceed 240,000, and the gallery expects to overshoot its target of a half-million visitors.

The institution, which partly financed the costs of mounting the exhibition with a $3.75million grant from the Ontario government, hopes to use the ticket proceeds to begin eliminating its $4.5-million deficit. With the slogan “Never before, never again,” the AGO has targeted bordering U.S. cities, made deals with hotels and airlines, opened box offices all over Toronto and extended its hours to accommodate all comers—at $15 a head.“It’s not a show, it’s an event,” AGO marketing director Liz Addison says. Even the number of people offering to be volunteers has overwhelmed gallery staff, ballooning to 1,700 with a waiting list.

The show would probably have attracted

enormous attention without the drama and the hype. Impressionism, as a movement, has come to stand for the fictitious innocence and imaginary leisure of France at the turn of the century. And the names of Renoir,

Cézanne and Matisse, the painters who dominate the exhibition, are now talismanic. Their work plays into people’s hunger for accessible art celebrating beauty, light and color. There is nothing wrong with that. The trouble with blockbusters, however, is that they set up strong expectations, and then take away the feeling of personal discovery that is an essential component of that hunger.

It is this sense of personal discovery that makes the collection of Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) so compelling. Having made his fortune in pharmaceuticals, Barnes spent much of it on art that horrified what he called the academic Philistines of his day. He did not collect for investment purposes, or to bag already-declared masterpieces, or out of a bureaucratic curatorial agenda. He collected the art of his time. Initially advised by American painter William Glackens and fellow collector Leo Stein, brother of Gertrude, Barnes quickly devised his own ideas. Much has been written about his crankiness in dealing with public art institutions, and much has been made of how he restricted access to his Merion museum, but there was a great deal of method to his passion.

Under the terms of the foundation, the paintings were not to be lent because they were to be used for educational purposes. A friend and admirer of educator and writer John Dewey, Barnes, who was the son of a butcher, wanted to expose ordinary people to the wonders of art. However, these plain peopie had to attend weekly classes in order to see the art. Barnes’s educational theories aimed to create a means of appreciating esthetic qualities wherever they could be found.

Barnes also emphasized the dynamic relationships between different cultures’ visual expressions. African art, for example, was central in his collection, and the fact that he put the foundation under the stewardship of Lincoln University, a small, predominantly black institution in Pennsylvania, was no coincidence. The way he arranged artworks from different cultures alongside each other not only showed how much early modernists were influenced by African art, it gave equal value to myriad objects, and reflected his belief in the essential oneness of human beings.

While this kind of formalism, which ignores the cultural and historical context of art-making, is now considered unfashionable, there is something touching and fascinating about Barnes’s impulses. He represents a branch of American idealism that is now forgotten, if not suppressed. This aspect of his collecting is certainly suppressed in the touring exhibition, which includes no African or other art.

The show begins with Renoir’s magnificent Leaving the Conservatoire (1877) and ends with Matisse’s powerful Le Bonheur de Vivre (1905-1906). What lies in between is an intense experience where it is possible to see that painting was once the site of an unprecedented cultural shift. Most of the works, by

artists as diverse as Cézanne, Modigliani, van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and Gauguin, are still fresh, showing these painters’ struggles with ways of seeing—and of apprehending the world in a singular way. The paintings’ vitality is enhanced by the fact that, until the tour, the Barnes Foundation stipulated that they may not be reproduced in color.

“I am convinced,” Barnes once wrote,“that I cannot get enough Renoirs.” Some would disagree. There are 17 Renoirs in the collection. While a few, like Mother and Child (1881) or The Toilette (1873-1875), shine with Renoir’s obvious delight in capturing the faces of women and children, many feel curiously muted, and even vapid at times. But the room of Renoirs sets up the rest of the show. To move from his rosy, fleshy paintings to Cézanne’s resolutely cool portraits and intense still lifes and landscapes is a kind of visual and intellectual shock. To see how Cézanne was breaking the conventions of perspective 10 years before Renoir was painting some of these nudes is fascinating.

Two of the 21 Cézannes, The Card Players (1890-1892) and Bathers in Landscape (19001905), are considered among the most important paintings of the late-19th and early-20th century. Nude bathers form a great part of Cézanne’s oeuvre, but there is something particularly turbulent and charged about this one. The cobalt blue of the sky is so intense, and the painting, rather than being grand and

pastoral, is full of strange expressionistic drama, as if the figures were mute forms that inspired fear.

Between the cluster of Cézannes and Matisses there are numerous striking, rewarding works, including a series of Modiglianis that are much more alive than they appear in reproduction, where they tend to be iconic and lose the feeling that Modigliani had for his models. Of note in this section are a lovely Monet (The Boat Studio, 1876), full of watery reflections and depicting the artist himself, a bold Manet (Tarring the Boat, 1873), some early Picassos, the poised violence of two Rousseaus, two Gauguins, and van Gogh’s Joseph Etienne Roulin (1889).

Van Gogh painted six portraits of Roulin, who handled the mail at the railway station in Arles, the town where van Gogh had a breakdown. Roulin, whom van Gogh described as a kind of father figure—wise, full of feeling and trustful—visited the artist in the hospital during that time. The picture in the Barnes col-

0 lection, which is dominated by a

1 green and orange decorative back-

0 ground, is the only signed one. It

1 captures a transparent sadness in the eyes, van Gogh’s affection for ® the man, as well as Roulin’s concern

for the painter.

The exhibition concludes with 16 Matisses, the earliest dating from 1905, the latest from 1947. As opposed to the rest of the show, which is mounted on ochre walls that mimic those of the Barnes Foundation, the Matisse section is hung on a muted beige that can accommodate Matisse’s bold colors and decorative patterning. Big paintings like The Music Lesson (1917), a portrait of the artist’s family, are given prominent display, but there is much else to enjoy. Matisse can evoke a strong sensation through the most economical of means, even in a small painting such as Intérieur Nice (1919), where the white transparent curtain over a window overlooking the sea brings back the freshness of a sunny day in a seaside hotel room. Le Bonheur de Vivre is mysterious, bucolic in subject matter, but with such bold tension in the execution. The large canvas works the eye in a very unusual way, some sections of it suggesting cave paintings and pagan rituals, while the centre of the piece features one of Matisse’s favorite motifs, a circle of dancers.

To move from this stunning work right into the boutique selling T-shirts and postcards and earrings that the AGO has set up a few feet away is a rude awakening. There, van Gogh’s Roulin stares from a T-shirt hanging on the wall, and the sight of it adds a cruel irony to the exhibition’s proud banner of “Never before, never again.” For all of the pleasure that this exhibition brings, it is hard not to think of Barnes as the posthumous subject of a corporate raid. □