DR. ALBERT C. BARNES (1872-1951) was in many ways strikingly ahead of his time. Initially a physician, chemist, and businessman, he is today most remembered as an art collector who set up an educational institution (the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa.). But he wasn't just a collector. From the outset, his interest in art was bound up with his interest in education.
So "advanced" were his tastes in art (and so large the fortune with which he could buy what he wanted) that he sometimes encountered incomprehension or even derision. He was not a man, however, to take much notice of such things.
In 1912, as he was beginning to form his collection of modern paintings, he is reported as having caused a certain consternation among the old guard of buyers at a Paris auction when he paid $3,960 for a 16-by-17-in. Cezanne, "Baigneuses." A reporter from the Burlington Magazine heard "laughter from some of the worthy dealers and others.... Who, they evidently thought, are the lunatics let loose among us?"
This small Cezanne, and probably, also, the Renoirs that Barnes was particularly keen to collect, were considered "secondary pictures" by the dealers and connoisseurs at that time. Even more preposterous, though, must have been the eagerness with which Barnes, on the same buying trip to the French capital, acquired seven Picassos - though admittedly they were "early" Picassos, predating the disturbingly unconventional Cubism that the Spanish artist, together with the French painter Braque, had invented a
few years earlier than 1912.
These Picassos were bought by Barnes from dealers, not at auction. The two Matisses he next added to his purchases came directly from the private collection of an American sister and brother living in Paris. Great supporters of modern French art these two were - Leo and Gertrude Stein by name. After their first encounter, Barnes and Leo Stein became friends and corresponded for 35 years.
Barnes seems to have had a continual thirst for self-education. He was not merely an overwealthy individual with a collector's bug - though he clearly did enjoy the hunt and the process of bargaining he felt was a necessary part of the sport.
At the same time, he was insatiable in his endeavors to understand art and could amuse and even infuriate artist and critic friends with endless questions. Subsequently he was to share what he had learned by lecturing and writing books about the artists who most interested him.
Cezanne, Renoir, and Matisse were to become the three artists predominant in the Barnes collection. He bought works but also sold some as the collection developed. The final count of these three masters, in all media, came to 180 works by Renoir, 69 Cezannes and 60 Matisses. His entire collection as it still stands today amounts to more than 2,000 works of art.
Barnes did not confine himself to paintings - not even exclusively to modern paintings. He had a comprehensive view that made links between old and new, between "fine art" and "decorative art" - furniture and ironwork, for instance - and between the so-called primitive and the sophisticated. He grew particularly to relish African sculpture - a natural outgrowth for him of a lifelong sympathy and concern he felt for the African-American underclass and its great need for education.
His love of African art (and also, incidentally, music) coincided happily with the fact that a number of the modern French artists he admired derived inspiration from African art.
On the walls of the museum that houses the collection at the Barnes Foundation, he deliberately juxtaposed works of different cultures and periods, and of varying status as artworks, in order to stimulate original thinking. Thus, African sculptures were displayed close to Picasso paintings inspired by primitive masks, and Modigliani portraits. Modigliani was also affected by non-European carving.
Barnes was an outspoken advocate of the sensibility and actual profundity of African art. Something about his tone when writing on this theme reminds one of the English critic Roger Fry, who, like Barnes, also intensely appreciated Cezanne's paintings. Barnes's voice, when he wrote in 1925 (in the language of that time) about black art and its place in America, was strong and critical. He was idealistic but without illusions:
"We have to acknowledge not only that our civilization has done practically nothing to help the Negro create his art but that our unjust oppression has been powerless to prevent the black man from realizing in a rich measure the expressions of his own rare gifts....
"This mystic whom we have treated as a vagrant has proved his possession of a power to create out of his own soul and our own America, moving beauty of an individual character whose existence we never knew.... He may consent to form a working alliance with us for the development of a richer American civilization to which he will contribute his full share."
Barnes opened his foundation in 1922. But "opened" has, since then and until now, been a relative term. Richard H. Glanton, the current president of the foundation, writes in a new book, "Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation": "Since its founding in 1922, Dr. Barnes's collection of incomparable masterpieces has remained a secret to all but a few."
It seems puzzling that for all his educative aims (which included leaving the trusteeship of the foundation to the historically black Lincoln University, in Oxford, Pa.), Barnes himself must have been responsible for difficulties encountered by people wanting to visit his foundation during his lifetime. An unwillingness to lend works from the collection, and, since his death, a trust indenture prohibiting loans altogether, has also meant a degree of remoteness in the public's perception and knowledge of the Barnes masterpieces.
Various myths have built up about the place - for example that there is a lack of archival material on Barnes and the collection. There has been a complete refusal since Barnes and his wife died, until now, to allow color reproduction of any works at all; this has been so even though Barnes himself, while believing that color reproduction in his time was not good enough, occasionally did permit it and never forbade it in his indenture. Add to this an absence of books on the works taking into account up-t o-date scholarship, then one has a total picture of inaccessibility, as if the collection had in many ways remained private rather than public.
Now, however, things have changed. To finance urgently needed renovation and while the Foundation is closed for two years for this purpose, a small selection of the French paintings is - by special one-time legal provision - being exhibited in the United States and abroad.
And for the first time, as an accompanying catalog to the show, color reproductions have been published of the same selection of works. From now on color reproductions will also be available for other publications so that full-color books will no longer have to print Barnes works in black and white.
No color reproduction, of course, ever comes satisfactorily close to the original painting. Difference in size alone makes this impossible. But paper surface instead of canvas and paint surface, ink color instead of paint color, the simple imbalance or inaccuracy of color balance - all make color reproductions no substitute for the direct experience of original paintings. Nevertheless, color is the norm today rather than the exception, and Barnes was in so many ways ahead of his time, that it did seem un natural and regressive to go on sticking to monochrome.
The plates in the new book - and presumably, now that the entire collection is to be progressively photographed in color and a catalogue raisonne to be published, there will be many more to come - are of a high standard. They mean, quite simply, that for the first time ever the armchair art lover, or just the art lover not in a position to see the traveling show or the collection when it reopens, can now begin to gather a much more vivid impression of this exceptional collection.
* The exhibition `Great French Paintings From the Barnes Foundation: Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Early Modern' will be on display at the National Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., until Aug. 15. It will then travel to Paris (Musee d'Orsay, Sept. 6 to Jan. 2, 1994), to Tokyo (the National Museum of Western Art, Jan. 21 to April 3, 1994), and to Philadelphia (Philadelphia Museum of Art, dates to be determined).