Every now and then, I look forward to getting out of the “Big Apple” for a short overnight trip or weekend excursion. Any drive less than two and half hours from Queens, New York sets the parameters for exploring new and interesting destinations. The choice for this Veteran’s Day weekend was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia is affectionately known as the city of brotherly love. If you check the etymology of “Philadelphia” you will see where the moniker comes from. Interestingly enough, I wasn’t looking for love; that kind of territory comes from knowing your spouse for over twenty years. I was, however, looking forward to learning more about the culinary and cultural treasures of the city. My niece had enjoyed a walking history tour of Philadelphia back in the spring. After listening to her stories, my wife’s interest in seeing the Liberty Bell was rekindled. As difficult as this is to imagine, my wife never had the opportunity to visit Philadelphia or see the Liberty Bell as an elementary, junior high, or high school student in New York City. I was down for the visit especially knowing that the Rodin Museum is housed there, as is the relatively new Barnes Foundation building. An overnight visit seemed to be a good way for both of us to check a few things off of our bucket lists.
Two Must See Stops for Art in Philadelphia: Rodin Museum and The Barnes Foundation
Auguste Rodin was unquestionably one of the greatest masters of sculpting the human figure. His primary choice of medium was clay, which was invariably cast in bronze or plaster. He also carved in marble or had other craftsmen carve stone sculptures based on his ceramic models (i.e. according to his specifications). There are two museums dedicated exclusively to Rodin, one in Paris and one in Philadelphia. I was surprised by the strong presence of Parisian, French early 20th century architecture in downtown Philadelphia, but it makes sense. In the early 1900s, Paris was considered the cultural center of the world. Americans who were at the top echelons of society were eager to introduce and embed European culture models within thriving cities of commerce. For example, Jules E. Mastbaum, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, founded and donated the Rodin Museum to the city of Philadelphia. It opened its doors in 1929 and has been managed and operated by the Philadelphia Museum of Art ever since.[i]
Reflection Pool at the Rodin Museum – Philadelphia, PennsylvaniaAn opportunity to visit the Barnes Foundation, for me, was cause for celebration. There was a mystique about the Barnes Foundation. For many years, it was housed in an out of the way place (Merion, Pennsylvania) with limited days and hours.[i] More importantly, it wasn’t a place you just stopped by to visit; you had to schedule an appointment to see the art work in the collection. Even today, you are well advised to purchase admission tickets in advance because you are booked for admission entry at specific time slots. There was considerable debate, controversy, and legal maneuvering that enabled the institution to relocate to a new facility on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the cultural heart of Philadelphia. The politics of the move did not sit well with many.[ii] It is very well worth asking if this particular transformation was within the original intentions of the collector and founder, Dr. Albert Barnes. However, change is inevitable. In this particular case, I believe that the outcome of providing an opportunity for art lovers to enter and experience Dr. Barnes’ collection, presented in a Salon style, almost home-like setting is invaluable. It felt as if my wife and I saw more paintings by Renoir and Cezanne during our extended leisurely visit in the one day at the Barnes Foundation than we have in all of our visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
You may ask, “What is the big deal about that?” I have three initial responses to that question. First, the scale of Dr. Barnes’ personal art collection with his particular sensibility (and intentions) provides a role-model for future individuals or generations to understand what it means to be an art collector and philanthropist. Secondly, seeing so many Renoirs, one after another, helps viewers understand visually the concepts of 1) painterly craftsmanship and 2) theme and variation which were an essential part of Renoir’s practice as a painter in the Modern era. He worked within a lane so to speak, but made it his own. Lastly, the Barnes Foundation galleries provides a wonderful location to have learning conversations.
Technically, the Barnes Foundation is not a museum, even though the exhibit space and facilities may look and feel like one. The collection is a vehicle for learning. Somehow that made me feel that unspoken rules of being “hush-hush” in a museum did not apply. For example, as we entered the exhibit space, I had an unrushed five-minute conversation with one of the staff members to get a better history of the place. Also, as my wife and I strolled through the collection, we felt very comfortable having open conversations about pieces on view. We played a guessing game, name the artist, as we entered each new room looking at the different styles and brushwork of each painting. We talked about how one artist represented work in different styles; and in some instances, how different artists’ work looked similar or could be mistaken for one another. In one case, I was absolutely convinced that a small painting entitled “River Bend” was erroneously attributed to Cezanne. While I am no connoisseur or expert art historian, the thickness of the paint and the way the brush marks were made and applied to the canvas did not “fit” anything else I had ever seen made by him. The painting did not register in my “aesthetic sensors” that it was a Cezanne. It might well be that Cezanne actually did paint it and that he produced similar work around the time in which this particular painting originated. However, I simply haven’t seen any of his work quite like that, ever. To me, this is exactly what makes an opportunity for seeing the collection of the Barnes Foundation so valuable and worthwhile, you learn something new.
Also on the topic of new, the Barnes Foundation is not buried in the past. Opening on November 17, 2017 is the Kiefer-Rodin exhibit which is trans-continental and contemporary.[iii] Lastly, in terms of policy change, they have begun to allow visitors to take photos of the art work, without a flash of course. It seems they are getting on board with the era of the digital image. We’ll see what lessons are learned from that. I pocketed a Pissarro, if you will, on my iPhone. I don’t know if I should post the landscape painting on Instagram embracing WEB 2.0, or simply enjoy the snap shot on a personal, private level by using it as a screensaver on my desktop. It would be interesting to listen in on an imaginary conversation between Dr. Barnes and John Dewey to see where they would weigh in on that one.
To make the visit complete in Philadelphia, I recommend the following eateries:
Sonny’s Famous Cheesesteaks and Burgers (well worth the wait in line)
Swiss Haus (bakery, cookies, and absolutely heavenly chocolate eclairs)
Monk’s Café (a unique tap house with one-of-a-kind offerings)
Happy and safe travels to all.
Photographs: Copyright © 2017 by Andrew Buck. All Rights Reserved.