Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Art: Barnes' soul will stay behind

Beginning about a year ago, membership solicitations from the Barnes Foundation began landing in my mailbox with seasonal regularity. The first one triggered the countdown to the Big Move to the Parkway by informing me that the foundation was entering its final year in Merion.

Beginning about a year ago, membership solicitations from the Barnes Foundation began landing in my mailbox with seasonal regularity.

The first one triggered the countdown to the Big Move to the Parkway by informing me that the foundation was entering its final year in Merion.

Certainly I would want to become a Founding Member by signing up now so that I could "experience the final year of one of the world's most treasured collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern art in its original location!"

(I wondered how I could be a "founder" in 2010 of an institution that came into being in 1922.)

I shouldn't miss this opportunity, the letter urged, because "the Galleries and Arboretum are truly a tranquil respite just a short drive from downtown Philadelphia."

The staggering irony of these two statements nearly brought me to tears - of laughter. Now I suppose it's too late to become a charter subscriber, because on July 3 the Barnes Foundation in Merion will close.

Six more weeks is all you have for a final infusion of "tranquil respite," something you're not likely to experience next year on the Parkway. Your farewell tour will be especially poignant because Merion's second floor has been closed since the first of the year.

July 3 won't initiate a simple geographical transition, a brief hiatus in operations as the fabled art collection is trucked eight miles across the city line.

This isn't, for instance, like the Whitney Museum of American Art moving from uptown Manhattan back downtown, which is supposed to happen in a few years. The closing of Merion not only marks the end of an era, it also represents a radical transformation in the nature of the institution. In the process, the essential spirit of the place - its genius loci - and a good deal of Albert C. Barnes as well, will be left behind.

Barnes Parkway will resemble Barnes Merion in some respects. The 23 galleries are being replicated, so if you were led in blindfolded you wouldn't immediately notice a difference, except perhaps for ambient traffic noise.

The Replica also will better accommodate the public for things like parking, shopping, and getting lunch.

But the Replica (or, if you prefer, the Faux Barnes) will be a different institution, a museum with members instead of a school. No more strolls through the Merion arboretum (the "tranquil respite" component) and, most important, no more historical context.

Why is this important? Because Barnes Merion is not only one of the world's greatest private art collections, it's also a Gesamtkunstwerk, a comprehensive artwork in itself.

Besides painting, sculpture, and decorative arts galore, Merion also embodies and evokes architecture, horticulture, educational philosophy, American social history, and the personality and taste of the founder.

It can't be relocated organically any more than a giant redwood can be cut off at the knees and stuck in a giant tub on the sidewalk.

One small, tangible example: The seven bas-relief sculptures that Jacques Lipchitz created for Merion's facade constitute a part of the art collection that will be left behind, along with the African-themed tilework at the main entrance.

Relocating also jettisons the residual presence of the founder who, as Richard Wattenmaker makes clear in his catalog of the foundation's American art, published last year, was more than just an exceptionally prescient art collector.

Wattenmaker's biographical essay moves beyond the folkloric caricature of Barnes as an irascible and capricious eccentric, noting that "socially and politically, he was a progressive liberal."

He cites the founder's "combative idealism," and emphasizes his early advocacy of civil rights.

Most important, Barnes was a practical intellectual who formed a friendship of equals with philosopher John Dewey, whose ideas create the structural fabric of the foundation's mission.

Barnes even hired another famous philosopher, Bertrand Russell, to teach at Merion.

Wattenmaker's catalog, more than any other book about the foundation that I have read (and I think I have read them all), reveals a depth and complexity implicit in Merion and its colorful history that almost certainly eludes casual visitors who know only the legend.

(It also seems to have eluded most, if not all, Barnes board members over the last two decades.)

When I considered the full implications of Wattenmaker's book, I wondered if the Replica will be able to duplicate the richness of the Merion experience, or will even attempt to communicate it. For the reasons cited, I suspect not.

If people wonder why opponents of the move, especially the Friends of the Barnes, persist in a last-ditch, quixotic legal attempt to block relocation, it's because they have experienced this ineffable Merion magic, usually as students, and they understand that it's an ephemeral commodity.

One of them, Richard R. Feudale, has even attempted to analyze the collection's deeper resonances and its site-specificity in a 400-page book that identifies what he sees as hidden symbolism in particular paintings and even in the architecture of Barnes Merion.

(A lawyer practicing in Mount Carmel, Pa., Feudale has filed his own suit in Montgomery County Orphans' Court to force reconsideration of the judicial decision that allowed the foundation to move its collection. Oddly, in August 2008, he argued in a Broad Street Review essay that the Barnes should move next to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to improve its educational efficiency. Apparently he subsequently experienced a Damascene conversion.)

Feudale's self-published book, Barnes Rune 2012, interprets the collection as a dual, and subliminal, memorial, first to soldiers who died in World War I and second to victims of U.S. labor strife early in the 20th century.

A memorial Barnes Merion certainly is, but what Feudale regards as gnostic certainty and secret intentions I see as visual coincidence or wishful thinking. The true subject of remembrance is Albert Barnes himself, who, like Sir Christopher Wren, famously created his own memorial.

What's missing at Merion is a plaque similar to the one that identifies Wren's tomb in St. Paul's Cathedral, London, which proclaims, in Latin: "If you seek my monument, look around." Unfortunately, after July 3, the Merion monument will be empty.


The Barnes Foundation

300 N. Latchs Lane, Merion. Hours through May: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays; June through July 3: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Admission: $15. Reservations required: 610-667-0290 or