The battle’s over: but does the new Barnes work?
The Barnes Foundation galleries, relocated to downtown
, walk a fine
line between nostalgia and modernity Philadelphia
By András Szántó. Features, Issue 236, June 2012
Published online: 30 May 2012
After all the Sturm und Drang surrounding the Barnes Foundation’s relocation to downtown
what has emerged? What has been lost and what has been gained? Philadelphia
The institutional narrative of the Barnes has been overshadowed by the tortured events that led up to the decision to relocate the galleries from the
suburbs, seven years ago, a topic of seemingly inexhaustible debate. Art-world
chatter before the 19 May reopening was preoccupied with an unusual design
directive for the building. During the court proceedings, Barnes officials had
promised a historically faithful rehang of the objects in the new space,
replicating the idiosyncratic configuration that Albert Barnes last saw before
his demise at the age of 79, in a car crash, in 1951. Philadelphia
For Barnes, a man possessed of an obdurate will and an eccentric approach to art, it was not just the objects in his astounding collection that mattered but their combined teaching value. The sprawling salon-style ensemble in his 1925 neoclassical mansion in
amounted to a finely calibrated pedagogical Gesamtkunstwerk. Masterpieces by
Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse, Renoir and Picasso mingled on the walls along with
decidedly lesser works, handmade locks and hinges, more than a few copies and
misattributed objects, eclectic furniture and artful bric-à-brac—all studiously
placed to make points about the nature of light, colour, beauty and form. Merion, Pennsylvania
This may have been the collector’s real legacy, and the new Barnes, whatever else it did, had to honour it.
The challenge for the architects, the New York-based duo of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, was to navigate between two unhappy outcomes: sanitising the Barnes into a faceless white box of a modern museum, or creating what Umberto Eco would call an “absolute fake” of the Merion house, straining to be more “Barnes” than the original Barnes itself.