09 November 2012

An Evening with Helmie at the Barnes - 9 November 2012

Hermine (Helmie) Kirschbaum is an old friend of mine for some thirty-four years.  We like talking about books, theology, Germany, and life in general.  Whenever I'm back East I make a point of seeing her.  This evening we had a very special visit to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.  The building itself is stunning, forming a new holding gallery for the collection formerly housed in Merion, Pa.

The approach at night is quite breathtaking, with the upper "clerestory" lighted and floating above a mass of chiseled stone, pierced by windows and massive walnut doors.  The enterior galleries, not attempting to mimic the Merion galleries are bright, expansive and suffused with light.  The night we were there a jazz band was playing and people were enjoying a light supper and drinks in addition to the treasures in the galleries.

Dr. Barnes was an enthusiastic and almost obsessive collector, but more about that later.  The collection is framed, if you will on each wall in each room in a symmetrical display that are seemingly chosen at the whim or taste of the collector.  That is the delight or the disturbing nature of both the collection and the display.

A couple of years ago, before meeting Arthur in Berlin, I spent a week in Florence with two separate trips to the Uffizi.  It was there and then that I discovered that I had a distinct distaste for Botticelli.  My visit to the Barnes confirmed my distaste for Renoir.  It seemed that each room had at least four if not more.  The balloon like bodies and "sausage fingers" (Helmie's description) and the pastel pallet have always put me off.  Apparently Dr. Barnes had a great affection for Renoir's work, for the collection is full of his canvases, prints, drawings, and etchings.  However, I proceed too quickly.  I forgot to mention that each wall is assembled in an ensemble, a symmetrical display of disparate elements.  Unlike the Tate Modern which uses the same technique of displaying disparate works, here the elements don't have much to say to each other.  There are simply too many, and the room is a cacophony of color, light, mass, technique, and period.

There are some real delights, however.  I have always enjoyed Prendergast, and there are plenty examples of his work.  His color and imprecise brush strokes make for a wonderful experience for the eye.  And there were some favorites as well.

There are plenty of Picasso's as well, representing most of the periods, but this Arlequino is one of my favorites.  I like the distraction of both of the subjects, each looking off to their own horizon.  The younger seems to mirror the face of a young boy whose portrait we have at home in Paul Gibson's An Angel from Heaven.

It is the detachment from the surroundings, and the fascination with what is out of sight of the viewer that seems so engaging to me.  But there were other things to see.  Lots of Cézanne, Matisse, Modigliani, Braque, and Chirico are there to greet you.  Of special interest are all the Rousseau that are complimented by primitive icons, retablos from Mexico, and American primitives.  One painter, that I had not heard of before or didn't remember was Charles Demuth.  His clipped and precise watercolors were enchanting.

There were some Goya, a wonderful Redon, and several Lipchitz sculptures.  Scattered amongst all of this was Dürer, Cranach, and anonymous German woodcarvings.  Another new name from me was that of Soutine, whose canvases reminded me of Emile Nolde, with their almost harsh pallet and brush stokes, and their powerful story.  

This particular canvas reminded me of a Francis Bacon or Lucien Freud - life with a touch of horror, or a looking beyond the surface.  All in all, it became too much.  I suspect that one has to come back and focus on a few works and avoid the rest, for the time being.  There were several candidates for further study, and there were also those canvases that invited dismissal.  As I observed to Arthur when viewing all the canvases at the Stein Collection at SFMOMA, not all the Matisse that she bought were good.  My advice at the Barnes - pick and choose - and then enjoy.