JOHN YDSTIE, host:
One of the world's greatest private art collections is expected to get a big funding boost this week. More than $100 million to help the masterworks of The Barnes Foundation move from a secluded suburb to downtown Philadelphia. Then, more visitors can see the art Dr. Albert Barnes bought with the millions he made developing Argyrol, a common antiseptic. For years, The Barnes was caught in legal and political wrangling over its unparalleled collection. NPR's Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg went to Merion, Pennsylvania to see it.
SUSAN STAMBERG, reporting:
Reserve months ahead, pay the $10 admission fee, show up on one of the three days only that The Barnes Foundation is open, walk into the main gallery and all you can say is, oh, my gosh!
Unidentified Woman: You're just blown away by the sheer number of works.
STAMBERG: The profusion of paintings just in that first room: Cezanne bathers, Cezanne card players, Seurat nudes, Renoir nudes, Renoir nudes, Renoir nudes. Dr. Barnes did like Renoir, even the so-so stuff. He bought 181 Renoirs, the largest collection anywhere. Plus, Picasso, Matisse, covering the walls from floor to ceiling. They do blow you away as art historians Kate Butler and Martha Lucy say.
Unidentified Speaker: It's overwhelming. It's dizzying. It's invigorating. It's the kind of thing where you're walking through and you're saying, oh, this is here. I can't believe this is here!
STAMBERG: And it's like that in every room. Crowded against one another, mixed in with African carvings, Asian prints, Amish furniture, there's Van Gogh and Manet and Monet and Modigliani and Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin and Braque and Barton Church, who came to The Barnes Foundation as a student in 1949.
Mr. BARTON CHURCH (Artist; Faculty Member, The Barnes Foundation): In '51 Barnes bought my picture and it hangs up in 17.
STAMBERG: Gallery 17 of 24 galleries. He paints a girl in a chair, cubistic, all salmon pink, turquoise. Barnes moved one of his Renoirs to make room for it. Albert Barnes never wanted to create a museum. Rather, he built a school where his theories of art would be taught. For 54 years now, painter Barton Church has taught the Barnes philosophy of art.
Mr. CHURCH: His interest was in looking at the picture, not who owned the picture, not how much it would sell for, just what the color qualities, in fact, are. The contrast of color, the linear accent, the highlight placement...
Unidentified Woman: The name is Argyrol.
STAMBERG: Just 1,200 visitors a week and no more than 100 an hour are admitted to The Barnes. The number will remain controlled even after they move. Until the day he died in 1951, the idiosyncratic Albert Barnes did not encourage visitors. Students, yes. Albert Einstein, yes. Artists, yes.
Kate Butler, who was cataloging and documenting the Barnes collection for the very first time, says Barnes collected works by Henri Matisse and, in the fall of 1930, got a cable from the painter.
Ms. KATE BUTLER (Art Historian, The Barnes Foundation): And he wrote to Dr. Barnes and he asked if he could visit the collection, and Dr. Barnes said yes.
STAMBERG: That was very unusual. Mostly, Dr. Barnes said, not on your life.
Ms. BUTLER: Well, Dr. Barnes liked meeting artists. I think he was very honored that Matisse would have wanted to see the collection.
STAMBERG: When Matisse came, Dr. Barnes commissioned a mural to fill three arches, high over the main gallery's windows. Three years later, Matisse came back to install it: Leaping and dancing nudes, pale against a background of black, blue and pink, a masterpiece!
(Soundbite of church bells ringing)
STAMBERG: A friend from high school, painter William Glackens, launched the collection. In 1912, Barnes asked Glackens to go to Europe and buy him some modern paintings. Emily Croll, the senior administrative officer at the foundation, says Glackens came back with 20 major works.
Ms. EMILY CROLL (Senior Administrative Officer, The Barnes Foundation): Van Gogh's Postman. He brought back a Cezanne view of Mont Sainte-Victoire. He brought back several Renoirs. So it was a wonderful selection--Oh, A Picasso, Blue Period painting.
STAMBERG: Bingo! Barnes was hooked. A few months later, he was off to Paris and kept going back throughout the 19-teens and '20s. And Barnes bought. In a single day, art historian Martha Lucy says, Barnes went to Russian-born expressionist Chaim Soutine's studio and bought maybe 60 paintings. Bet Soutine had a nice dinner that night.
Ms. MARTHA LUCY: The story is, and I think that it's true, that Soutine took the money and rented a taxi and had the taxi drive him down to the Riviera.
STAMBERG: Barnes took the Soutines and hung them on the burlapped walls of his mansion in Merion and they're still there, exactly as he installed them, and all the other masterworks, placed close together and interspersed with pieces of wrought iron and hardware--hinges, utensils--deliberately set just so, next to a Cezanne or a Rousseau, so that the curves of this ladle echo the curves of that nude leg. And there's not a single label on any wall to tell you when the leg was painted or who painted it or what the painting was called. Again, administrator Emily Croll.
Ms. CROLL: He didn't want people to be distracted by labels. That's the basic concept. He wanted them to look at the art and not read the label, not think about who the artist is, what the subject matter might be, what the time period might be, because he wanted to make comparisons across time periods and across cultures and he wanted people to make that comparison with their eyes and by looking at the art, itself.
STAMBERG: So he gets paintings talking to one another, not because one was made in 1908 and the one next to it was made in 1909, but because certain shapes, colors and compositions have a resonance, echo off one another?
Ms. CROLL: Absolutely!
STAMBERG: This artistic conversation on the walls of The Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania will go on exactly as it is when the works move to a brand new building in downtown Philadelphia some years from now.
Everybody involved promises that the principles of this complicated, sometimes coarse and crabby control freak of a collector will be upheld in the new location. Art still won't be loaned out or sold or joined by new works--all provisions outlined by Dr. Barnes. So the pilgrimage will continue and the gasps of pleasure and enlightenment.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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