Art and Insult
Albert Barnes in all his brilliant, baffling complexity.

 

By Julia M. Klein | Crazy, contentious, far-sighted, brilliant, loyal, and fickle are all apt descriptions of Albert Coombs Barnes M1892. It all depends whom you ask. The chemist-turned-art collector and -educator famously blew hot and cold: He hired instructors with great fanfare, then humiliated them; courted institutions—most notably Penn—before heaping scorn on them; gave generously to strangers and showered contumely on friends who dared solicit favors.

Art, Education, and African-American Culture: Albert Barnes and the Science of Philanthropy
By Mary Ann Meyers Gr’76.
Transaction Publishers, $49.95.

Sure, he bought Renoir and Cézanne and Matisse in prodigious quantities and at bargain prices, back when few Americans recognized their worth, and he displayed them in ensembles that continue to dazzle visitors to the Barnes Foundation in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion. He enlisted the philosopher John Dewey as his director of education and lifelong mentor, he gave Matisse a mural commission, and he championed both African-American civil rights and African art long before either the masses or the elites caught on.

At the same time, Barnes, always quick to injure, was a master of insults. His preferred medium was the poison-pen letter. Who can forget the disparaging notes he wrote and signed with the name of his dog, FidĖle-de-Port-Manech? Previous Barnes biographers have seized on such oddities with glee. But Dr. Mary Ann Meyers Gr’76 has dug even deeper, unearthing letters replete with sexual vitriol that must have seemed even more shocking in Barnes’ day.

Take this bizarre 1930 epistle to an art-history lecturer at Bryn Mawr College: “If the faculty applicant is a woman, we test the sensitivity of her clitoris by titillation with the finger. If the faculty applicant is a man, we make an examination of the man’s scrotum to determine the presence or absence of testicles.” If this was intended as satire, it must have fallen flat. “Using his medical knowledge to craft an obscene insult was Barnes at his worst,” Meyers writes in Art, Education, & African-American Culture: Albert Barnes and the Science of Philanthropy.

There is much more in this vein, including Barnes calling then-Penn President Harold Stassen a “mental delinquent” and suggesting to a Bryn Mawr faculty member that the college’s president had “exposed her soiled and worn out intellectual panties.”

For all that, the man who emerges from Meyers’ biography—despite its misleading title, the most complete, measured, and scholarly portrait of Barnes to date—is a complex and often sympathetic figure. He is depicted as having not just prescient taste, but real teaching talent and considerable personal panache. We learn that Horace Mann Bond, the president of Lincoln University, once told a friend that Barnes was “perhaps the most interesting human being” he had ever met.

Meyers begins her book by talking about the eight-year-old Barnes attending an African-American camp meeting, with its vibrant dancing and singing—an encounter she claims influenced his later collecting habits and unusually progressive views. And she usefully describes his growing relationship with both Bond and Lincoln, the nation’s oldest African-American college —a relationship that has done much to shape the history of the Barnes Foundation since its founder’s death.

But the book is far broader than its title suggests. It tracks Barnes’ acquisition of various masterpieces, his writing career, his self-immolating efforts to find academic partners to do his bidding, and, to a lesser extent, his tangled personal life. He stayed married to Laura, who ran the foundation’s arboretum and horticulture program, but he had an equally indestructible bond with the mysterious Violette de Mazia, his intellectual soul-mate and (Meyers suggests) almost certainly his lover. After his death, Meyers relates, Laura Barnes thrived, as though freed from an incubus, and de Mazia became the keeper of the Barnesian art-education flame.

Meyers also details (with less tendentiousness than John Anderson in Art Held Hostage: The Battle over the Barnes Collection) the manifold legal battles that have enveloped the Barnes over the past 50 years or so. The flurry of suits and countersuits under former Barnes President Richard Glanton (to whom she is kind) seems downright vertiginous. Glanton’s contribution to the foundation’s current financial problems, despite his spearheading of a triumphal world tour of about 80 masterpieces, is undeniable, and Meyers says as much.

As of this spring, the foundation’s board was still seeking court permission to move the gallery to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, where it would exchange Lower Merion Township zoning restrictions for philanthropic largess and increased visitation. Of course, as Meyers makes clear, Barnes never did intend the foundation to be a museum. She favors the move, but it’s hard to imagine that the man she depicts would welcome the resulting crowds.

Art, Education & African American Culture has some lacunae. While Meyers quotes liberally from Barnes’ seminal tome, The Art in Painting, first published in 1925, she doesn’t really explain what was distinct about his method, or how well it holds up today. Nor, beyond an allusion or two to his crippled father and his gutter fighting instincts, does she attempt a psychological explanation for Barnes’ intermittent derangement. But that task might well require the skills of a clinician, or a novelist.

Julia M. Klein, a freelance cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, covered the Barnes Foundation’s legal battles and the world tour of its artworks for The Philadelphia Inquirer in the mid-1990s.

© 2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04

 


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