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The Philadelphia Story


Matisse's Le Bonheur de vivre.  

As a result, the Barnes is not a collection so much as an unyielding optical labyrinth—a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art unto itself, that can change the way you think about what you see. It can also blind you. With no retinal breathing room, no psychic rests, no spaces of silence, you can find yourself rushing past masterpieces, overloaded by the optical onslaught. As much as I love the Barnes, I don’t want any other museum on Earth installed this way. No matter how greatly you admire it, you have to admit that the artists who made this art might be horrified by how their works have been used. I imagine the ghost of Georges Seurat trying to remove his giant masterpiece series “Models” from its spot eight feet above the floor. (I picture Renoir’s ghost hovering nearby, gloating, and I flinch a little.)

Yet the madman was onto something. In one gallery I boggled at a Ptolemaic-period Egyptian bas-relief of a woman squatting with her knees facing one direction, her trunk seen full on, her head facing another. Then I saw the Egyptian pose in Matisse’s monumentally powerful 1907 Red Madras Headdress, picturing a woman in the richest blue-and-maroon dress ever. Then it recurred in several Modigliani portraits, then abstractly in a Cézanne still life seen simultaneously from left, right, above, below, and straight on. Then it all exploded in Picasso’s 1907 proto-Cubist portrait of a woman whose presence would end up squatting like the Egyptian figure in his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. That never would have happened anywhere but here.

Soon the dust will settle, the feuds will fade, and art will do what it does. Till then, remember this: Owners of art are temporary caretakers. Their wishes are not to be sacrosanct in perpetuity. The move of this singular jewel in the crown to a more accessible location, into a far better-equipped, much more flexible building, allows this monumental testament to art’s possibilities to shine forth more magnanimously and generously than ever before. When art wins, everyone wins. Even ­Albert Barnes.


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