THE ART OF THE STEAL (2009)

THE ART OF THE STEAL (2009)

The story of how the world-famous Barnes Collection was moved from its long-time home in Merion, Pennsylvania to downtown Philadelphia is told in tones of indignation as a vast conspiracy of moneyed interests who “stole” the art in the name of the people.  The Art of the Steal has a couple of lessons to teach.  First, if you want to convince people of your perspective, present only one side, and second, if you are asked to present your side—the other side—give an account of yourself, otherwise your silence will indict you.  I have no doubt the people who fought to keep the Collection in its original site were as well-meaning as they were passionate, but their insistence presences hide the fact that many people was simply not present.  The absence of many important art world figures who surely have opinions about this “steal” is notable and explained away as not wanting to get on the wrong side of the Pew Foundation, presented as one of the thieving parties.  Still the silence of art historians and curators who specialize in Modernist art or in Impressionism is strange.  Not one Cézanne scholar, not one Matisse specialist, not one specialist from other museums which specialize in modern art was presented in this film.

As interesting as this film is, it is also profoundly manipulative and uneven and disjointed.  The Art of the Steal begins with a statement made by Alfred Barnes himself, stating that his purpose is to “attack” the art establishment.  Not that there was much to attack.  The Museum of Modern Art was not in existence when the Barnes Foundation was established in 1922.  The interest in Modernist art in America was small and confined mostly to a couple of groups in New York City, with Walter and Louise Arensberg and Alfred Stieglitz as the centers.  Alfred Barnes was able to amass the huge collection of French art, from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism to Fauvism, because the French didn’t like these movements either.  The avant-garde dealers in Paris had learned to depend upon American collections, who, since the days of the Impressionists, had been happy to buy anything “French.”  Duncan Phillips, whose home in Washington D. C., is a case in point.  Incidentally his art filled home is now a museum, just like the original intent of Barnes and his collection.

But to stick to the point and try to understand why Barnes went on the “attack: when Barnes showed his collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he was mercilessly “attacked.”  Barnes must have been either naïve or self-destructive to not foresee that the conservatives of a conservative town would not understand his art.  Back in Paris, the public was just getting its first glimpse of the collages of Braque and Picasso from the sequestered collection of their dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.  The Parisian artists were horrified at the mere sight of revolutionary multi-media work when the collection, including collages, was auctioned off.  Even Barnes did not like Cubism, so it is inconceivable that he did not expect an art public that still worshipped Thomas Eakins to reject the Impressionists.

Barnes may have been an insightful collector, but he overdid it in his collecting of Renoir—almost 200 Renoirs and less than a half dozen Monets?—and, as a result, the collection is more a personal response to modern art and less a historical overview.   But more of Barnes and art  history later.  According to the film, he was so distraught over the reception of his collection, he withdrew his art from the ignorant and provincial art world and sequestered it in a carefully constructed private museum.  Barnes lacked the courage of his convictions and was not as brave as the artists he collected.  His retreat had a cowardly air about it and the atmosphere of being hostile to the public and to the established art world surrounded the collection.

The construction of the Foundation and its disposition in his later wills was built on a foundation of spleen.  The entire idea of secreting the art was to keep it from the public.  All information about the collection was as controlled as the access. Only those who were willing to be taught by Barnes himself were allowed in.  By the time I was in graduate school, Barnes was long dead and the fearsome Violette de Mazia guarded the Foundation.  The inaccessibility of the famous paintings was legendary.  One needed special permission, almost impossible to obtain, to study the collection.

Art historians exchanged war stories of their adventures, of trying and failing to see the fabled art.   One such urban legend involved two of the most famous people in the world: Alfred Einstein, the physicist, and Erwin Panofsky, a Renaissance scholar.  Both men were German refugees at Princeton, but Einstein the scientist, as The Art of the Steal points out, was a friend of Barnes.  Panofsky, however, was only a revered art historian and did not count.  He begged Einstein to get him inside the Barnes Collection so he could see the art.  The only solution Einstein could come up with was to smuggle Panofsky, disguised as his chauffeur, through the gates of the estate.  Innocently, Einstein asked Barnes if his “driver” could have lunch in the kitchen while he was waiting for his “boss” to visit the famous collector.  Barnes agreed, not knowing he was allowing an art historian to enter his domain.  Panofsky sneaked around the rooms, gazed upon the legendary art and then drove Einstein back to Princeton.

The story may be apocryphal but it is indicative of the reputation of “The Barnes,” as the collection was known.  The film insists that the goal of the collector was to teach, but, in fact, teachers of art history were not allowed to have color photographs of the art in the collection.  There is a legend of an art historian who managed to take a bad color photo of one of the Matisses, possibly Bonheur de Vivre, but the collection could literally not be taught in an art history class.  There were no images and no reliable eye witness testimony.

All of that secrecy changed when it was discovered that the building was in bad shape and that the art as suffering from mold and mildew.  The Art of the Steal does not mention that the main problem with the art was the non-archival way in which it was displayed—on burlap-covered walls.  Much is made of how the collection is shown in a home-like setting, but Barnes did not know how to conserve art.  Burlap was used, for example, in Stieglitz’s famous gallery, 291, but below the painting rail, not where the art was hung.  Take an old house, a damp climate, and moist walls covered with a fabric that collected all kinds of bacteria and mold, now combine those conditions with paintings on canvas pressed against the burlap and you have a perfect recipe for disaster.

The paintings were in actual danger and The National Gallery in Washington, D. C. restored them.  In return, the Gallery was the first place to exhibit selected paintings from the Collection so that the broader public could see them.   Excitement in the art history world was great.  In the summer of 1992 the Chicago Tribune announced that the Barnes Collection was “freed.” At last the famous paintings could be seen! And in color!  I was in awe of Bonheur de Vivre—-those wonderful pinks and yellows.  There is a great deal to be said of a pristine collection that has not been handled, for the art that I saw was in perfect condition.  But the art was not shown in the way that Barnes had designed his installation.  The Art of the Steal implied that the new building in Philadelphia will recreate the original design of how Barnes hung the paintings, salon style.

The concept that ruled the installation is problematic today: Barnes dispersed African masks and other sculptural works and Native American blankets among the Modernist paintings to point to the connections between tribal art and modern art. Today we would called this arrangement colonialism or eurocentricism. Although in 1905, artists thought nothing of appropriating tribal art (they called it “primitive” art) as the inspiration for their own work, today such acts are considered politically suspect, or, as Robert Hughes called it, “cultural imperialism.”  In making the tribal connection, Barnes was certainly correct, for certain artists, such as Matisse and Modigliani, who were directly inspired by tribal artifacts; but the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists knew nothing of African art.

Ever since the Primitivism and Modern Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984, the formalist comparison between modern and tribal art has been discredited.  Today we flinch at the term “primitivism.”  Certainly European artists at the beginning of the 20th century used African art to infuse modernist painting and sculpture with something new and “exotic,” but for a contemporary museum to be complicit with cultural requisitioning, unless the historical context is fully explained, is unthinkable today.  The question of whether or not the colonialist approach as followed by Barnes for the installation of his art will be replicated remains a question.

The film does not discuss the link between the collection and African art, even though the fact that Barnes left his collection to a black university—Lincoln University—is staring them in the face.  Also passed over rather lightly is the fact that a group of rich white people stand accused of stealing a valuable ($25 billion and counting) art collection, which was whisked away from poor black people who were too ignorant to know what they owned.  Complicating matters are the black men who were complicit in transferring the property of Lincoln University—the Barnes Collection—over to the city of Philadelphia.  No one seemed to feel any ethical qualms of violating the terms of a will or show any particular interest in helping the now-impoverished school.

In the art world, Richard Glanton was a well-known villain, not because he managed to pry the paintings from the dubious burlap walls of the Foundation, but because he mismanaged the money and left the Foundation in apparently dire straits.  Whatever money the Foundation made from the tours of the Collection, the profit was apparently handed over to lawyers who had to defend “The Barnes” from neighbors who were rightfully resentful of the steady stream of art lovers coming to pay homage to the paintings.  As anyone who watched the battle between another private museum, The Getty, and another powerful and wealthy public community, Brentwood, can tell you, the museum will lose.  The Art of the Steal interviews some of the Merion-dwellers, who wisely told their side of the story, and it is clear that these were people with deep pockets. When the neighbors eventually relented, it was too late and Glanton had put the Foundation in a vulnerable place, ripe for the picking.

Despite the rear-guard and last minute efforts of the last of the die-hard supporters of the wishes of Alfred Barnes, the Collection will be housed in a new building and will be open to the public in 2012.  Barnes set up his Foundation nearly one hundred years ago, when it may have made sense to try to teach a ignorant public about modern art, albeit in small and exclusionary groups.  But one hundred years later, the public loves Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Matisse, et al.  One can imagine that the mean old man would be delighted that so many people love his art so much.  He would say, “I told you so.”  He would have the last laugh.  Much of made of how his will was slowly dismantled and written off, but the times that inspired the writing of such a mean-spirited document are in the past.

In its own time the Barnes Collection was an anachronism, an enlarged version of the secret cabinet of a Renaissance prince, who opened the doors only to the select few.  Presumably, the French Revolution ended the private and exclusive nature of art and museums became public.  Salon exhibitions were open to the people.  Artists learned to take public criticism and to enjoy public adulation.  We came to believe that art was for the public; that culture belonged to the people.  While The Art of the Steal exposed political chicanery and suggested collusion between political power and money, but we learned nothing new, expect that Barnes made his money from a cure for venereal disease and that these profits, well-deserved, no doubt, were used to buy art.  Art, power and money have always been cultural triplets.  At least the politicians and the power mongers are giving the art to the public, or should I say, they have “stolen” the art only to give it away…to us.   Thank you.  I am planning my trip to Philadelphia.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

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