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A Blow Against Elitism

December 16, 2010 By:
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  It's a safe bet that most Philadelphians, even those who have never stepped foot into the Barnes Foundation's original home on the Main Line, would say that the bulk of the paintings in that famous collection have solely to do with French Impressionism -- Renoir, Matisse, Cézanne, Monet, Degas. Such a response would likely be due to all the media attention recently paid to the museum's controversial decision to move to a new location, now under construction, with great fanfare, on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway; in so doing, the institution leaves behind a building constructed according to the specifics of its mastermind, Albert C. Barnes, the chemist and wildly successful inventor, in the hope that his artistic holdings would be viewed correctly, as they were intended to be. Most important of all, they were to be displayed to achieve the best possible pedagogical effect.

All of the above is indisputably true, but now, a magnificently produced and boldly proportioned new art book, a joint effort by the Barnes and Yale University Press, shows us how narrow a sense of the collection we've had, even if we thought ourselves well-versed in Barnes trivia and were also frequent visitors to the original site in Merion. This massive volume -- which is worth its considerable weight in any number of things, including gold -- is titled American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation. It's the work of Richard J. Wattenmaker, an authority on late 19th- and early 20th-century modern art, and a former student and instructor at the Barnes, who is now director of the archives of American art at the Smithsonian Institute.

The artists gathered here -- among them, William Glackens, Maurice and Charles Prendergast, Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth -- will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of the group loosely referred to as American Impressionists. These artists learned from the French masters -- Glackens and the Prendergasts, especially -- but what they did with Impressionist techniques is what matters most. They not only made them their own, but reimagined them in startling American ways.

When it comes to artists like Hartley and Demuth, they may have learned some of the same lessons, but being true originals, they do things unlike anyone else in the field. They have yet to be fully appreciated for their genius, by both the art world and the public. Perhaps this wonderful book will give them another boost.

The original Main Line home of the Barnes is the source of much comment in this work, and rightly so, since Dr. Barnes, drawing on the ideas of philosopher and educator Thomas Dewey, meant his institution to be an educational experiment. As Wattenmaker tells us, "by bringing a scientific approach and democratic principles to the teaching of aesthetics, Barnes and his associates sought to counter the prevailing elitism surrounding art and to equip ordinary men and women to grasp its profound meanings and significance. All too often, regrettably, Barnes's achievements and the magnitude of his vision have been eclipsed by the notoriety that has come to surround Barnes the man."

Wattenmaker takes his time -- there is much more text in this coffee-table book than some readers might be used to -- and untangles the controversies in the Barnes saga, setting the record straight about the man, the collector and his intentions. In addition, there's a mass of wonderful reproductions of little-known art works to salivate over, as well as biographies of all the "other" artists Barnes so generously collected.

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