Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Art of the Steal

The New York Film Festival is winding down, but the highlight of the Festival has by all accounts already taken place. Despite being a documentary about an unlikely subject, it enjoyed highly enthusiastic, sell-out audiences who apparently couldn't get enough of this tale of one of the greatest private art collections in the world. I am referring to the Barnes Collection in Merion, Pennsylvania, about 5 miles from Philadelphia, where Dr. Albert Barnes so scrupulously gathered and displayed his extraordinary collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, long before they were popular or recognized as valuable, and which in time came to be regarded as one of the great collections of modern art ever assembled. The film is "The Art of the Steal," and it is a story, not just about that great collection, but even more about the tug of war between the purists who insist that Dr. Barnes' collection must never be disturbed and the Philadelphians who want to bring it once and for all to the big city.

Should this great collection stay in the little town of Merion, where visitors must schedule their visits ahead of time and are restricted to a limited number of dates, or should it be moved to the great city of Philadelphia, where it can be viewed by millions and, in turn, earn Philadelphia new bragging rights as the site of one of the world's great art collections? Dr. Barnes, we are reminded, insisted throughout his life that his collection should never be moved or disturbed. He was very clear about how the art should be displayed and how the different influences on the art should be demonstrated. The tranquil setting of his home, with its beautiful gardens and relaxing grounds is part of the appeal of this site, as is the way that he placed many paintings very close to each other on the same wall, to show their similarities and to help the viewer see how different styles of painting have evolved over time. This crowding of many paintings on a single wall strikes some critics as detracting from the art, but Barnes saw it as instructive and as part of the European tradition. It is worth noting that some of the greatest paintings in the world are in the Barnes, but perhaps the most noteworthy of them all is one that Barnes specifically commissioned from Henri Matisse and that is ostensibly forever emblazoned on the walls of Barnes' house, just below the windows of the very tall ceiling of his stately home. It is called "Dance II," and by itself is worth a visit to the Barnes.

In any case, in the end, the controversy over the Barnes Collection has little to do with the aesthetics of art, the thing that mattered to Barnes most during his lifetime, and much more to do with the economics of art. A collection like the one that Barnes compiled is big business. Where it goes means crowds, new revenues, new interest in any part of Philadelphia that can snare it. This represents the heart of the controversy and this hard fought issue becomes the main subject of this much praised film.

As a two-time visitor to the home in Merion who had to schedule special visits to the site and put up with all those great paintings crowded onto a single wall, I must admit that I prefer that the paintings be left undisturbed. Let the people do whatever is necessary to see these works on the site that Dr. Barnes designed for them. It is well worth the effort.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that the Barnes Collection seen in the Barnes home is a unique experience. Since our visit, the advent of gps systems has taken some of the adventure out of finding the place, but organizing the time and visit still requires a positive effort on the part of the would-be viewer. We really enjoyed this museum and I very much respect the wishes of its creator, but I am less adamant than you about its ultimate fate.
    Dr. Barnes theories and educational purposes aside, it is very difficult to really see some of the works because of the crowding and placement. Many works are well above eye level and placed to illustrate some point of historical or theoretical interest at the expense of viewing the work.
    I hope that the caretakers of this wonderful collection find a way to display it so that the paintings can be seen in all their glory while still preserving Dr. Barnes perspective on their relationships.
    I'll look forward to seeing the film.