Why the All-New Barnes Museum Matters

As the new museum opens its doors on the Parkway, it's time to remember why the collection is important in the first place: the art.

I visited the Barnes in Merion only once, a few months before it closed. Here’s what I will always remember: the adventure of getting there. Waiting on the steps in the morning chill. A heavy wooden door swinging open. Filing in, solemnly. Walls the color of face powder. Entire rooms lit by a single schoolhouse globe. Quiet. Footsteps. An echo. Great paintings dimmed by age. Standing so close I could touch them. Being alone with them. The feeling that Dr. Barnes was still upstairs.

In a few days, visitors will begin pouring into the new Barnes on the Parkway, and nobody can say yet what memories they’ll take away. The walls will be largely the same color, the paintings will be hung the same way, the same pieces of metalwork will curl around them as before. But architecture isn’t a science. The full effect won’t be known until the building fills and comes to life.

The “sensitive” new building may make a play for our attention, but if it does, this is one collection that can hold its own. It’s opinionated, dazzling, and more than a little bizarre. There’s nothing else quite like it anywhere, in numbers (more than 800 paintings, including 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos and 18 Rousseaus); in value (estimated around $25 billion, or two-thirds the market cap of General Motors); in the way each room tells a story; in its insistence that you look at African masks and Windsor chairs along with the paintings; and in the hovering presence of the collector who created it and refuses to let go.

For nearly a century, he was everything. The name “Barnes” referred collectively to the man, the paintings, the collection, the way it was displayed, the building designed for it, and a set of hardened beliefs about art appreciation. You couldn’t untangle him if you tried. Even six decades after his death, you could feel him in the strange, heavy air of Merion.

How much of him you’ll feel in the new museum, and how much of him you’re meant to feel, is one of the bigger unknowns. Merion was his home; this is assisted living. Now Barnes has to live in someone else’s house, by someone else’s rules. His script will be written for him. He’s going to be an “introductory exhibit.” I wonder how much of the following it will say.

Albert C. Barnes was a great American character: a ravenous, controlling, chip-on-his-shoulder Citizen Kane empire-builder. He collected for his own pleasure, and I doubt he expected anyone to understand him. Really, who could? Here was a monster whose weakness was cotton-candy idylls of French girls in wildflower meadows. He owned 181 Renoirs. Supposedly, there are more Renoirs at the Barnes than there are in France.

If his collection sometimes feels like a séance, it’s because Barnes was our direct line to the artists. The art world then wasn’t the global industry it is today. He knew many of the painters he collected; they were anything but larger than life to him. His annual shopping trips left many of the world’s great museums eating his dust. Through him we can view the first half of the 20th-century art world in real time. In a 1946 letter to Leo Stein, he wrote, “The cult of Picasso in America has become disgusting,” blaming this on “the nitwits at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.” He loathed cubism. Who would dare say those things today?

Like most collectors, he preferred the company of inanimate objects, and said so in a 1915 essay, “How to Judge a Painting”: “Good paintings are more satisfying companions than the best of books and infinitely more so than most nice people.” By all accounts, he was impossible. Disagreeing with him or flattering him would get you into trouble from which you could never recover. He was vindictive and cruel, answering one request to visit Merion with a letter signed by his dog; returning another such letter, from Le Corbusier, unopened, with merde written across it; countering a building plan for some new houses on his street with a threat to give his paintings to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and “convert his Foundation into a cultural institution for negroes”; and his specialty, humiliating directors of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Barnes’s sting was so deep and deliberate, it was never forgiven. He especially delighted in that. Approval didn’t drive him. You couldn’t bribe him with the usual things, a gala in his honor or a “From the collection of … ” label on a masterpiece. He didn’t believe in labels. Or galas. Or museums. Or experts other than himself. He was once observed spitting on his finger to clean a Picasso.

He would not lend a painting to anyone, for any reason. He quickly tired of visitors to his galleries “who went about exclaiming ‘Isn’t that nice, isn’t that lovely?’ and letting their children slide on the floor.” He would not allow for the possibility that the child sliding on the floor of the gallery might somehow be touched for life.

Well, here they come, with cell phones, texting in front of La Danse, and who can say if it really matters? The Battle of Merion is over. Let’s just hope the new audience takes a moment to appreciate Barnes and that titanium shell of his, without which this collection would not exist. Only someone so uninterested in the opinions of others would have stepped up to buy Modigliani and Sloan and Soutine when he did. Only someone not second-guessing everyone’s reactions would have installed medieval ironworks alongside Renoirs, and arranged galleries ignoring the usual themes of artist, nationality, period or genre. Barnes explained himself in five deadly serious books, including the slyly titled, 500-page The Art in Painting, which instructs people not to be distracted by subject matter and lays out a system for analyzing the higher virtues of color, line, light and space. I think he says it best when he writes, “The artist must open our eyes to what unaided we could not see.”

He could have been talking about himself and his collection. His psychedelic displays, connecting periods and artists where he saw connections, open our eyes to his own highly personal telling of the history of art. The touch of madness in it—and let’s be honest, Barnes was just this side of the outsider artist who spends his lifetime secretly gluing detritus to the walls of his bedroom—only makes the art of it that much greater.