Eighty-nine years ago this month, Albert Coombs Barnes and his ideas about art were rejected by the city of Philadelphia more rudely and forcefully than he deserved, or could have reasonably expected.
That rejection contributed significantly to the collector’s estrangement from the city’s cultural and educational community, and also to the public perception of Barnes as a crotchety, egotistical, and vindictive misanthrope.
The catalyst for this rupture, which persisted until Barnes died in a highway accident 28 years later, was an exhibition of a small portion of his art collection at, of all places, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
The show of 75 paintings and sculptures ran only for a month, from April 11 to May 9, 1923, but that was long enough for it to generate seismic reverberations that set the newborn Barnes Foundation on a course for the confrontation and controversy that have dogged it throughout its existence.
Clio, the muse of history, sometimes seasons such events with irony. In the case of the foundation, she applied a generous dose, because today Philadelphians are salivating in anticipation of the May 19 opening of the relocated Barnes galleries on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The Pennsylvania Academy has plugged itself into the giddiness by mounting a small show that recalls the contumely and ridicule that washed over Barnes when he agreed to exhibit, at the invitation of two academy teachers, some of the art he acquired during a buying trip to Paris in the fall of 1922.
How bad was it? Consider as evidence several quotations from an unsigned account (not a review) published in The Inquirer after the show had been open for several weeks.
First: “Dr. Barnes has long been one of the most enthusiastic admirers of the extreme tendencies of modern art and a staunch defender of the men and women who follow them.
“In fact, the museum is to be an enduring protest against the charges made some time ago by a group of famous alienists to the effect that most of the cubist and futurist artists are the unhappy victims of mental disease.”
(This comment ignores the fact that Barnes didn’t collect either cubist or futurist art.)
In the jargon of the time, alienists were “brain specialists.” One of them, Dr. William H. Wadsworth, opined in The Inquirer that “the drawings of insane patients are far superior to the alleged works of art I saw at the exhibition.”
Wadsworth described the Barnes paintings as “immoral, destructive and dangerous,” and said “legal action should be taken to suppress such works.”
The city’s art critics weren’t much kinder. Inquirer critic C.H. Bonte railed at “indescribable curiosities.” Edith Powell of the Public Ledger characterized the 19 landscapes and portraits by Chaim Soutine, the largest representation by one artist, as “the creations of a disintegrating mind.”
“It is hard to see why the Academy should sponsor this sort of trash,” fumed Francis J. Ziegler in the Record.
Against this onslaught, painter Henry J. McCarter, who with Arthur B. Carles had invited Barnes to share his most recent acquisitions with the public, defended the Merion collection by calling it “the best of its kind in the world. I have never seen anything like it, and I admire especially the spirit with which Dr. Barnes has amassed the collection.”
Barnes himself shouldn’t have been surprised. In his essay for the exhibition catalog, which he paid for, he acknowledged that modern art “would seem strange to most people.”
It certainly did, in spite of the fact that Americans had been introduced to European modernism 10 years earlier, at the famous Armory show in New York.
This, however, was Philadelphia, which proved not to be ready for the likes of Soutine (19 paintings, of the 54 that Barnes bought), Amedeo Modigliani (seven), Henri Matisse and Andre Derain (five each, including Matisse’s landmark Joy of Life), and Jacques Lipchitz (seven sculptures).
Philadelphians didn’t even get to see the splendid group of African tribal sculptures that Barnes bought during the 1922 trip, and which remain a highlight of the foundation’s collection. Apparently the academy decided European modernism would be shocking enough.
The academy hasn’t attempted to re-create the 1923 exhibition, which would be possible only at the Barnes Foundation. Instead it has selected from its permanent collection 34 works by artists associated with Barnes and the foundation, augmented by archival material such as photographs and seven sketchbooks by William J. Glackens.
Not surprisingly, Glackens, the high school friend who persuaded Barnes that he should collect the art of his time, and whom Barnes then sent on a buying trip to Paris, is the most prominent artist in the academy show.
Glackens, one of the so-called Ashcan realists, has more pieces in the Barnes Foundation collection (71) than any other American artist.
Other artists in the show are Carles, then the city’s most visible modernist, whom Barnes didn’t collect; McCarter, Charles Demuth, Horace Pippin, Jules Pascin, Angelo Pinto, and Charles Prendergast.
Curator Robert Cozzolino has installed the show Salon-style and, in a nod to the Barnes, without object labels. As at the foundation, visitors confront the paintings without identification or interpretation.
Barnes connections aside, the exhibition is a small gem. Glackens’ large picture of two stylish women at a soda fountain presents him at his most Renoir-ish, probably the reason Barnes so admired his friend’s work.
Likewise, Carles’ semiabstract Flowers in a Glass Jar and his languorous Green Nude validate his reputation as a sensitive colorist. Pippin’s West Chester Court House, Demuth’s Box of Tricks, and Pinto’s Amusement Park all contribute significantly to the show’s selective quality.
Albert Barnes initially intended that, after he and his wife died, the academy and the University of Pennsylvania would jointly control his foundation’s affairs. As we know, he subsequently fell out with both institutions, and the prize settled on Lincoln University.
The fact that part of Barnes’ collection was exhibited at this bastion of aesthetic conservatism was itself an anomaly at the time. By revisiting the event, the academy has compounded the irony of the replica’s imminent opening on the Parkway. Clio would be amused.
Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at email@example.com.