First Impression

Intimately familiar with the Barnes Museum of old, a former reporter walks away with an appreciation for the new.

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"The Dance," a three-panel mural by Henri Matisse at the Barnes. Dr. Albert C. Barnes' art theories considered color and composition of an artwork, and not narratives.

Rolling over in his grave was the unavoidable phrase that kept popping up in my thoughts as I walked through the new Barnes Foundation for the first time.

The serene beauty of the modern building and its walled water gardens enveloped me into a meditative state as I walked to the front door. But then an onslaught of differences between the old foundation and the new shocked, delighted, appalled, and impressed me: Smartly dressed young women directed visitors; the glass and wood foyer opened to a restaurant with a trendy menu; a stairway led to an upscale gift shop, coffee bar, and library; straight-ahead opened to a glassed atrium where waiters scurried to assemble tables for the night's fete, as well as stock the bar on the adjoining terrace. The event? For the Association of Attorneys General.

The cantankerous, pugnacious, no doubt at times deranged, Dr. Albert C. Barnes of course outlawed all such socializing activities when he set up his foundation. He willed it to be evermore a gallery of art on his Merion property, dedicated to his pedantic teachings about art appreciation, open only to invited guests. And it was the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, along with The Inquirer, that led the first legal challenge to that will, forcing the gallery to first open to the public in 1961.

Covering a few of the ensuing chapters in that operatic drama in the 1980s and 1990s constituted probably some of the best reporting assignments of my life. During that time I spent hours and hours in the gallery, sometimes nearly alone with perhaps the world's greatest collection of French impressionism and Postimpressionism.

In 1988, I was admitted to the Barnes' art appreciation classes held at the Latchs Lane gallery. The mysterious Violette de Mazia — Barnes' disciple and rumored paramour — had carried on as a lecturer for decades, apparently with great panache. I can honestly say that the lectures by her replacement were among the most tedious and nonsensical hours I've ever spent.

What were Barnes' revolutionary art theories? In broad summary, it was to look at the color and composition of an artwork, and not be distracted by narratives — of what the painting depicted, or the artist's biography or words. That's one reason why there was no explanatory text in the Barnes galleries, or even dates and titles.

This is a fair point — next time you are at a museum, observe how many people go right to the small placards describing a painting before they even look at the art.

But the Barnesian methods have been dismissed as banal and obvious. And critics have long questioned whether they were original — even in the 1920s, when he was in Paris buying up art before prices skyrocketed. "Barnes was repeating already well-established notions, which were current among authors, critics, historians of art since 1880s," said historian Meyer Schapiro.

The sanctity of preserving a will gets a lot of judicial respect. But preservation in a static, mummified form doesn't always work for living institutions. Let's not forget that one reason the foundation had gone nearly broke is because Barnes directed that the endowment be invested in railroad stocks.

Barnes himself handed the opening for a lawsuit to the attorney general and others who pushed for allowing a bigger audience for his collection. Like Al Capone, it was taxes that did him in. If Barnes had bought all the art in France, taken it to Merion and locked it away, sold it, or even destroyed it, it would have been tragic, but no one could have done anything about it. But Barnes set up a tax-exempt foundation and wanted all the tax-free benefits without the responsibilities of a public-supported institution.

As a reporter penetrating the inner workings of the Barnes Foundation, I broke some important stories about its attempt to modernize — but this didn't make me friends.

From previous news stories, I had known Richard Glanton, then the president of the foundation, and he gave me exclusives. Still confounding to me is the criticism that erupted over one article of straight direct-observation reporting: I detailed the crumbling infrastructure of Barnes' original building as Glanton conducted a basement tour showing frayed wires, and ancient, malfunctioning climate-control systems. This earned me a description as "Glanton's girl reporter" in the documentary The Art of the Steal.

I didn't take sides on whether the foundation should be moved to downtown, locks, keys, and all — until I saw the new building.

It is a stunner, along with the accoutrements. Attached to the sleek main building are separate galleries where Barnes' astonishing, breathtaking art collection hangs in his original picture layout preserved on mud-colored burlap, interspersed with hinges and keys. As before, there are crazy pairings, with some of the most sublime art in the world side by side with renaissance and Old Masters generally considered poor fakes.

Nothing can dim the incandescence of my favorite paintings: Matisse's Woman With Red Turban, the shimmering chartreuse triangle in one of Cezanne's Bathers, the ugly van Gogh reclining nude prostitute.

As I left, I couldn't help but think how the new building throws into relief the imposition of Barnes' at-times-silly ideas. His layouts seem dead, something that has long outlived whatever purpose it might have had.


Lucinda Fleeson (lfleeson@msn.com) is a former Inquirer reporter who now lives in Washington.