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The Barnes Foundation's alarming architectural plans

October 21, 2010 | 11:55 am

Matisse Joy of Life
One clear sign of the sad loss that will occur should the Barnes Foundation's fabled art collection move in 2012 from its historic home to a new building in downtown Philadelphia has now been disclosed. The new building is being designed by New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. In a Thursday news report, their absurd description of an early aim to evoke the architectural equivalent of a "Philly cheesesteak" will likely tick off many. Yet it's another detail of the plan that is more alarming because of the larger issue it raises.

The architects don't seem to understand the Barnes Foundation's historic significance.

Matisse's landmark 1905-06 painting "The Joy of Life" is a universally acclaimed breakthrough in 20th-century art and perhaps the pinnacle of the Barnes' many critically important pictures. The plan is to display it in its own small gallery on the new structure's second floor.

The painting -- Matisse's largest to date when he painted it -- has for decades hung in a stairwell of the Merion gallery, not in a room. Some have complained, as a Wall Street Journal reporter wrote, that the painting is "difficult to see" in the unusual setting. But that depends on what you mean by "see."

The plan to move "The Joy of Life" to its own room, described in the Journal story as "an innovation," in fact undercuts both the painting and the Barnes Foundation's landmark importance. The scheme is a clear demonstration of why historic preservation matters -- of why, in the words of the New Yorker's art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, "altering so much as a molecule of one of the greatest art installations I have ever seen would be an aesthetic crime."

When the Barnes Foundation opened in suburban Merion in 1925 in purpose-built galleries designed by Paul Philippe Cret, the growing collection of modern and other art was installed in unusual ways. Albert C. Barnes tinkered with those displays over the years, but they were guided by the aesthetic philosophy of his friend and teacher, educational reformer John Dewey. Matisse, who first visited Merion in 1930, declared the installation the best he had seen in America.

Barnes interior The stairwell installation of "The Joy of Life" is a brilliant articulation of Matisse's artistic breakthrough. The painting shows an old-fashioned bacchanal -- nudes in a sylvan setting dancing, playing music, making love, picking flowers and more.

But its form is not old-fashioned. It's radical.

Flat, hot and cool colors create optical space through their juxtaposition and dispersal. And many of the exuberant figures, as well as trees and other elements in the vivid landscape, are outlined in thick black, serpentine or brightly colored lines. Nothing like it had ever been seen before.

Matisse made a painting where your eye does not look at the nudes, which had been art's visual habit for centuries. Instead, responding to the new dynamism of modern life, his painting's use of color and linear drawing sends your eye on a wild ride around the scene. In the process of looking, a viewer joins the excited bacchanal, actively partaking in "the joy of life" rather than merely witnessing it.

Matisse Joy of Life detail That's why Barnes installed the breakthrough painting in a stairway, a place of lively movement and circulation, rather than on a static wall in a room. He wasn't stupid. He had bought "The Joy of Life" in 1922, and he knew exactly why it was so great. The stairwell installation embodies the painting's experiential meaning.

Here's Leo Steinberg, the brilliant art historian, on the revolutionary quality of the incomparable Matisse: "The analogue in nature to this kind of drawing is not a scene or stage on which solid forms are deployed; a truer analogue would be a circulatory system, as of a city or the blood, where stoppage at any point implies a pathological condition, like a blood clot or traffic jam."

For the new Barnes Foundation building in downtown Philadelphia, the architects are designing a stage for "The Joy of Life" -- a stage that, in effect, will create just such a pathological condition. Although a court ruling allowing the collection to move downtown requires faithful recreation of Barnes' and Dewey's historic hanging, some variation is permitted. Forget about cheesesteaks. Gone will be the current circulatory system for the Matisse, replaced by the architectural equivalent of a blood clot or traffic jam.

"It was not [handicapped] accessible," Williams explained to the Journal about the new building's stairwell, "so we were able to break the rules. There were not too many opportunities, but that was one of them."

Matisse Dance (I) Jennifer S. Altman for The Time It's worth noting that when New York's Museum of Modern Art opened a new building several years ago, Matisse's 1909 painting "Dance (I)" was moved out of a regular gallery and into a stairwell. There it suggests the original plan for the commission from the Russian merchant Sergei Shchukin. (MOMA's painting is the full-size oil sketch for the finished work.) Its ring of dancers, derived from the figures in the distance in the earlier "The Joy of Life," were meant to cavort through the circulatory system of a stairwell in Shchukin's Moscow house.

Whether the destruction of a historic landmark ought to be seen as an architectural "opportunity" is doubtful. At any rate, the comment does suggest the architects' alarming lack of understanding of the original Barnes Foundation's significance. How many other such opportunities are being seized?

-- Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photos, from top: Matisse, "The Joy of Life," 1905-06; Credit: Barnes Foundation; Interior of the Barnes Foundation; Credit: Tim Shaffer / Reuters; "The Joy of Life" (detail); Matisse, "Dance (I)," 1909, installed at MOMA; Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times

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