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The anti-Barnes on the ParkwayBY: Robert Zaller 06.02.2012
The Barnes Foundation’s home in Merion was the Chartres of Modernism, designed by Albert Barnes to proclaim that the greatest European art of his own time represented a radically new way of seeing the world, as well as a reaffirmation of the great art of the past. So, would the French move a great cathedral to Paris to double the tourist draw?
The Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia; (215) 278-7000 or barnesfoundation.org.
On moving Chartres Cathedral
This won’t be a review of the new anti-Barnes. I’ve seen no more of it than what is unavoidably visible from the Ben Franklin Parkway: to wit, its massively unlovely hindquarters. I have no opinion of the entranceway, the gift shop, the auditorium or the tacked-on wing where what was formerly the Barnes collection now hangs.
I have read many opinions, pro and con; they are all, from my point of view, beside the point. The “Barnes Museum”— call it, really, by any other name in the phone book but that— is to my mind an expensive storage box for loot. For as long as it lasts, it will never be anything but a monumental reminder of a city’s shame.
How do you displace Chartres Cathedral? As James Panero put it in the New Criterion, the Barnes in Merion was “modernism’s Chartres.” (Click here.) This seems to me to hit the nail on the head.
I don’t mean that the Merion gallery building designed by Paul Philippe Cret is remotely comparable to Chartres as a feat of architecture; nor, I am sure, does Panero. But both buildings were perfectly adapted to their function and environment.
You could move Chartres to a more tourist-accessible site, or the Parthenon or Stonehenge. But it’s obvious that they wouldn’t survive the trip, even if every stone remained in place. What was real where it belonged would become a simulacrum of itself— or, in plainer English, a fake.
What made the Merion Barnes a “Chartres” was not, of course, the building and grounds, purposively designed as they were, but the great art it housed. You can walk through Chartres too as a nonbeliever, and experience it on a purely aesthetic level. But if you don’t recognize it as a place designed as an expression of faith, you miss the point entirely.
Similarly, Albert Barnes designed the Merion galleries as an expression of what he was among the first to recognize: namely, that the greatest European art of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries—his own time— represented both a radically new way of seeing the world and, at the same time, a reaffirmation of the perennial principles and values of great art across the ages. In this respect, his vision was unique.
To make the point, Barnes spent decades designing his famous wall ensembles, in which particular artworks play off one another in musical counterpoint. Stunning as the individual works are in themselves, they are enhanced by their joint presentation.
In just the same way, the ensembles of a great cathedral, however impressive as individual pieces— this chancel or that, this stained-glass window or that— come into their fullest meaning only when seen as parts of a whole. To design such a whole is an extraordinary feat of intelligence and imagination.
Gertrude Stein’s fate
Albert Barnes did this, not on behalf of a shared faith whose symbols and images even an illiterate medieval peasant could respond to, but on behalf of a revolutionary moment in the history of human vision that he grasped before all but a handful of others, and responded to as no one else could.
Gertrude and Leo Stein saw this moment too, as the exhibit of their former collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this spring reminds us. But they were unable to maintain it, and we can only see the way they hung Picassos and Matisses in their Paris apartment from photographs.
Barnes not only maintained and added to his collection, but he built an elegant public space for it, splendidly integrated into a 12-acre garden and arboretum that made an aesthetic whole. The final but crucial touch was the ensemble arrangement of the art itself.
Thus art, ambience, and vision came together to capture a moment in time— the modernist moment itself— and make it a perdurable experience that remained a historically rooted one. That is exactly what Chartres represents.
Like Penn Station?
The crassness with which Barnes’s vision has been mocked in its reincarnation as a cash cow and tourist magnet for Philadelphia is beneath comment. Arguments about whether this work or that now appears in better or worse lighting miss the point. So do all the other arguments— even the quite serious and consequential ones concerning donor intent and the integrity of trusts. A place of vision, a work of art and a site of American cultural history have been torn asunder. Like a death mask, the “recreated” galleries downtown can only be a grim and painful reminder of what has been lost.
Those who are betting on the anti-Barnes are also betting on Americans’ well-known penchant for cultural amnesia. In time, they hope, the anti-Barnes will pass itself off for the real thing among those who never experienced the Barnes in Merion.
Michael J. Lewis, also writing in the New Criterion, predicts that, once the novelty of the new Barnes wears off, “there will be a recognition that a cultural crime has been perpetuated, an irrevocable crime on the order of the demolition of Pennsylvania Station.”
Losing a railroad station is one thing, though. Losing a cathedral is another.♦
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