TV Review: Fine PBS film on Barnes collection avoids controversy

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"It is as if the room were infested with some infectious scourge," wrote a local critic about paintings and sculpture collected by Albert C. Barnes and exhibited in 1923 at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts.

The French were more receptive when the artworks were shown earlier in the year in Paris, but that audience was well acquainted with its native Impressionists' use of color, brushwork and subject matter that set tongues wagging in the more tradition-bound City of Brotherly Love.

'The Barnes Collection'

When: 9 p.m. Friday on WQED.

"The Barnes Collection," part of the PBS Arts Summer Festival series that will air 9 p.m. Friday on WQED, succinctly and richly tells the story of Dr. Barnes (1872-1951), his collection currently valued at $25 billion, and the foundation he established in 1922.

It is timely because the artwork has been moved to a recently opened building constructed for it on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, 7 miles from its original home in a high-end suburban neighborhood.

It is also controversial because the move has been challenged as a violation of Barnes' will that in addition reduces his far-reaching philosophic and educational concept to a visitor bureau commodity. These conflicts are alluded to in the documentary but rather blithely explained away.

The film does paint a rounded picture of Barnes, a colorful visionary with roots in working-class Philadelphia whose rejection by the establishment was the beginning of a unique experiment that anticipated diversity within and cross-disciplinary approaches to art by a half century.

Growing up in a poor neighborhood inhabited by squatters and gangs, he learned to box at an early age. "It taught me to fight," he is quoted as saying, "and it was always for an ideal -- of course, a disbalanced, stupid, youthful ideal in many cases."

Barnes graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1892 and taught for two years before concluding at age 22 that "universities were nearly worthless." He became a professional gambler and said he received more education at the racetracks than in seven years of college. He also made enough money to continue his studies at the University of Berlin, Germany, where he began a partnership with a German chemist. Together they invented and marketed Argyrol, which, among other uses, was dropped into the eyes of newborns to prevent blindness caused by the gonorrhea bacteria.

By 1902 he'd made enough money to retire "if I'd been built that way." Instead, he turned his energies toward "intelligent efforts to change a bad social order," an interest he'd had since childhood.

He also began to investigate art with his childhood friend, William Glackens, a co-founder of the Ashcan School of realist painters, who depicted gritty scenes of urban life. In 1911, he sent Mr. Glackens to Paris with $20,000 to "buy some good modern paintings." He kept 20 of the 33 shipped back and soon was off to France himself. He later described the pleasures of art collecting: "The least is the mere possession; the best is the joy that one can feel but not express to others."

When Barnes debuted choice works at the Philadelphia Academy, he knew he was introducing artists rarely if ever seen in the U.S., and he expected discussion. He apparently didn't anticipate wholesale rejection by the critical, academic and institutional communities united within a group think mindset.

"According to the code of 'freedom' so popular among these 'artists,' the individual is supreme," the aforementioned critic continued. "Unclean thoughts crowd into the mind -- thoughts utterly untrue to oneself."

Barnes visited the exhibition daily and heard comments "about not only the paintings but of myself as a charlatan and a degenerate."

The exhibition, he wrote to a colleague, "has stirred the indignation of ignorant people as it has never been stirred before in Philadelphia."

Barnes had become an acquaintance of noted educational theorist John Dewey, who encouraged him to put his ideas into practice, and that led to the establishment of The Barnes Foundation. His ideal included teaching people how to see and, by extrapolation, how to become better citizens in a democracy. Even there, the negativity followed him, and the city establishment deemed his plan to teach his theories "very dangerous."

Throughout his life, Barnes tenaciously pursued his collecting and study of art and philosophies, but spoke of feeling lonely and having no social life, other than occasional visits by Mr. Glackens and other artists (his wife is not mentioned in the film). While he has been at times portrayed as a curmudgeon and therefore difficult to be around, I suspect his loneliness was due more to a lack of kindred spirits who could celebrate his complexities, and the fact that he was "almost alone in the entire continent collecting painting such as mine."

Beyond archival material, the documentary includes interviews with contemporary Barnes Foundation staff; the designers of the new Barnes, Billie Tsien and Tod Williams; and its construction crew. The enthusiasm for the new building is genuine among most, and the designers worked hard to create a poetic and respectful space.

But there is no recognition that the Barnes Foundation was much more than a building full of Renoirs, Cezannes, Picassos, Matisses and the like. There is no questioning of the explanation given of fiscal loss to justify the move, nor of why options to shore up the original site weren't explored. This is a missed opportunity not only for those who have opposed the move since the beginning but also because the museum -- both new site and remnant institution -- will remain overshadowed by suspected misdealing in back rooms. The documentary could have quieted at least a portion of those rumors.

As such, the ending of "The Barnes Collection" is a little too sweet to swallow.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925.


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