Renoir…Cotton Candy…and Barbie’s Bordello

photo Ralph Crane

photo Ralph Crane

We probably all can imagine that little boy or girl at a fair, a carnival, or an amusement park, who seeing an enormous pompadour of pink or blue cotton candy (spun sugar to some of you) insists on getting the largest size. We can see further the sticky stains upon their faces, the crazed shock of sugar in their eyes. And we can empathize with them and their queasy stomachs that a night filled with cotton candy is certain to produce.

That’s how I feel about Renoir and his nudes.

Pierre Renoir "The Bathing Group (1916)" Barnes Foundation

Pierre Renoir
“The Bathing Group (1916)”
Barnes Foundation

I spent more than three hours at the Barnes Foundation last Friday night. And as always, it is a mind-boggling collection of early modern art, African sculpture, and American furniture, decorative and industrial arts. I could spend a lifetime looking at the Modglianis and Mattisses. I am fascinated by Chaim Soutaine and George Seurat. And Henri Rousseau I find thoroughly relaxing and amusing.

But it is the Renoirs that I find cloying.

Barnes owns 181 Renoirs that encompass the span of the artist’s career. Now, there is much that I like about Renoir: his early works, the group portraits and the early nudes. But the more famous nudes, those cotton candy swirls of creams, oranges, pinks and yellows, I find difficult to look at.

By contrast, one of my favorite paintings in the collection is also a nude: Amadeo Modgliani’s Reclining Nude from Back. Is it lifelike?  No.  But it is sensuous and intriguing and narrative and appealing and pleasing. And what more could a person want from a work of art?

Reclining Nude from the Back by Amadeo Modgliani

Reclining Nude from the Back by Amadeo Modgliani

Modgliani’s attenuated figures with their mask-like visages, I find fascinating. I find a story in each of their stony faces. Likewise, I delight in the classical innocence of Picasso’s Girl with a Goat or the bold outlines and patterns of Mattisse’s Reclining Nude with Blue Eyes.  Each is so distinct in itself, so original in its view of the human body.

Renoir’s nudes, on the other hand, I find distracting in their busyness. I find them tiring and I tend to pass over them quickly.

To me, they look like how Barbie would decorate a bordello if she ever became a Madam.

Barbie and the Bordello

Barbie and the Bordello

The house that Barnes built…now relocated

Yesterday I went to the new home of the Barnes Collection.  The building is light and airy and relaxing and peaceful.  And the art there is second to none. Even to the least knowledgeable visitor, there must be ten paintings in each room that are recognizable.  In many ways, it is like walking into a primer of Modern Art.

To give you some idea of the scope of this collection, it holds 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis, 11 Degas,  7 Van Goghs, 6 Seurats, as well as numerous works by Manet, Utrillo, Demuth, Prendergast, de Chirico, Gauguin. And shoring up these masters is the odd El Greco, Rubens, or Titian.  There is also a large array of African sculptures, modernist textiles, ceramics, American folk art, Pennsylvania-Dutch cabinetry, and a large assembly of ironwork that, like the delicate chain of a rosary, seems to link the paintings together in each room.

And all in a private collection!

There are so many stories behind the Barnes Foundation. Having amassed what is arguably the most famous personal collection of modern art in the world, Albert C. Barnes had willed that his collection remain at his residence in  Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia. He had stipulated that the collection would be open to the public for no more than two hours a week and that reservations had to be made two-weeks in advance. He wanted the works to be used solely by artists, students and educators for study, and so the paintings  were not to be loaned or reproduced. After what would be the first of many legal challenges, these stipulations were first amended to two-and-a-half hours a week  and visitors were limited to 500 people a week.

(Originally, Barnes wanted his collection for art students and laborers only, and he had little time for the rich and celebrated. In a room outside the galleries, there are documents from Barnes’ life. One is a letter to the automobile tycoon,  William Chrysler, stating that he must refuse his request to visit the collection because at the moment he is practicing goldfish swallowing and can not be bothered!  Another form was a bill of sale for eight Picasso’s. He had spent $1490.00)

In 1992, the Barnes Foundation was in some straits, the house itself needed some repair, and after a great deal of legal wrangling much of the collection went on a world tour. For the first time, the collection, which had been so limited in the numbers of people who had actually seen it, was now being viewed by millions in cities around the world.

But the tour still did not bring in enough funds.  When the foundation tried to extend its hours, the local municipal government balked, and after several years of suits and counter-suits, of bitter and arcane legal wrangling, it was decided that the collection would be moved to a new location on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The move was (and still is) highly controversial and was the subject of the 2009 documentary, The Art of the Steal.

But to be honest, the museum is beautiful.

The new location recreates the rooms of Barnes’ home to the finest detail–baseboards the exact height, wall paper the exact texture, paneling the exact wood–and encases them in a building that is peaceful, modern, and relaxing. And the bonus is that now so many more people are now able to see what was before limited to such small numbers.

How impressive is Barnes’ collection? It literally takes one’s breath away–you walk into the first room and you gasp! The sheer number is overwhelming. Above the windows of the first room are the three large panels of Matisse’s Dancers. You are in a room with several Picasso’s and yet that is not where your eyes go immediately.

The paintings are hung with precision and deliberation–two small Renoir landscapes will surround a large Renoir portrait which will contrast with the Matisse portrait above it.  And the ornamental ironwork that is placed throughout reflects the patterns, shapes and themes of the pictures they  accent.  For instance, a sinuous iron bar  echoes the curves of an odalisque by Cezanne.

A single day is rarely sufficient to see any museum, and this is truly so with the Barnes. A person could easily spend an entire day in one room and feel sated. (And one could certainly post an entire blog on any single room…if not on any single painting.)

While so many of the paintings are very familiar and are such a part of Western culture, they were not so when Barnes first bought them. (The $1490.00 that he spent on the eight Picasso’s attests to that!)  He had traveled to Europe on his honeymoon and had befriended Leo Stein, who with his sister Gertrude had become such great patrons of Picasso and Matisse. Barnes then commissioned his high-school friend, the artist William Glackens, to Paris to buy art for him. Barnes trusted him completely, and Glackens purchased the first twenty paintings of the collection.

Another story, tells how Barnes himself went into one particular gallery, liked what he saw and bought 52 paintings. Could you imagine a gallery owner today with that sort of sell? Could you imagine the cost?  But aside from having money, Barnes also had an extraordinary eye–and an extraordinary vision.

Barnes had made his money by inventing a chemical preparation used to disinfect the eyes of  newborns. He spent his money on opening our eyes to the glories of twentieth century art.

Today, despite the wrangling and the bad blood, despite the legal pyrotechnics and the extra-legal manipulations, the Barnes Foundation is nevertheless one of the great centers of modern art–and the controversial relocation is truly a masterpiece.

And more importantly: amid all this hubbub, amid all the controversy, it is a place of extraordinary peace and beauty.

It’s not a bad place to spend a Sunday afternoon.