Let's cut out all the Barnes bashing, the man served art well

May 31, 1991

Barnes-bashing, by now, is a longstanding, die-hard pastime. Potshots have been taken so often, by so many, that no one is exactly sure why they love to hate the Merion art institution. Come August, when its board of directors will try to break the indenture of founder Albert C. Barnes, in order to raise quick cash, all this vituperation may finally have gone to the foundation's head. If paintings are sold, insult may become self-inflicted injury.

All the bad-mouthing, of course, started with the connoisseur himself, a rags-to-riches story whose eye for great impressionist paintings was only matched by his talent for invective. Artist Thomas Hart Benton knew Barnes as ''a magnificent son-of-a-bitch" who left no friend unscathed.

Painter and writer Ben Wolf remembers when he suggested that the then inaccessible galleries might be opened to the public a day a week. This drew the wrath of Barnes, who accused Wolf of being "either a colossal ignoramus or a demonstrable liar. " Then Barnes got really mad. What he later wrote to Wolf is not only unprintable, it proved unreadable - and had to be destroyed. ''All is forgiven," says Wolf today, 53 years later. He still only wants more public access to the gallery. And like so many others, Wolf hopes no paintings be sacrificed at the auction-altar.

The barbs unleashed by Barnes at his foes in the first half of this century hardly ceased with the collector's death in 1951. They were ably continued between Barnes' sycophants and the press.

Even today, the press gives the Barnes Foundation none of the deferences available to other cultural institutions. The New York Times recently condemned the galleries for a "demented confusion" and accused its managers of perpetrating "a strategy of disinformation. " Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski wrote that the Barnesian viewpoint "denies the basic purpose of art. " Most recently, Sozanski wrote that "Barnes' understanding of art was warped and constricted. "

No one understands the Barnes-bashing tradition better than Walter H. Annenberg, who recently told Inquirer staff writer Lucinda Fleeson that the foundation "has no end of third-rate stuff. " Instead of offering any constructive guidance as chairman of the foundation's new art advisory committee, Annenberg used the position to demand the "junk" be sold off. Exit the ambassador.

How valuable is this kind of advice? Considering his historic feud with Barnes, as well as his experience as an art maven, it is tough to take Annenberg too seriously. This high-profile (and, as far as Philadelphia is concerned, low-impact) collector has a unique approach to art best understood through his recent courtship.

Exhibited here two years ago, Annenberg's 50 paintings drew more than 340,000 visitors who paid $6 in addition to the usual Philadelphia Museum of Art entrance fee. The cliffhanger ended when Annenberg announced his decision that New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art would get the paintings.

By refreshing comparison is the Barnes Foundation and its no-hype policy. The entrance fee is a generous, progressive $1; the 802 paintings by Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Seurat, Rousseau represent a collection 16 times greater than that of Annenberg. How curious that the major collection already ours is so under-appreciated and even scorned, while the lesser one just out of our reach is so lauded and even loved.

If Barnes' indenture is broken before a responsible plan is developed, all this historic anger and ambivalence will evolve into something irreparable. The collector who seemed so evil that one recent biography was entitled The Devil and Dr. Barnes is poised for a public exorcism. Never mind that both the doctor and his devil are long gone.

In 1951, when Barnes drove his Packard through a stop sign and was killed, someone commented that he had always ignored stop signs. Now is the time for Barnes' critics to stop. It is time for detente, for a re-examination of Barnes' indenture and even his spirit. It is time to come to terms with the eccentric, progressive, experimental and anti-academic art-education institution that comes with a collection that no other city would dream of having on its doorstep. The foundation, its paintings, its buildings and its philosophy are all of a piece. The whole of it deserves understanding and respect by a qualified, professional staff and a significantly more patient board of directors.

Barnes may not have done "for painting what Freud had done for psychology," as disciples once claimed. But he did develop a valid, if a stubborn approach to art appreciation. So what if it rankles art historians and curators (most of the ones I know could use a little rankling)? Students enrolled at the Barnes Foundation learn about perception and creativity from original paintings hung to illustrate lessons. Barnes firmly believed an understanding of art "can no more be absorbed by aimless wandering in galleries than can surgery be learned by casual visits to a hospital. "

In the matter of irreplaceable collections, no time is right for the cutting of corners. Ars longa, vita brevis; art is long, life is short. Who knows, after a couple of thousand years, there may still be something to the old expression.