Review: Oscar: “Bugger! Queer! Sodomite!” sang the chorus.

The East-Coast Premier of Oscar

The East-Coast Premier of Oscar

On an extremely cold Sunday afternoon in February, I attended the Philadelphia Opera Company’s production of the opera Oscar.  There has been a lot of enthusiasm about this production beyond  the expected buzz that a premier would cause. Recently, the Free Library of Philadelphia discovered three unknown manuscripts of Wilde in its basement as it was in the long-going process of digitizing its collection. Because of this find–academics and scholars are quite astounded–and the accompanying exhibit at the Rosenbach Museum, which houses a good deal of Wilde paraphernalia, the arrival of an opera based on the Irish playwright, poet and bon-vivant seemed particularly timely.

I don’t attempt to be any sort of expert on opera.  I know the stories of several of the most famous and can recognize the melody of several of the more familiar arias, but other than that seeing an opera is basically always a jump into the unknown for me.

And perhaps because of my inexperience, I found the music to be the least memorable part of a very memorable performance.

First the story itself is a mesmerizing tragedy–a tragedy in the literal sense of a great man falling and a tragedy in the “man-on-the-street”  sense of a heartbreaking story.  Wilde, one of the most famous personalities of his time, is brought into court for crimes of “gross indecency”–which in 19th century England meant homosexuality.  And while his friends arrange for him to escape to France before the trial commences, Wilde believes its the honorable thing to stay and fight the case in court.  And of course, Wilde loses.  He is found guilty and his years of hard labor at Reading Gaol, make up the second half of the performance.

And secondly, the staging and the sets were extraordinary.

The opera begins when the orchestra finishes the overture and the house applauds. During this applause, Oscar Wilde makes a curtain call, coming through the curtains,

Oscar Wilde taking a curtain call at the opening scene of Oscar

Oscar Wilde taking a curtain call at the opening scene of Oscar

accepting the applause–which has now been combined with recorded applause–to thank the house for its generous reception to Lady Windemere’s Fan. We then move quickly to Wilde talking with his friends about his options in the celebrated court case. (There is a bit of slapstick with two Keystone-Kop type henchmen that are busy poisoning Wilde’s name among innkeepers so he cannot get a room anywhere. He ends up hiding at his friend Ada Leverson’s house.)

The court case–a circus in itself–was mounted as a Fellini-esque carnival with the jury represented as so many toys from a child’s toy box. There were tumblers and rocking horses, clowns and rag-dolls.  The judge, when he appeared, popped out as a jack-in-the-box, all loose-limbed and spineless with a simpleminded smile on his face. The scene closes the first act.

The judge at the Oscar Wilde trial.

The judge at the Oscar Wilde trial.

As bizarre and surreal as the court-room scene, the next scene is stark and daunting. Wilde is given his prison clothes and his hard labor. And throughout he is haunted by the presence of his beloved Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas whose father initiated the criminal action. (Actually, Bosie’s father’s initial action was leaving a calling card for Wilde that called him a “posing sodomite.”  addressing him.  Against the advice of his friends, Wilde charged him with libel.  It was during this libel case that evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality came to light and allowed the crown to prosecute him for “gross indecency.”)

In the opera, Bosie has no lines or any singing.  He is simply an ethereal character who throughout both acts flits into Wilde’s memories. He is played by Reed Luplau, a dancer whose sinuous moves are both graceful and haunting. In prison, he climbs upon Wilde’s prison bars like some avenging angel.

Bosie--Lord Alfred Douglas--haunting Wilde before the trial.

Bosie–Lord Alfred Douglas–haunting Wilde before the trial.

When Wilde is released, he is a broken man. He left England for the continent and spent three years in poverty before dying in a shabby Paris Hotel. Oscar Wilde was 46 years old.

The opera has been reported as being written by Theodore Morrison (with John Cox as co-librettist) with the countertenor David Daniels expressly in mind. And the visual is a very good one, for Daniels at times looks very much like Wilde.  As a countertenor, however, the voice to me seemed much, much too high–almost a falsetto at times–and off-putting. Contemporaries had noted that Wilde had a “lilting” voice, but I don’t know if that accounts for  high pitch.  Wilde was a relatively big man and that voice does not seem to fit the body.  An acetate (of dubious authenticity) of Wilde recording Reading Gaol at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 replicates a higher-pitch voice, but that–it can be argued–could be a result of recording speed and early technology.  Nevertheless, to me it seemed unreal, at odds with those around him–including his friends.

The music itself was atonal and the lyrics seemed pedestrian. One would expect more wit coming from the mouth of Wilde.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

whitman

Dwayne Croft as Walt Whitman in Oscar

In front of the desk where I write there are two bookcases. The one holds volumes of poetry. The other biographies.  I happened to look up–for assurance–to see if my Oscar Wilde biography was there and was pleased to see that it sat next to Justin Kaplan’s life of Walt Whitman. For I forgot that Whitman’s ghost is also a character in Oscar. As a narrator–he mentions that the events of the trial and imprisonment took place five years after Whitman had died and fifteen years after he had met Wilde in America– he seems to serve as the maitre ‘d to the pantheon of literary greats that line the wall in the first and final scenes. His brilliant white suit and steely-grey beard at a touch of gravitas, that seems to rise above the nonsense of British legality and the circus of Wilde’s trial.

In the end, Wilde dies and enters the halls of literary greatness, escorted by Whitman himself.

Emerson, the Transparent Eye, and photos on my iPhone

 

image

Illustration of Emerson’s “Transparent Eyeball” that accompanied the essay “Nature”

In his essay “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said:

“I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.”

I know of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” and his essay “Nature,” but it is not my area of expertise.  (Although I confess, it is the illustration that accompanied the “transparent eyeball” passage in Emerson’s  essay “Nature”  that I recall most readily. It is a wonderful illustration.)

If I remember correctly, in “Nature,” Emerson is propounding a way of looking at the Universe in general and Nature in particular. It is Emerson’s “transcendental” way of finding communion with a divine being through observing the “scripture” that is Nature.

But lately I have been thinking of the “transparent eyeball” in a different way.

On a Monday in mid-April, I was reading a piece by a woman named Yoon Soo Lim.  In it, she mentioned that she had taken up a challenge of keeping a photo journal , in which one photograph was uploaded each  day of the year. The site was called blipfoto.

I didn’t think much of it, until my walk home through the city.  I started seeing possible “photo ops” everywhere: a funky display in an art gallery, a shadowy alley with a latticework of fire-escapes, a graphic advertisement for a boxing studio.  I had become an “eye” and had begun seeing things that I passed every single day and had never seen, or at least never paid much attention to.

Fog Rolling In 2014 jpbohannon

Fog Rolling In
2014 jpbohannon

 

I took up the photo challenge myself.  And it has changed the way I look at things.

Doors on N. 4th Street 2014 jpbohannon

Doors on N. 4th Street
2014 jpbohannon

No longer do I walk aimlessly from the bus to my door, from the street to the train station, from my desk to the cafeteria.  I walk now with a purpose…the purpose of seeing.

 

Sculpture at Market East Train Station 2014 jpbohannon

Sculpture at Market East Train Station
2014 jpbohannon

I am not sure why, but this leaves me feeling very alive.  I feel that I am “seeing deliberately”—a term that echoes Emerson’s disciple Thoreau who advised us all to “live deliberately.”  I am excited to see things, to find things, to re-discover things that had been invisible for so long, behind the cloak of daily routine.

And I am having fun with it.

 

The business of education is not business

Logic-of-business-or-education-November-12-2013

At the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in Philadelphia this past weekend,  Mark Gleason made the following remark about the Philadelphia public schools:

“As you close the lowest performers, you’re slowly raising the bar. So that’s what portfolio is, as Paul [Socolar] described it–you keep dumping the losers and overtime you create a higher bar for what we expect from our schools.”

Now, Gleason has justifiably gotten a lot of flak for describing the poorer performing schools as “losers,” but it is something else that is bothering me.

Gleason was describing school evaluation in terms of stock portfolios. His use of the term “losers” was referring to those “stocks” that were not performing. He was using business/financial parameters to measure school success.

I am getting tired of it. Schools are about students not bulls and bears.

Somewhere along the line, it seems the model for education has been hijacked by the business/financial sector. In the past few years, I have heard students referred to as consumers, I have listened to speakers hold up CEO leadership qualities as  models we should emulate, I have read articles about the business of education and been given books that prepare me for successful management skills.  I bristle when I hear “entrepreneur” as the new academic buzzword.

I attended one workshop on “coaching” fellow teachers. The consultant hadn’t bothered to adapt her PowerPoint presentation so that most of her examples dealt with a “sales rep” that needed the proper advice or coaching. I went to another workshop where the presenter began by playing a video where a woman spoke about conflict resolution to about twelve middle-managers. To add to the insult, the presenter told us teachers that “We might not know it, but research has shown that taking notes during a presentation aids in memory retention.”

And then–in case we didn’t get the point– he gave us a worksheet of the video script with important words left blank. We were to fill them in.

Perhaps it is me.

I was raised to distrust big-business.  “Plastics,” after all, was the laugh-line when newly graduated Benjamin Braddock was adrift in 1968.  For the generations before me, the man in the grey-flannel suit was the emblem of mindless conformity; for my generation, big-business was connected with the lies behind Viet-Nam, turned on the fire-hoses against the vanguard of social change, and deliberately hid its own research about what it was spewing into the environment and into people’s bodies. In my circle, they were the bogey-men.

And they were very successful.  The  following decades saw “Greed is Good” become  big business’ mantra …and within twenty-years the country went reeling because of it.  And it is still digging out.  The rich got rich…the poor got further away.

I went into education to counterbalance the influence of big business.

And I know, I am being  illogical.

I know that there are plenty of good, wise and compassionate men in business. There are plenty of great ideas and practices that can be adopted and adapted. Dear friends, respected acquaintances, close family members are businessmen and businesswomen–and some are extraordinarily successful.  And I do go to them, at times, for advice on everything, even education.

But I don’t translate their world into mine.  Our worlds are too different.

Or so it seems to me.

I am feeling very much a dinosaur these days.  Not because I cannot keep up with the latest trends in education–the project-based learning, the collaboration, the student-centered focus. Those I can handle.

No, I feel so out of step, because I can’t kowtow to business metrics. I can’t measure my students’ progress–the quality of their learning — on a spreadsheet. I can’t draw up their successes and failures in a pie-chart based on 401K investments. I don’t hold up the world’s CEO’s as models.

Instead I hold up a liberal education for them to follow–believing that if they do, when THEY become the CEO’s of their world, the world should become a better place.

Billy Collins … and how to think better of poetry

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

The other night I went to see the poet Billy Collins deliver a lecture. It was a pretty fancy event–I’d been given the tickets– held in the  beautiful Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. As Billy Collins remarked, it is like standing inside an enormous cello.

Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA

Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA

Anyway, I don’t know a lot of Collins’ poetry, except maybe two or three poems, but I always use his poem “Introduction to Poetry” at the beginning of any course I teach in poetry.  In it, Collins claims:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

It is those last five lines that are important. They describe why poetry is met with such an “ugh” from people whose only experience with it has been in classes where the well-intentioned teacher urged them to “find the meaning.”

I tell my students that human beings are innately wired to respond positively to poetry (think infant lullabies, toddlers’ picture books, nonsense riddles, jump-roping songs). It is the English teachers who teach students to dislike it. To think of it as something to fear and dread.

And that is a shame.

For last night, Collins (who repeated what I said about poetry being innate) was as entertaining as could be. He told the audience a bit of his life and his term as Poet Laureate of the U.S.  He spoke of his influences and literary influences in general. He spoke of the death of humor in poetry–he blames the Romantics who he said “replaced sex and humor with landscape.” And he spoke of the difficulty for some people used to hearing formalist poetry to hear the acoustics of what is commonly called free verse. (He doesn’t like the term.)
He also read several of his poems, although half of what he read came from others. Here is a wonderful two line poem by Howard Nemerov called “Bacon and Eggs”:

The chicken contributes,
But the pig gives his all.

See it’s good to laugh.  And have fun in poetry.

And so he spoke of the importance of humor and used a poem by Ruth L. Schwartz to demonstrate how humor can be used as a transition point, moving from light to darkness (or vise versa). He got a laugh on the line “look at that DUCK,” which is how he wanted it to be:

The Swan at Edgewater Park

Isn’t one of your prissy richpeoples’ swans
Wouldn’t be at home on some pristine pond
Chooses the whole stinking shoreline, candy wrappers, condoms
in its tidal fringe
Prefers to curve its muscular, slightly grubby neck
into the body of a Great Lake,
Swilling whatever it is swans swill,
Chardonnay of algae with bouquet of crud,
While Clevelanders walk by saying Look
at that big duck!
Beauty isn’t the point here; of course
the swan is beautiful,
But not like Lorie at 16, when
Everything was possible—no
More like Lorie at 27
Smoking away her days off in her dirty kitchen,
Her kid with asthma watching TV,
The boyfriend who doesn’t know yet she’s gonna
Leave him, washing his car out back—and
He’s a runty little guy, and drinks too much, and
It’s not his kid anyway, but he loves her, he
Really does, he loves them both—
That’s the kind of swan this is.

But the most effecting poem that he read was the one that he read last. It is his beautiful poem about the love between a mother and son–told with sweet humor:

The Lanyard
by Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Werner Herzog, Northern Liberties and my neighbors’ art

Werner Herzog photo Bil Zelman

Werner Herzog
photo Bil Zelman

So it is August last year and I’m with a group of people at a street fair on 2nd Street and we’re standing watching the children attempting to throw over-sized basketballs into undersized hoops. All of a sudden, the barker takes away one of the balls and points it to me. “Let’s give Werner Herzog a try,” he says.

Now, I’ve have been compared to a lot of people in my time–both as insults and as compliments–but I had never been compared to Werner Herzog before. We all had a laugh and promptly forgot about it…until this past Tuesday, that is.

Anyway, I was walking down 3rd Street to my local when I passed the abandoned Ortlieb’s brewery at 3rd and Poplar. It is a derelict building with a lot of character but in really great disrepair, and nobody yet has taken the risk to convert it to anything. Anyway, I was surprised to see, yet again, a reference to the German film director: Brand new graffiti spray-painted on the brewery wall.

Newly Arrived Graffiti on the wall of the abandoned Ortlieb's brewery (3rd and Poplar).

Newly Arrived Graffiti on the wall of the abandoned Ortlieb’s brewery (3rd and Poplar).

What is the fascination with Herzog in my little neighborhood? I photographed it immediately.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Philadelphia is very proud of its wall art–murals that dot the city–and visitors can now take one of several bus tours visiting the more spectacular ones. But in my neighborhood of Northern Liberties, the wall art is not necessarily all that official–but it is more than impressive. And so on Wednesday, I took my own little tour of just a one block by two block area, snapping whatever pieces I saw.

A half-block north of the Ortleib’s brewery is Liberty Lands Park. Its southern wall is Kaplan’s Bakery and the air is filled with the aroma of baking bread–bread that makes its way to many of the restaurants throughout the city. The wall is filled with a three-dimensional mural of birds and bees and a map of the land as it once was.

A half-block north of the Ortleib's brewery is Liberty Lands park.

A half-block north of the Ortleib’s brewery is Liberty Lands park.

At the northeast corner of the park, where Bodine crosses Widley, there is a house where the owners have painted a interesting tale on their wall. The famous tortoise (looking a bit startled) is crossing the finish tape, held up by a pigeon and an owl. The hare is nowhere in the picture. Hah!

The Tortoise crossing the tape.

The Tortoise crossing the tape.

Immediately across the street, ten meters from the tortoise, a neighbor has painted his garden fence in lush roses.

A Garden Fence of Roses (Bodine and Wildey Sts.)

A Garden Fence of Roses (Bodine and Wildey Sts.)

A block away in one direction, there is a coffee shop…

One Shot Coffee Shop

One Shot Coffee Shop

… and a block away in the other direction is GreenSaw, an environmentally-conscious design, architectural, construction firm that makes furniture, does remodeling, and sells DIY materials and supplies—all earth friendly and green. I guess that pleases the orangutan on the wall next to them:

4th Street between Poplar and Brown

4th Street between Poplar and Brown

Yes, Yes, Yes: Affirmation ala Molly Bloom

yes I said yes I will Yes.

Last Sunday was Bloomsday, the international celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.

Dublin had its usual extravaganza with crowds retracing Leopold Bloom’s wanderings and with women’s hats that rivaled those worn at major horse races (remember to bet it all on “throwaway.”) In New York, the complete novel was read outside writer Colum McCann’s tavern, aptly named Ulysses. And at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, (where Joyce’s manuscript is housed) there was, beside the usual full reading, an unusual installation.

The artist, Jessica Deane Rosner, wrote out the entire text of the novel on 310 yellow, rubber, dish gloves and suspended them from the gallery ceiling in a very Joycean spiral. Rosner stated that it was Joyce who showed us that the things of everyday life–including the muck and the un-pretty–are the very essence of and inspiration for Art.

And so she used the mundane kitchen gloves to carry Joyce’s text–a text replete with the beauty of life’s mundane grime and natural effluences.

Jessica Deane Rosner’s Text of Ulysses on yellow rubber gloves.

Jessica Deane Rosner's Ulysses Glove Project suspended from ceiling of Rosenbach Gallery

Jessica Deane Rosner’s Ulysses Glove Project suspended from ceiling of Rosenbach Gallery

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. …

I want to talk about the last seven words of the novel, the strong affirmation that ended Molly Bloom’s long nighttime reverie in the early hours of June 17, 1904.

It is this affirmation, the “yes I said yes I will Yes” that makes Ulysses so important. For, if ever there was a modern Everyman, it is her husband, Leopold Bloom. Leopold the ridiculous, the schlump, the man she has cuckolded just hours before. Leopold the grieving, the masturbatory, the lecherous, the neighborly, the isolated, the humane, the persecuted. And to him–and he is each of us– Molly proclaims a resounding Yes!

And we all need to do more of the same. To say “Yes.”

illustration 2012 jpbohannon

illustration © 2012 jpbohannon

I have a good friend, Ken Campbell, who served thirteen long months in Vietnam before becoming one of the leading figures in the Vietnam Vets Against the War movement. This fall the two of us went together to see Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. I wallowed in the existential bleakness; he did not. He enjoyed the company. He had spent too long in Vietnam, wondering every night if he was going to live another day, and today he has no time for Beckett’s desperate vision.

He sides much more with Molly Bloom’s “Yes”!

So here’s to saying “yes.” Saying “yes” to all the myriad things and people that life places in front of us: like the noodle shop at 56th and 6th in NYC… the children’s fountain on the Ben Franklin Parkway…the surprise of 310 yellow rubber gloves hanging from an elegant ceiling.

The End of April and National Poetry Month part 1: Shackamaxon

flying calendarI begin each April–designated in the U.S. as National Poetry Month–with all kinds of grand ideas.  I will organize students into a poetry festival, we will stage poetry slams, another teacher and I will do readings together, we will invite celebrated, fascinating (and inexpensive) guests to speak.  And then before I get any of it done, May comes around and I’ve done nothing.

This month the most I did was organize a festival for the following year and set out to go to Philadelphia Stories’ “Party Like a Poet” benefit. I made my way down to the location (a subway and a bus trip away), got there far too early, and talked myself out of it — I returned home before it started.  Not very poetic, I guess.

But what I did do–not very celebratory or communal–was read a lot of poetry.  And I mean a lot.

Some of the titles were by veteran poets such as Mark Doty and Edward Hirsch and others newer names such as David Livewell and Catherine Barnett.  They ran the entire gamut of poetic offerings–free verse and formal verse; confessional poetry and nature poetry; poems about love, loss, sex and death; poems about animals and insects, planets and hardwiring. They were collections that I bought, that were given to me as gifts, and one that was sent to me by the Academy of American Poets.  Mark Doty’s was a National Book Award Winner, Catherine Barnett’s was a James Laughlin Award winner, and David Livewell’s was T.S. Eliott Poetry Prize winner.

And they were each unique and very different from each other.

And so in celebration of April “the cruelest month,” each day I’ll give a quick run down of one of those titles that have come across my path in the past month or so.

shackamaxon-david-livewell-paperback-cover-artShackamaxon by David Livewell was fun because he is a talented local poet and his work is situated in the places and neighborhoods I am very familiar with. (How fun is that when in a movie you recognize a street, a diner, a department store, a park?!) The title “Shackamaxon” was the Native American settlement where William Penn made his famous treaty with the Leni Lenape tribe and began establishing what is now the city of Philadelphia.

 Livewell’s work is gentle and honest and gritty and searing and, to a large degree, nostalgic, as he captures his blue-collar environs, the families, the struggles, the personal milestones and the larger changes over time.  Looking back at the hardscrabble neighborhoods where he was raised, he elevates his urban experience–both memorable and familiar–into art. My favorite is “Summer Elegy,” a nostalgic piece that reminds me of my own father and his generation–loyal to their perennially awful baseball team–and of the passions they passed on to their children.  Here is a short piece of it:

On the front step my Grandpop strained to hear
Harry and Whitey* call the Phillies game
from a crackling Philco hung on the wrought iron railing.
He’d grind his teeth and move a toothpick left and right
the way that on-dck players swung at air,
a rhthym to Harry’s baritone
and Whitey’s softer quips between the crowd
noises and vendor calls. He seemed to wait
on possibilities that hung like pop flies.
Gramps would tisk at strikeouts, whistle for homers,
and often blurt “About damn time!” or “Bum!”
And all around the neighborhood were men
from other families catching the baseball game…
(from “Summer Elegy”)

* beloved announcer (Harry) and color-man(Whitey) of the Philadelphia Phillies

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.