Barnes collection more than meets the eye

Unless you’ve avoided all forms of media this past week, you’ve probably heard that The Barnes Foundation’s new gallery on Ben Franklin Parkway just opened. This Memorial Day weekend offers the first chance for the general public, not just donors and members, to tour the place.

The unique collection assembled by Albert C. Barnes is famed for its Impressionist masterpieces, but when you walk into the light-filled new galleries, try to resist the urge to elbow your way to the nearest Cezanne, or Picasso or Matisse.

Sure, you’ll want to see those, but former Barnes Foundation director Kimberly Camp urges visitors to try another strategy. She advises that “people should not go to the Barnes and try to find the great paintings and stare at them.”

Camp is passionate about helping people understand the visual mission of Albert Barnes and the foundation he created. “I always tell people when they first come in, stand back first. Look at the wall. Look at the relationships that exist there, what colors, what forms and shapes, where the contrasts are and are not. Do that before you try to zoom in and figure out who the artist is. That’s what the Barnes is for. It’s about seeing.”

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The art is arranged in unique ensembles that rely on juxtaposition. There are quirky placements — student art next to folk art next to Mexican pottery next to African sculpture. Not-so-great paintings rub shoulders with master works. And then there are the chairs, lots of chairs. Not for sitting on, but for looking at. And everything is arranged to coax the viewer into seeing connections among the objects.

Anyone just breezing in to look at famous French paintings will end up missing a lot of what the collection has to offer. “It’s far, far more than French paintings,” said Camp.

Even South Philly is represented. Barnes collected renowned European artists but he also collected local South Philadelphia modern painter Salvatore Pinto. The Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill is featuring the exhibit “Salvatore Pinto: A Retrospective Celebrating the Barnes Legacy,” from May 12 to July 15. Pinto was an Italian immigrant from South Philly who studied and painted with Matisse, but his beach scenes are as much inspired by Long Beach Island in New Jersey as by the south of France.

Woodmere curator Matt Palczynski explained that Barnes supported and cultivated local talent like Pinto. “Dr Barnes was a revolutionary collector,” Palczynski said. “He had a mind of his own, a terrific eye and a very keen sense of art and was very aware of the different layers of the art world. Barnes put everyone on an equal playing field and, for Barnes, Pinto was every bit as fascinating as a Matisse or a Cezanne. Barnes looked at Pinto, and I imagine he saw the transmission from European modernism to American modernism via Matisse, from Cezanne, via many others, and saw a homegrown artistic hero here in Philadelphia.”

Kimberly Camp believes that Albert Barnes unique approach to collecting is at the hear of the way a visitor should approach the galleries. “Barnes did not believe in the artificial lines that define what we use now in art history in terms of what’s great and what’s not. And I love that the foundation has maintained that,” she said.

If you are planning your first visit this weekend, be prepared. The galleries are so densely packed with floor to ceiling masterpieces that even the sturdiest art lover might feel faint. Accept the aesthetic overload, take your time, and get ready to learn a whole new way of looking at art.

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