Extreme Eccentrics: Modern Art and its Collectors

Extreme Eccentrics: Modern Art and its Collectors

Extreme Eccentrics: Modern Art and its Collectors

When collecting works of avant-garde art, Albert Barnes and Leo and Gertrude Stein seemed even madder than its makers.


“Those who maintain that modern art was started by mental cases would seem to be right,” admitted Clement Greenberg in 1946, less than a decade after the Nazis’ notorious exhibition of Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art). Only “mental impulses so strong and so disconnected from the actual environment” as those that plagued Van Gogh, Cézanne and Rousseau, he offered, could have allowed them the courage or naïveté to venture so far into the unknown; and only after them could cooler, cannier figures like Matisse and Picasso begin exploring this new terrain in full consciousness of the consequences. Writing just after the war, Greenberg could have had no inkling that such a pursuit might one day at least promise to become a normal profession with a clear career path and, for some, a fat paycheck, pretty much like law or dentistry.

But if in the beginning the pursuit required, at minimum, “an extreme eccentric” who could “shut his eyes with Cézanne’s tenacity to the established examples before and around him,” how much more maladjustment or nonconformity must it have taken for the early collectors of this art, even coming as they did a generation or more later, to bet their fortunes on its future? It’s hard to remember now, when any prudent portfolio of investments includes contemporary art—and the more extreme, the better—that buying the works of avant-garde artists once seemed even madder than making it, and this long after the deaths of pioneers like Van Gogh and Rousseau. Albert Barnes was one of those extreme eccentrics, and he discovered just how naïve he was in 1923 when he exhibited part of his collection—works by Soutine, Modigliani, Matisse and others—at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The local papers deemed it a scandal, and medical authorities thought the art worthy of the insane. From then on, Barnes was at war with almost any person or institution that claimed cultural authority in his hometown.

In any case, having already chartered an educational foundation to promote his ideas, Barnes was in the process of creating his own counterinstitution, and by 1925 it was operating in the Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion. This wasn’t a typical museum: Barnes took seriously the idea that his was a place of instruction, so there was no welcome mat for idle visitors. Barnes’s “prime and unwavering contention has been that art is no trivial matter, no device for the entertainment of dilettantes, or upholstery for the houses of the wealthy,” and the Barnes Foundation’s bylaws specifically forbade “any society functions commonly designated receptions, tea parties, dinners, banquets, dances, musicales or similar affairs.” The foundation was to be a place where people came to be taught what art was, according to the philosophy Barnes had developed under the influence of John Dewey, and anyone not enrolled as a student had no reason to be there.

The nearly ninety-year history of the Barnes Foundation has been a tortuous and contentious one. It’s easy to ascribe this to Barnes’s contrary, self-contradictory personality. A boy from the wrong side of the tracks who made good, he studied medicine but didn’t take to its practice. Instead he became wealthy by inventing, with a collaborator, a medication that became widely used as a preventive against gonorrheal blindness in newborns. Barnes was a sharp operator in business, but he was nothing if not high-minded. At his factory, the workday included only six hours of ordinary labor—with the other two hours devoted to seminars on philosophy, often led by the boss himself. When Barnes maintained that his gallery would be for the use of “men and women who gain their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories, schools, stores and similar places,” he wasn’t talking out of his hat. His aim was to wrest the monopoly on the understanding of art, as of philosophy, from the class that he had succeeded in joining, and endow it to the class he had been born into. Overcoming the divisions of class wasn’t his only cause. He happily described himself as “an addict to Negro camp-meetings, baptizings, revivals, and to seeking the company of individual Negroes.” He was an avid supporter of black artists and, for a time, a committed interlocutor of African-American intellectuals such as Alain Locke.

If Barnes was a progressive idealist, he was also a hard-hearted bastard—litigious, foul-mouthed, the worst kind of control freak. He fell out with everyone he could not dominate, with the exception of Dewey, and demonized anyone who disagreed with him. He became a coprographic crank, and his little institution with its great art collection became increasingly insular—even more so after his death in 1951. The only opening came by way of legal action. In 1960 the State of Pennsylvania finally succeeded in forcing the foundation to post public hours, which it did grudgingly: two days a week, by appointment only. In appearance, nothing else had changed.

But Barnes’s will contained a few time bombs. One was a requirement that the foundation’s endowment be invested exclusively in government bonds. During his lifetime, Barnes had handled money with an astonishing combination of skill and luck, but a requirement that would have withstood the Depression was no match for postwar inflation. With expenses outrunning income, the endowment steadily dwindled. Second, Barnes stipulated that any successors to his handpicked board must not be affiliated with any prominent local educational or cultural institutions, all of which he saw as enemies to the last. Instead, future board members were to be appointed by the trustees of Lincoln University, a historically black institution whose alumni include Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes and Kwame Nkrumah.

Barnes’s chosen board members turned out to be pretty hardy. By 1988, when Lincoln appointees finally became a board majority, the university’s great days were past: an increasingly cash-poor gallery was in the control of an equally penurious college (and one that had no real art department). Worse still, the Lincoln trustee who ended up becoming president of the foundation was a man nearly as litigious as Barnes himself (at least according to legal journalist John Anderson in his 2003 book Art Held Hostage: The Battle Over the Barnes Collection), and who saw the foundation mainly as the vehicle for his own rise within Pennsylvania Republican politics. When he floated the idea of selling off some of the art to save the foundation, the art world cried horror. But the Barnes was broke.

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The solution must have the doctor rolling in his grave. Having reopened this past May in a handsome new building (designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects) just down the street from the Philadelphia Museum of Art—Barnes’s bête noir—the Barnes Foundation is now a museum like any other. Visitors don’t even need to make an appointment. Dilettantes may entertain themselves without fear of the doctor’s furious invective, and I suspect that tea parties and musicales may eventually transpire. Has Barnes’s egalitarian and exclusive vision of art finally been betrayed, or has it been preserved to the extent that history and circumstance allow?

Perhaps preservation and betrayal are one and the same here. As the literary scholar Jeremy Braddock points out in an acute and important book called Collecting as Modernist Practice (Johns Hopkins; $39.95)—a wide-ranging study based on the unexpected but revealing parallels between the selection of work for poetry anthologies and the acquisition of art for collections during the modernist era—Barnes’s ultimate ambition was “to change fundamentally the entire field of cultural practice in the United States.” (Along with Barnes, Braddock also discusses Duncan Phillips and his collection in Washington, DC, in tandem with poetry anthologies by Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell as well as Locke’s The New Negro, among others.) That clearly hasn’t happened, and not only because the weight of prejudice stood against such ambition. As fine as Barnes’s eye for art may have been, and allied no less to a pedagogical project, his ideas were inadequate. He was too narrowly formalistic in his understanding of art, and his view of its psychological and social implications was too undialectical. Barnes’s voluminous writings, though full of apt observations, are never cited by art historians because they are wedded to an intellectual system that resists further development, being so self-enclosed, not to mention one-sided and unjustifiably vehement in judgment. Apparently this branch of the Barnes Foundation’s heritage is going to be honored in the breach: in the bookshop I found for sale just three of the founder’s half-dozen books (most written in collaboration with Violette de Mazia), in printings dated 1990, 1986 and 1959, as if they had been found in a clean-out of the foundation’s storage. Yet Barnes’s writings were praised in their time not only by Dewey (as one might have expected) but by Pound (who called The Art of Painting “the most intelligent book on painting that has ever appeared in America”), as well as drawing more measured responses from Alfred Barr and Leo Stein. The painter John Sloan’s remark that Barnes “knows more about art than any artist needs to know” may have been a backhanded compliment, but who else could have earned it?

In any case, what has been in a literal sense preserved, like flies in amber, are the peculiar arrangements of paintings and objects that Barnes created on the walls of the original foundation building in Merion. These arrangements are surprising because they recall the salon-style manner of hanging in the nineteenth century or, in their intermixing of paintings with all sorts of small craft objects such as andirons and horseshoes, what’s been called the “bricobracomania” of that era—everything that the modernism Barnes loved had in principle opposed. But the association is misleading. Barnes’s arrangement had other justifications altogether, and, as Braddock says, they constitute works of art in their own right, aiming “to repeat the operations of the individual painting on the level of the gallery” and become “expressive not only in pedagogical, public ways but in more hermetic, subjective, inward ways as well.” The new building preserves the “wall pictures” that Barnes orchestrated so carefully and can be understood as a museum encasing his original museum, which in turn embraces the works within it. Just as any museum necessarily changes the meaning of the art it contains, this new museum changes the meaning of the old one, in ways that will be revealed only in time.

Whatever you may have thought of the old Barnes Foundation (and even if you never had a chance to see it), you won’t be able to stay away from the new one if you have any interest in Impressionist and modernist painting, which can be viewed here as nowhere else. Matisse, in particular, stands out in all his glory, including aspects easy to overlook in other collections: wherever did that bizarre yet effectively nebulous lavender background to a 1918 still life of anemones come from, or the surprisingly Lautrec-like reclining figure in another work of the same year—in which, moreover, the artist somehow makes oil paint look more like pastel? And you’ll learn as much about Cézanne here as anywhere when you notice in a flower still life of 1896–98 an explosive energy one would not have expected from that quietly furious master.

From another angle, the proof of Barnes’s eye can be found in the way his selections by minor artists could almost convince you that they are much better than you imagined. I never gave more than half a thought to Jules Pascin, but suddenly I think I might have been mistaken. Even the normally cloying work of Marie Laurencin looks pretty good. And as for an artist like Alfred Maurer, who I’d always thought was underrated, now I know where to point for the proof.

Instead of curating to illustrate an artist’s development, or to showcase his or her most typical works, Barnes concentrated on art that appealed to him most strongly as “plastic form” without reference to biography or history. In so doing, he highlighted features of the artist’s aesthetic that may be obscured when other museums—not without good reason—place their works in determinate historical contexts. Barnes allows familiar artists to be seen differently. Since his time, the tide of taste has turned decisively against Renoir, one of his favorite artists, while continuing to reinforce the importance of another favorite, Cézanne. At the Barnes it becomes possible to see the forgotten affinities between them, to perceive something of Renoir’s sensual ecstasy in a Cézanne like The Allée of Chestnut Trees at the Jas de Bouffan (ca. 1888), and to notice how his The Large Pear (1895–98) seems to rock like a boat on a wave of overwhelming feeling; while a Renoir landscape such as Dovecote at Bellevue (ca. 1888–89) possesses an intensity of conviction one would have thought was entirely Cézanne’s.

* * *

Leo Stein, too, was devoted to Renoir with a passion that now seems hard to recover. The qualities Stein said he found so moving—“the shadow of death has never clouded the art of Renoir and if he has a limitation, it is the very simplicity, the serene graciousness of his pure and noble joy”—may now encapsulate what strikes us as false in it. An excellent exhibition that recently closed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde”—which was first shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and which I was lucky enough to see at its second venue, the Grand Palais in Paris, as well as more recently in New York—tells a story as important to the history of modernist collecting as Barnes’s, and just as ambiguous. Although the name of the youngest of the five Stein siblings, Gertrude, counts for the most these days, thanks less perhaps to her extraordinary writings than to her equally remarkable talent for self-mythologization, the key figure was really her slightly older brother Leo. He was important for Barnes as well, to whom he became, according to Braddock, “a mentor” who encouraged Barnes’s acquisition of work by Matisse and the pre-Cubist Picasso.

What unites Barnes and Leo Stein and distinguishes them from Gertrude is their aversion to Cubism, in contrast to her avid embrace of it. There are plenty of Picassos at the Barnes Foundation, but they are early ones, and they pale beside their Matissean neighbors. To Barnes’s eye, “the very great majority of cubistic paintings have no more aesthetic significance than the pleasing pattern in an Oriental rug”—a remark that betrays how his faith in the universality of aesthetic values was allied to a definite hierarchy among those values, with the highest achievements being those of representation. Cubism, in this view, had strayed too far into abstraction. Leo likewise saw in Picasso’s Cubism mere “diagrams” that “were abstract simplifications and not a whit more real than things with all their complexities,” so that “when he became an intellectual at a contemptible level of degradation I couldn’t accept it.” His dislike of his sister’s writing is in part a dislike of the way she used Cubism as a paradigm for prose.

Leo and Barnes shared more than taste: each was incapable of meeting a contrary viewpoint with anything but contempt. Nor were Leo’s so vehemently voiced passions necessarily lasting. What Brenda Wineapple has said of the Steins’ father—“He was certain of something only until he lost interest in it, and then his loss of interest was complete”—was also true of Leo. Having cultivated a zeal for art in his younger sister and then his elder brother, Michael—their two middle siblings seem always to have been second-class citizens in this family—he eventually lost interest, finally declaring even Cézanne a “squeezed lemon.” Needless to say, the dessication and sourness were entirely Leo’s. Yet the years when he and Gertrude together were amassing art on a heroic scale (considering their relatively limited means) represent the beginning of true avant-garde collecting. Their trove of Matisses was not as various as Barnes’s would be, but starting with Woman With a Hat (1905), which Leo had to have despite its at first seeming “the nastiest smear of paint I had ever seen,” their Matisses remain unremittingly radical. And despite Leo’s inability to follow Picasso into Cubism, his and Gertrude’s taste in pre-Cubist Picasso seems notably shrewder than that of Barnes.

Like Barnes, Leo expected his contemplation of avant-garde art to culminate in a fully worked-out program of aesthetics. His distillation was a book with the unpromising title The A-B-C of Aesthetics, published in 1927 and apparently never since reprinted in full. Fervent opinions constantly revised do not a systematic thinker make. Besides, Leo was already losing interest in the fight. Although he had been the energizing partner of the odd couple he’d formed with his younger sister, a relationship of near incestuous intensity, his passion for art emerged from their breakup with much of its force spent. It’s hard to tell whether it was Picasso or Alice B. Toklas whom Leo resented more, but either way, he was as bitter as any spurned lover. To Barnes he would later write, “Gertrude and I are just the contrary. She’s basically stupid and I’m basically intelligent.” Ironically, her “stupidity” ended up being worth more than his intelligence. She continued to be the proponent of Picasso, while the banner of Matisse passed to their brother Michael and his wife, Sarah. Michael, by the way, is the exception who proves the rule that early avant-garde collectors were necessarily eccentrics at the least, if not prey to madness. Responsible for husbanding the family’s inheritance so that his younger siblings would never have to work, Michael seems to have been a paragon of equanimity. Never tempted to intellectualize his love of art like Leo, or to play at being a genius like Gertrude, he might have been the quintessential bourgeois relaxing in his armchair evoked in Matisse’s famous Notes of a Painter of 1908. Sarah was the couple’s thinker.

Picasso aside, how did Gertrude’s collecting proceed in the postwar years, when her fame grew and she began to resemble, as Picasso had long before predicted, the masklike portrait he’d painted of her in 1905–06? It’s better not to look, unless you’re willing to countenance that Leo’s opinion of Gertrude’s mind was correct. There were a few unexpected highlights, like the uncanny 1925 portrait of René Crevel by Pavel Tchelitchew, and a decent Picabia among the various clunkers by him, but most of Gertrude’s later discoveries are rubbish. Her taste became as dismaying as her politics. (She once began translating the speeches of General Pétain into English.) The exhibition’s finale, a massive memorial portrait of Gertrude painted just after her death by one Francis Rose, an English painter she’d purchased many works from, is enough to make you weep—and not for joy. The better course might be to turn back and walk out the way you came in, admiring once more along the way the grandeur of the art the Steins collected in the two decades after Leo’s discovery of Matisse in 1905, and considering how, while the true avant-garde never loses its radicality, the eye for it can be a passing thing.

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