Okay, I’m a philistine when it comes to art; I knows what I likes, and that’s about it. So I won’t be approaching this topic with, perhaps, the respect and awe that it deserves, but I thought some of the info might come in handy for visitors to this part of the city.
A number of Septa buses go quite near the Barnes. I chose the 48, and the reassuring presence of lots of people who wouldn’t normally be riding the bus let me know I had the right direction. (Hey, I’ve only been riding the buses 42 years; I can get mixed up.) It’s a few minutes ride from Chinatown, and drops you off across the Parkway right outside of the Rodin Museum.
The Rodin is one of my favorite spots in the city, a tiny jewelbox with many of its gems outside: the Thinker, the Gates of Hell, the Burghers of Calais (newly cleaned and protected and returned to its outdoor spot.)
Inside is certainly worth a visit, but this day I had a scheduled time—you need to make your reservations at the Barnes in advance—so I just enjoyed the gardens for a bit and then continued on to the big Barnes barn.
The entrance to the Barnes is from the 20th street direction; it’s not terribly obvious when you’re approaching on foot from the other way, so I include that helpful hint: you’ll see a gate set up that looks vaguely Disney-esque, and it’s up the slope from there. The building itself I found to be more attractive from closer range; from a distance, it’s just one of those boxy structures that make me long for the Gilded Age (in an architectural sense, of course.) But the variety of textures and the reflecting pools give a softening sense of movement to the static building, and of course its inside is a marvel of new technology and an old setting—that of Dr. Barnes in his Merion home.
I’m not going to wade too deeply into the controversy of the movement of the collection and whether it is, in fact, a “crime”; that’s been done pretty much ad infinitum, and I just really don’t feel knowledgeable enough to give a definitive opinion. I will say, however, that, while I did have visiting the Merion location on a list of things that I wanted to do, it was quite difficult to arrange the proper sequence of public transportation and timed ticket for a time when I would be off work; I tend not to schedule things too far in advance when it comes to my city/suburb visits, as there are so many variables in my life and professions, so Barnes in Merion was not really accessible for me.
After checking my jacket (and Wawa hoagie; I was too tightly scheduled to stop for a leisurely lunch) I made my way up to the galleries. They obligingly let me in a half hour earlier than the time on my ticket (it was a Wednesday morning and I was visiting alone, so a better chance for that than, say, for a group of four on a Saturday) and advised me to start on the second floor, where it was less crowded.
Dr. Albert Barnes, of course, is known for his ideas about grouping art. (My irreverent self has to say here that on first seeing these “groupings” my thoughts flew to the utter ghastliness of a home party scheme known as Home Interiors, which promotes (promoted?) its “groupings” of hideous pictures, sconces, and artificial flowers in an effort to sell you the whole deal for instant decorating, only duplicable by, well, everybody. The Barnes groupings are, to be sure, unable to be duplicated, but he did have some ideas in common with the Home Interiors people. Random metal, anyone?) Don’t get me wrong, I do like the accessibility and the amazing variety of the collection, and the vision that saw these paintings and objects in a related way; it’s unique and interesting and quite compelling. Although, to be frank, yes, you can have too many mediocre Renoirs. It’s like Thomas Kinkade overdose, if Kinkade had actually been an artist. It was a pleasure to finally come to a random Monet and rest my senses.
I also liked the whimsical touch of the included “Egyptian” drawing by nine-year-old Leona Glackens, daughter of Barnes’s major collector and included painter, William Glackens. It’s given no more and no less attention than the other works, simply a sign and a notation in the gallery guide. I used the gallery guides, found in the bench backs, rather than the audio tour; I have strange objections to anyone talking inside my ears, although I do understand that the tour is quite good. The pamphlet guides worked well for me, although some of them need to be replaced. I also loved the furniture collection that is part of the placement, and the extremely well-done lighting that makes viewing all of this a pleasure. One does have to be careful to stay behind the lines on the floor, but on the weekday morning that was not usually difficult. I sometimes had rooms almost to myself, although others were fairly full. (On another not particularly cultured note, I do wonder about the air circulation: let’s just say that some odors seemed to linger quite a while after particular visitors had left the room.)
You could definitely visit and revisit the Barnes and still not see everything, but I began to glaze over after a few hours and took myself off up 21st street to visit Eastern State Penitentiary. It was quite a lovely little stroll of a little over 1/2 mile up to Fairmount Avenue.
On to Eastern State Penitentiary:
Up the hill to the looming walls of the “hub and spoke” prison. It’s meant to be intimidating, and even now has an almost tangible feeling of sorrow. Closed and left to the elements from 1971 to 1994, it’s a decaying masterpiece of good intentions gone wrong: the “Penitentiary” part is because it was designed for solitary confinement, so that inmates could become penitent with all the time for reflection and communion. It seems, though, that this closed in silence tended to promote mental health issues, instead, and a sincere desire to escape: Willie Sutton and others managed to tunnel out, and the remains of 30 other tunnels were found after the prison closed.
The prison has been left mostly in its decayed state, with the toilets (flush toilets before the White House had them!) and cots intact in the cells, but trees growing in them sometimes, and rust and crumbled walls everywhere. Very atmospheric, and in this case the audio tour (narrated mostly by Steve Buscemi, and very well done) was not too much of a sensory overload as there is so much space and so much sameness in the high arched ceilings and small cold cells.
There are some exceptions, like Al Capone’s recreated cell with its luxuries, and the fairly newly renovated prison synagogue, originally built in 1924. There are also art installations, including a knitted collection of cell furniture (you kinda have to see it.) The installations are an interesting use of the space, and the prison itself, of course, lends itself to film-making and photographers.
When I was there, there was a “pop-up” museum that featured some of the things made by prisoners to while away the time, including a pretty ferocious collection of shivs. It’s down now, but they do have varying exhibits and occasions through the year, like the Bastille Day Tastykake event and the haunted Hallowe’en tours. I was glad to visit it on a more contemplative day, though, and found it to be a most thought-provoking and oddly beautiful site. http://www.easternstate.org/home