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Review: Galleries shine at the new Barnes

Transformation of the Barnes Foundation from a school with an art collection to a museum with art classes is finally complete.

Transformation of the Barnes Foundation from a school with an art collection to a museum with art classes is finally complete.

The evolutionary process took more than five decades, but after the public was admitted by court order in 1960, the outcome became inevitable. The collection of some 800 paintings and 2,500 objects, housed in Merion since 1925, is simply too exceptional and too marketable to have remained exclusively a teaching tool.

Albert C. Barnes once ran his school more or less by himself. Now the foundation, which has 18,000 members, is invested with a full panoply of about 30 museum professionals and all the latest visitor amenities.

The metamorphosis doesn't diminish the art, but it does significantly alter the context in which visitors encounter it, something I hadn't expected.

That probably will be more noticeable to those who remember Merion than to first-timers just off the tour bus.

The new Barnes building on the Parkway, which will opens May 19, reflects this shift through its architectural plan, which is double-hulled, like a catamaran.

One half houses standard museum functions for which there wasn't room in Merion - a special-exhibitions gallery, an indoor-outdoor cafe, a 150-seat auditorium, and a spacious central lounge where visitors can relax and attend social gatherings.

The other wing houses the what is in effect a single massive exhibit, a replica of the suite of galleries that Barnes created, and rearranged, in Merion over the course of 26 years.

It's not an absolutely precise re-creation, although the changes for the most part enhance the viewing experience.

As the foundation trustees promised Montgomery County Orphans' Court, the 23 Merion galleries have been reproduced to the same dimensions and installed precisely, to the last millimeter of exactitude, as Barnes left them on the day he died in July 1951.

Initially, the effect of entering this wing through its single portal is disorienting. Space shrinks, time stops. If not for an occasional glimpse of parkway traffic through a window, you might well be back on Latchs Lane in Merion.

Not only do the galleries look the same, with (almost) every painting, sculpture, dower chest and iron hinge where it has been for the last 60 years, but the foundation has resisted adding wall texts, object labels, video screens or any of the other aides to elucidation one finds just down the street at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Except for audio guides and identification charts specific to each gallery, both of which were available in Merion, the foundation still offers the purest art experience I know.

The wall arrangements in each gallery, called ensembles, may seem oddly eccentric - even randomly nonsensicle - to Barnes newcomers. Briefly stated, Barnes believed that paintings could be analyzed by their "plastic" attributes, such as color, line, space and shape. He also believed that these qualities existed in the art of all periods and cultures. His ensembles juxtapose fine and decorative art from many places and time periods to point up such consonances, as he saw them. It's up to visitors to tease out the relationships.

This rigorous visual catechism, useful but limited, survived the eight-mile migration from Merion without compromise.

In terms of preserving Barnes's amazing Watts Tower of collecting, a legitimate work of art in itself, the recreation is a triumph of meticulousness for architects Tod Williams and Billy Tsien. In several instances, the installation is better in the replica than it was in the suburbs.

Most important, the lighting is improved, even though it's not state of the (museum) art. Visitors will find old-fashioned globe fixtures hanging in each gallery, but the addition of hidden cove lighting, which reflects off contoured ceilings, creates more clarity. Upstairs, clerestories in the ceilings admit more daylight.

Matisse fans and art historians will be delighted to discover that the masterpiece The Joy of Life no longer languishes on a landing in a stairwell. It's now ensconced in a small room on the second floor that in Merion was where the trustees met.

The Joy of Life, a key step in the development of modern art, is now directly juxtaposed with Matisse's mural The Dance, which fills three lunettes in the first-floor central gallery. My memory could be playing tricks, but the mural seems to be slightly easier to see in the museum than it was in Merion, even if it does involve architectural sleight-of-hand.

The fact that Barnes relegated The Joy of Life to a stairwell always suggested to me that he sometimes lapsed into connoisseurial blindness. Now it enjoys the prominnence it deserves.

The Merion gallery plan isn't replicated exactly. Williams and Tsien have inserted two classrooms into one side of the gallery wing on the first and second floors. These are balanced on the other side by a three-story horticultural well containing trees.

Barnes classes traditionally have been held in the galleries, in the presence of the art. Fortunately this practice will continue on the parkway, because there isn't a more effective way to learn about paintings. (Barnes students will have the building to themselves on Tuesdays, when it's closed to the public, and on Monday evenings.)

On the whole, then, the broader art experience is marginally improved. It could suffer only if the galleries, most of which are small, become crowded. The foundation plans to limit the number of visitors in the gallery wing to 150 at a time, at least initially. Given the number of galleries, this should guarantee reasonable density.

The special-exhibition space, which is in the museum wing, is a spacious 5,000 square feet, enough to accommodate relevant traveling shows.

The inaugural exhibition will be drawn from the foundation's assets, mainly art from storage (don't expect too much from this source) and from the former Barnes residence next to the Merion gallery, which was used for administrative offices, and from the archives.

Two qualities of the collection become more pronounced in the museum setting, because the new context enhances its Gesamtkunstwerk - total work of art - personality.

It has always been the case that individual artists, even such great ones as Cezanne and Matisse, tended to become subordinated within the overall display. This is because Barnes wasn't as much concerned with showcasing masters or movements as with illustrating his own esthetic theories.

A visitor only eventually becomes aware that there are dozens of Renoirs and Cezannes here because they're scattered through the galleries. Not only are the superb, the good and the mediocre all mixed together, but superior pictures sometimes are hung in subsidiary positions where they don't stand out.

The other quality accentuated by the museum setting, particularly one that's sleek, modern and luxurious, is that the collection is an intensely personal period piece, an artifact now displaced from its historical roots.

In Merion, it felt grounded in its natural environment, even when one entered it directly through the African-themed doorway designed by Barnes.

On the parkway, the transition from contemporary elegance to historical authenticity is abrupt and startling, like falling down Alice's rabbit hole.

The dislocation makes one realize that the core appeal of the Barnes collection, the fascination that never pales, isn't its much-touted "impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces" (which aren't all masterpieces) but its totality - its intellectual coherence, astonishing scope and intensely personal imprint.

The graduation to museum status, and the concomitant move to Center City, has improved access, but at a price. Intimacy, the serene atmosphere of the 12-acre aboretum site and tangible references to the founder have been traded for visitor amenities and crowd capacity.

I was disappointed not to find any homage, in oil, bronze or stone, to the man himself. Ellsworth Kelly's giant gnomon (he calls it a "totem") inside the 20th-Street entrance may be a splendid example of metal fabrication, but it's too bland and innocuous to relate to Barnes' esthetic values.

(To foundation vice chairman Joseph Neubauer, the sculpture's donor: Barnes didn't want "to create art for everybody," he wanted everybody to see art his way.)

What should be greeting the public is a commemorative bust of the irascible dynamo whose name is on the building, or at least a plaque at the entrance.

The foundation does plan to install on an outside wall a sketch that Barnes made showing where he wanted paintings placed in an ensemble. They also might consider hanging Giorgio de Chirico's portrait of Barnes. which will appear in the inaugural show, near the entrance.

The larger question is whether the museum will prove to be the visitor magnet trustees envisioned when they decided to move the collection into Philadelphia. Its impact will take time to assess.

Regardless of how success is measured, the collection remains memorable, exciting and provocative in a way that few other museums can match. Even if you've visited Merion a hundred times, the new presentation renews its capacity to offer a fresh response, first time, every time.

And now that the Barnes is a proper museum, you can even buy a sandwich and a cappuccino.

Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at