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« Architecture Books for the Holidays | Main | Iraq in Pictures »

December 27, 2004

Museums

Francis Morrone writes:

Dear Blowhards,

How much museum going do you do these days?

Museums are much on my mind these days. I recently visited the new Museum of Modern Art for the first time, and followed it up with visits to the Metropolitan and the Frick. I've also followed the dismaying news accounts of the sad fate of one of my favorite museums, the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania.

Let's start with MoMA. I used to love MoMA. Its collections chronicling the period of high modernism, 1880-1950, resided in intimate spaces in a building that was itself one of the signal modernist buildings of New York. It went up in 1939 to the designs of two unlikely architects. Philip Lippincott Goodwin, who was a MoMA trustee, the son of the banker James Junius Goodwin, a West 54th Street neighbor of John D. Rockefeller Jr., and an Ecole des Beaux-Arts-trained traditionalist architect, designed MoMA in collaboration with a younger architect, Edward Durell Stone, who had recently worked for Wallace K. Harrison and had helped to design Radio City Music Hall. MoMA's director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., had wanted to hire Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design MoMA. Barr was overruled by his board. And that's probably a good thing. Mies designed some great buildings. But his museums were terrible. Goodwin and Stone, on the other hand, created an improbably homey building in which two generations of New Yorkers educated themselves in modern art, watched movies (MoMA was one of the first museums, if not the first museum, to establish a department of film), and pondered what it meant when an Electrolux vacuum cleaner or a Chemex coffee maker shared space with canvases by Cézanne, Matisse, and Kandinsky. Philip Johnson, who was MoMA's first curator of architecture before he decided to go back to school to become an architect himself, designed MoMA's sculpture garden in the 1950s. This was long one of the most elegant outdoor spaces in the city.

But in the 1980s, everything changed at MoMA. The museum staged a gargantuan Picasso retrospective, the largest ever. Every day huge crowds filed past the paintings, in such a procession that any proper appreciation of them was impossible. I found the experience wholly unpleasant. What was the point of such a show if one could not see, let alone savor, the works?

So as to accommodate ever greater crowds, MoMA undertook a vast expansion under the architects Cesar Pelli & Associates. Now, I like Pelli. And I think he did what he could with the program. It's the program that sucked. MoMA lost all its intimacy, all its charm. I know it's a cliché to say it, but the place took on the character of a shopping mall. I stopped going. (I often wonder if my disaffection from modernism during this period of my life led to my absence from MoMA, or whether my absence from MoMA led to my reconsidering modernism.)

One of the tenets of a conservative attitude is that nothing is so bad it can't get worse.

The new MoMA is, as its press releases so relentlessly point out, an extremely elegant building--so elegant it hurts. I mean that literally. The edges of everything are so sharp that when I just grazed my hand along the edge of the metal frame of the elevator door, I bled. (There's a lawsuit waiting to happen.) OK--it's elegant. As a space for the display of art, it is abysmal. The architect, Yoshio Taniguchi, made a great point of designing a building that he felt would not compete with the art. In the grander spaces, the white walls just swallow paintings and sculptures whole. The scale is just so out of whack that the works become meaningless. In the more "intimate" galleries, the works fare little better. Whoever thought that whitewashed walls without moldings served works of art? That's a kind of simplistic thinking that should make a good architect blanch. (And Taniguchi is a good architect.)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art got it right a few years ago when Alvin Holm, one of America's best architects, reworked the 19th-century European paintings galleries. The Metropolitan hired Holm during the brief vogue for a classicizing strain of "postmodernism." Not that Holm had anything to do with that movement. But for a few months (it seemed) it was chic for institutions to go classical. Holm knew that whitewashed walls do not enhance the art. The walls and rooms that enhance art act as frames for the art and for our experience of the art. Have you ever wondered why great paintings in great museums so often are presented in elaborate, heavily ornamented frames? Beautiful frames help us to focus on the art--a subject taken up by the great art historian Ernst Gombrich in his book The Sense of Order. Similarly, the walls and rooms help or hinder our appreciation of the art. Nowadays, architects with no sense of how to create moldings or ornamentation of any kind take the easy way out with the whitewashed walls. This is a profound example of how our loss of ornamentation in modern architecture has had enormously practical consequences for how we use and experience buildings.

The Frick Collection kicks it up a notch. Some of the rooms in the Frick house are among the most beautiful in the United States, with extraordinary carved and molded ornamentation prepared by Charles Allom & Company, an interior decoration firm from England that created some of the most sumptuous "Gilded Age" interiors (including the remodeled interiors of Buckingham Palace) on both sides of the Atlantic. (Go here for some wonderful IPIX tours of the Frick's rooms. If you don't have it, you'll need to download the IPIX viewer.) The exquisite carvings and plasterwork of the Frick mansion negotiate among the paintings on the walls in the most amazing way, and somehow miraculously not only do not interfere with the paintings but enhance them. The carvings are like musical interludes between dramatic acts. The Frick's collection is by all odds the most outstanding in the country. Virtually everything on the walls is a masterpiece. Indeed, virtually everything within the building is a masterpiece, for this is one of our most outstanding collections of decorative arts and furnishings as well as of paintings. But as to the latter, the Frick offers Giovanni Bellini's St. Francis in Ecstasy, Holbein's portrait of Sir Thomas More, Fragonard's grand series called The Progress of Love, three (count 'em) Vermeers (here, here, and here), and much more. Now, these paintings would be great even if they were on the walls of Taniguchi's MoMA. But I wonder how inclined I would be to visit them. At an encyclopedic museum like the Metropolitan, masterpieces like these coexist on the walls with lesser works that serve as a kind of necessary brake on the emotional intensity of our experience. The Frick's building does not offer that kind of brake, yet somehow the interiors are so designed as to allow us to view every painting in the collection yet to control or modulate the intensity of our response.

A further point needs to be made about the difference between the experience of MoMA and that of the Frick. The "shopping mall" interiors of MoMA put people into an entirely different mood from that induced by the classical interiors of the Frick. At MoMA, visitors do not spend very much of their time looking at works of art. People wander, in couples and in packs, conversing at a normal conversational level. It isn't uncommon for someone to call for a friend from across the room. Consequently, the noise level is unendurable. I grew up learning that one speaks softly in a museum, as in a library. Well, so too, I suspect, did many of the people I encountered at MoMA. Yet they promptly forgot that in Taniguchi's building. The next day, at the Frick, people spoke softly, if at all. The place was crowded, too. Even a private-school group made no noise. (In my experience, private-school kids are often more raucous on class trips than public-school kids, but that's a subject for another posting.) Why? I believe it was the architecture. If it looks like a shopping mall, even though Mondrians and Kandinskys may festoon the walls, people will treat it as such. If it looks like, well, the home of a man of exquisite taste into which one has been invited to view some of the greatest achievements of Western man, people will treat it as such.

And that brings me to the Barnes Foundation. This is one of the finest collections of modern paintings and other art objects in the U.S. Dr. Alfred C. Barnes made a fortune by patenting Argyrol, an antiseptic salve for treating throat infections. With his fortune, Barnes amassed an improbably spectacular collection of pictures that he chose with the greatest care based on his own, often original and always supremely informed and intelligent, ideas about art and aesthetics. (John Dewey claimed he had never met a man more intelligent than Barnes.) Barnes, indeed, was probably a genius. He intended that his collection, and its arrangement on the walls and in the rooms of his beautiful house, designed by Paul Philippe Cret, in Merion, Pennsylvania, serve as a means of educating students in the fine art of art appreciation. At his foundation (which also administered, in the grounds of his house, a wonderful arboretum) he offered classes and lectures, and he published books, by himself and his dedicated protégés, including magisterial studies of Renoir and Matisse. (Barnes's books, including his magnum opus The Art in Painting, can be purchased here.) (He also employed Bertrand Russell to teach philosophy at the foundation. Russell's famous book History of Western Philosophy is actually a compilation of his Barnes Foundation lectures.) To make this long story short, Barnes took great care in his will to ensure that his collection would remain intact, that the pictures' careful (and seemingly eccentric) arrangement on the house's walls would remain intact, that the works would not be reproduced (for Barnes felt that photographic reproduction dishonored art), and that the place would never be overrun with visitors who would crowd one another and make a proper appreciation of the paintings impossible.

Now, Barnes's legatees, the board of Lincoln University, have recently won a court case contesting certain terms of Barnes's will. (You can read the news account here.) The legatees claim financial hardship, while possessing a collection of such quality and renown that were they to make it more accessible, they could probably reap heaps of money. Making it more accessible, it turns out, means moving it out of Merion to a site on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Center City Philadelphia.

Much of the public goes along with this. People argue that the paintings are more important than the doctor's kooky ideas about how the paintings should be displayed. Also, Barnes did little to help his cause with the public, for he was one of the most infamously irascible men in America. He was so hostile to the cultural and social establishment of Philadelphia that he ensured that his reputation in perpetuity would remain that of a bitter eccentric who for possibly insane reasons erected barriers between his artworks and the public that could so benefit from them. I have read two biographies of Barnes, Dr. Barnes of Merion (out of print) by Henry Hart, and The Devil and Dr. Barnes by Howard Greenfeld, and both say virtually nothing about Barnes's ideas about art. Both, however, recount the man's scandals and eccentricities with Page Six relish. (The best and most balanced accounting of Barnes's career is, by far, the chapter on him in John Lukacs's beautiful book Philadelphia: Patricians and Philistines, 1900-1950, which is sadly out of print.)

Anyway, to underscore his disaffection from the cultural establishment, Barnes chose not to bequeath his collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or to the University of Pennsylvania, but rather to Lincoln University, an African American institution that Barnes supported. And Lincoln now wants to abandon the Cret house. I might point out that not only is the house lovely, and lovely to visit, but it contains a mural painting applied directly to its walls by one of Barnes's friends and admirers, Henri Matisse.

One can well imagine that Lincoln will seek to house the collection on the Parkway in a trendy museum building by a chi-chi architect. The publicity value of combining this world-famous collection with a piece of starchitecture could be overwhelming, not only to Lincoln but to Philadelphia.

Alvin Holm, of Metropolitan Museum fame, has weighed in with a sensible proposal that deserves all our support. Alvin is based in Philadelphia, with an office on charming Sansom Street in Center City. Recently, on the Traditional Architecture ("Trad Arch") Listserv, Alvin suggested that Lincoln recreate the Cret house on the Parkway. This is not a goofy suggestion. For one thing, Cret, one of Philadelphia's great architects, himself laid out the Parkway. Second, one of his best-known buildings, the Rodin Museum, stands on the Parkway near the proposed Barnes site. Third, in designing the Parkway, Cret called for reproductions of two Parisian buildings, Gabriel's Hôtel Crillon and Ministère de la Marine on the Place de la Concorde, to house the Free Library of Philadelphia and the County Courthouse on Vine Street. Thus, there is precedent on the Parkway for reproductions of buildings.

Here's what Alvin says (reproduced here with his consent):

I have been pushing the idea to replicate the whole current Barnes Foundation building on the Parkway for the last four years, ever since a small group of ex-presidents of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association hatched the scheme in 2000. Back then we wrote to the Barnes Foundation, to the Art Museum, the Pew Foundation, both Jerry and son Brook Lenfest [the Pew and Lenfest foundations are helping to finance the Barnes's relocation], and many others proposing that the Barnes' Will would best be honored by keeping the whole collection in exactly the same relationships on identical walls in a new building that exactly replicates the present building in Merion. Barnes' original architect was Paul Phillipe Cret, who also designed the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the proposed new site. By reproducing the Barnes building in this location, beside the Rodin Museum, also by Cret, and at the edge of Logan Circle, again by Cret, Philadelphia would create not only a new Barnes collection but a spectacular Cret collection at the same stroke. What worthier architect could be sought for this project than the great Paul Cret himself, designer of both the original Barnes Building and the original Parkway?

As far as the "sin" of copying is concerned we know how Cret himself felt, in that he heartily approved (and probably suggested in the first place) that Horace Trumbauer faithfully copy an 18th Century palace on the Place Vendome in Paris for the Free Library on Logan Circle. And then he endorsed a copy of the library ten years later for the Family Court Building next door by John Windrim and Morton Keast. So there they stand looking georgeous forming the north side of the square, two almost identical buildings by different architects twenty years apart and themselves copies of two splendid identical buildings from two centuries earlier on another continent. And all four buildings it should be noted were designed to serve different purposes which they all do admirably. How very un-modern, how very beautiful they are, and how very well loved they all are today.

I think you know how partial I am to Cret, having found out only many years later who the man was for whom the Paul Cret Medal was named that I received when I graduated from Penn Architecture School in 1962. At that time his star was way below the horizon. Happily it has risen a bit though most Philadelphians do not recognize the name yet. These days I am especially invoved with Cret as I am restoring the house he lived in for almost forty years when he was head of the Architecture program at Penn. It's a Historic Landmark building on a certified block in West Philadelphia designed as an ensemble by Samuel Sloan in the mid 19th century, all in a very handsome Italian Villa Style. We plan to do things inside that Cret had made drawings for but apparently did not get around to doing himself. Our client, a young Penn Professor and his family, are very keen on doing what Cret wanted to have done. A very exciting project indeed with lots of interesting research in the Penn archives.

Back to the Barnes. By now they've got it half-right, moving to the Parkway and replicating the interior. Now the campaign to do the whole building. The additional space needs can be provided by a bigger building to the rear, in perhaps a more modest modern manner.

Best,

Francis

posted by Francis at December 27, 2004




Comments

I was under the impression that everyone involved in the Barnes decision has already committed to recreating the Merion galleries.

Posted by: Felix on December 27, 2004 8:16 PM



Felix, my understanding is that people are committed to recreating the internal arrangements of the Barnes galleries but not the house as a whole.

And even that, as the Christopher Knight piece you link to demonstrates, is considered "loony" by advanced opinion. My question is: Why is that loony?

Francis

Posted by: Francis Morrone on December 27, 2004 11:11 PM



I'm in complete agreement with your stance on the "new" Barnes Museum. This summer, I finally made the trip to Merion. The quirkiness of the building, the grounds, the folks working there, and, of course, "the rules" made the visit quite memorable. The method of display of the works of art and the works of art themselves, I'll leave to your critical/descriptive abilities. I'm still in awe of the breadth of the collection. Anything that can be done to preserve the current Barnes Museum feeling in the proposed new building would be worthwhile. I'll definitely making more trips to Merion to preserve my memories of how the Barnes is now.
Great blog entry. Thanks.

Posted by: DarkoV on December 28, 2004 12:13 PM



MOMA:
Francis, do you remember, in the old MOMA, were there mouldings & trims on the walls? As far as I recall, there were always white-washed walls (except for travelling exhibitions with various display concepts and different curators, f.ex., if I remember correctly, Kandinski's had bluish and taupe wall color for background)and there were no mouldings, or very basic ones.
May be the problem is in proportion, lighting scheme and overall scale of the rooms? I haven't been @ the new museum yet, so can't give any valid opinion.

Interior treatment of the displaying rooms:
I think there is a certain conceptual difficulty, faced by architect/designer when considering displaying modern vs. classical art. Following your premise of "room treatment as frame for art" it follows the treatment should be coordinated with the art it surrounds - in the manner Seurat designed frames in the style for his pointilist paintings. In ideal, crown molding for room displaying Matisse should be different from room displaying German expressionists. But if museum collection is mobile and paintings don't have designated spaces, how you determine decor of particular room?

That's why rooms in Frick and other private museums are so harmonious: the art has it's designated space, giving the designer an opportunity to build around it. Another example, btw, of similarly pleasant combination of interiors and art in is Isabella Gardner's museum in Boston.

My favorite museum in this regard, where period art displayed in perfect harmony with room decor (walls, trim, window treatment, furniture, floor covering, etc) is a small 18th century mansion near Eastern Poland border town, Peremyshl (don't remember the name of the former magnate owner), whith mostly French art of the period. Everything is displayed to give an impression of the count and his family being around - narrow yellow leather hunting glove "forgotten" on the armchair, ivory combs and vials on dressing table in the boudoir, open Voltair on the library desk, seasonal flowers from the adjacent garden in huge floor vases next to Greuse galantry...

Posted by: Tatyana on December 28, 2004 12:41 PM



Darko, Thanks. I'll definitely miss the old Barnes experience. I like that you mentioned the people who work there. Some of the old Barnes faithful are borderline nutters, which somehow just added to the charm.

Tatyana, great comment, thanks. As for the old MoMA, what I should have noted was the semi-miraculous way that, for me at least, the old MoMA worked as a museum, in spite of its being rather different in design from what I regard as the best museums. I'll grant that Kandinskys and Mondrians probably would not benefit from rich scrolled frames set between fluted pilasters. They undoubtedly require a different sort of setting.

Michael J. Lewis makes the point that maybe it is not just the whitewash but the way it's done. He says the white walls of the new MoMA are of such a pitch as to wash the color out of the paintings.

I think what you say about designing the room around the art holds in many and maybe most cases. Certainly the Frick house was from the beginning designed for the display of art, as opposed to being a house that was built and then filled with art. Indeed, whole rooms were remodeled as new artworks were fitted in. But there are also good generic containers of art. Some of the galleries in the Metropolitan come to mind, but even more I am thinking of some of the pre-war apartments on Park Avenue in New York, where one will find perhaps the country's greatest collection of paintings not accessible to the public. I have at times been astonished by how beautifully those rooms show off Old Master paintings.

Now I've somehow got to get to Peremyshl!

Francis

Posted by: Francis Morrone on December 28, 2004 1:40 PM



I found it, Francis:

"...At a distance of 17 km to the east of Rzeszow we have Lancut, with a 17th c. palace complex that was later rebuilt in French Neo-Baroque style. The former property of the Lubomirskis and then the Potockis, it is one of the most magnificent lordly residences in Poland, now a museum of interior decorations with a rich collection of furniture, goldsmith's work and paintings. Within the bastioned fortifications there is a beautiful regular park surrounding the palace. Highly interesting is the exhibition of the Coach Museum (several dozen vehicles from the 18th and 19th c.). Every year in May a Festival of Chamber Music, with the participation of Polish and foreign artists, is held within the beautiful palace interior..."

Also, here you can find some pictures of the rooms (not the best, in my opinion - the sculpture gallery, sanctuary of marble Eros in front of elaborately draped wall, is absolutely outstanding - and it's missing) and even an entry about "Lancut Devil"

Posted by: Tatyana on December 28, 2004 2:30 PM



Couldn't agree with you guys more about the context-setting function of museums and other display spaces. I got into the arts in the '60s and '70s, when the abstract-white-cube was all the rage; critics wrote impenetrable baloney about the metaphysics of it, and art was made specifically to exploit it. (Good essay topic for someone: the links between white-cube exhibition spaces and the kinds of art that were made for it. Minimalism, anyone?) What a shock it was to discover that most art hadn't been made to be looked at in the setting of a white cube! I think I discovered this via Gombrich. Paintings were made to be seen in churches, on rich people's walls, in town halls. I wonder if the white-cube thing was part of the postwar American manian for turning the arts into something more like science, something with a "research program."

Anyway, something else that bugs me about the Barnes flap is just the fact that Lincoln (with the help of the courts) is doing its best to break the terms of Barnes' will. A man who has been incredibly generous to them. This seems like an amazing violation, so I'm shocked that the courts are helping Lincoln achieve this. I've read a bit about this, but haven't understood it fully. I get the impression though that Lincoln has managed the place, and Barnes' money, badly. I wonder if these kinds of rulings will put a chill on the desires of other rich people to leave bequests. If their stated and legal desires for what's to be done with their bequests can be broken, why should they go to the trouble of making such bequests in the first place?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 30, 2004 2:16 PM



FWIW, I would be happy to see that area of Philadelphia get some more attention. The walk from Center City to the museum is always fun, but I always felt there are not really enough people in that area. It would be great if a new museum, something it sounds like, more similar to the Frick than to MoMA would make its way to Philly.

Posted by: Slava F on December 31, 2004 2:56 PM



Michael Lewis' classmate Marc Vincent (now a prof at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio) did his U Penn dissertation on Paul Cret. Here is something else he wrote, and a tour he is leading, which might be of interest:

http://www.wviz.org/downtown/fourth.shtml

http://www.semint.com/tourschedules/t3167.html

Posted by: winifer skattebol on December 31, 2004 4:01 PM






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