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Television Review: The Barnes Collection

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There are those who collect art for the status it brings them, those who collect it as an investment,  and those who collect it for their love of paintings. No matter what their reason most people’s collections probably don’t exceed a few treasures they’ve managed to pick up at small galleries or at auction. The idea that one person could amass enough works of art to fill a gallery is almost beyond belief, but that’s exactly what American collector Albert Barnes managed to do. Now a fascinating documentary, The Barnes Collection, airing on PBS Friday August 3 2012 from 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. (check you local listings) introduces us to this enigmatic man and his legacy to the people of his native Philadelphia.

The roughly hour-long film loosely splits along three lines. The story of Albert Barnes and how he amassed his collection, the history of the collection in America and Barnes’, and his collection’s legacy. In order to tell the parts of the story that take place in the 19th and early parts of the 20th Century the filmmakers have had to rely on interviewing art historians and those involved with the collection, still photographs, and readings from Barnes’s correspondence and other writings. While that may not sound like much to go on for creating a picture of what this man was like, such was the force of his personality we learn more about him than you’d expect. It also helps that he was opinionated and outspoken in his letter writing and didn’t hesitate to speak his mind on any subject, even on the subject of himself. It’s not often you hear someone come as close as he does to referring to themselves as an asshole – although he couches it in terms just a little bit politer.

The historians associated with the The Barnes Foundation – the non-profit organization responsible for the up keep of the collection and programming associated with it – and the other art historians interviewed for the film confirm both Barnes’ assessment of himself and fill in the details of his biography. His was the classic rags-to-riches story of the 19th Century. Born in a rough working class neighbourhood in Philadelphia, he still managed to go to university and graduate with a medical degree, although he never seems to have practiced medicine. It was through this education that he fulfilled the American Dream by making a fortune from Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound used in the prevention of infant blindness that he developed with Herman Hille. He could have pretty much afforded to retire once he was in his twenties.

We also find out that it was during his time as a student in Europe, he studied physiological chemistry and pharmaceutics in Germany, he first was exposed to the world of modern art. While there’s no real explanation for why he became such an avid collector, the documentary does make a point of mentioning his early friendship with American Impressionist painter William James Glackens. It was through Glackens he obtained introductions to some of the biggest dealers in Paris in the early years of the 20th Century when he began buying up modern art by the bushel load. The original bills of sale for his collection read like a who’s who of modern art at the time. Picasso, Gauguin, Cezanne, van Gogh, Braque, Degas, Manet, Matisse, Miro, Modigliani, Monet, Jean Renoir, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Seurat and Tolouse-Lautrec are just some of the names which show up on receipts and invoices.

After a while, he began making trips to Paris himself and buying works directly from the painters. He had no formal training in art, but judging by some of the things he said, that was a plus not a negative. He talked about paintings in terms of them being conversations he could have with the artist and how they were constantly telling him new things. He didn’t bring any preconceived notions of what art should be to his evaluation of a work and was able to appreciate them in a way that few people of his time were capable of doing. This was driven home to him when he arranged for an exhibit of his modern works back home in Philadelphia and the paintings were roundly condemned by everyone from academics to politicians as crude, vulgar and obscene.

After detailing how he amassed his collection, which aside from the modern art included Old Masters, Americana, wrought iron, furniture, African sculpture and many other miscellaneous items, the documentary covers what he did with it all. In 1922 he had purchased a large property in Merion, an outskirt of Philadelphia, which he used as a residence and gallery. It was here the collection was put on permanent display and where he began to try and implement the ideas on the role of art in education that he developed. To that end he founded The Barnes Foundation with the purpose of “promoting the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts”.

He began developing educational programming inspired by the idea expressed by American philosopher John Dewey that it was only through education a society could achieve true democracy. It was to that end that some of the first “students” the foundation worked with were the workers in his factory. He discovered they only needed six of their eight hour work day to properly do their jobs, so for two hours a day he’d bring them out to the Marion gallery and began teaching them about art. The foundation continues to do this type of work to this day as we see when the film crew follows some of its members into a Philadelphia school as they teach students about art and how to see what an artist might be trying to say with a work.

The final stage in the history the documentary recounts is what’s become of the collection today. When the residents of Marion began to object to having a museum in a private residential area a new home was constructed to house it in downtown Philadelphia. Interviews with the architects of the new gallery show us how much care and planning went into the creation of the new space – with an emphasis on ensuring an ample supply of natural light for viewing the work in the day time. However, what’s really fascinating is seeing the care taken by the foundation’s employees to ensure the collection would be displayed exactly as Barnes had hung it originally. Prior to packing each room in the Marion gallery they mapped out how everything was positioned. This involved measuring the distance between each work so when they were rehung in the new space each room would look exactly the same as it did before and would have the same visual impact on visitors Barnes had intended.

While The Barnes Collection only scratches the surface of both the man who created the collection and the collection itself, it is a great introduction to both. While its unclear on why Barnes felt the need to amass such a huge collection of art work in the first place, it’s what he did with it, and what the foundation bearing his name still does, that’s his true legacy. Making this massive collection of great art from around the world, a collection which includes works by some of the most renowned modern artists, available and accessible to the public is in itself a gift whose worth is next to impossible to judge.

However, even more important as far as I’m concerned, was his understanding of the role an appreciation of the fine arts played in education, and how important it was for everyone to have the opportunity to obtain that education. To know this collection exists for that purpose and the foundation continues to carry out Barnes’ original mandate is a ray of light in today’s otherwise bleak educational landscape. In an era when governments consider arts education in schools a luxury and a waste of money, it’s a relief to know there are those in the world who know its true value. So take the time to see how one man’s vision of art and education is still a goal worthy of trying to fulfill.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
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  • Andrew Rudin

    I found this documentary very unsatisfying, except for the information about Barnes, the man himself. You get to see very little of the art itself. The architects, talking about their concepts sounded intriguing. Then you see the clunky, graceless building, which seems to have no relation whatever to what it’s housing: Impressionist and post-impressionist art. And what was with the constantly intrusive, irritating and nervous music, playing nonstop always just beneath the surface… certainly more an annoyance than any enhancement. C- in my gradebook.