A Philadelphia Story
Copyright Vladimir Kagan, March 1, 2014
“I spent a week in Philadelphia the day before yesterday”
“I came to Philadelphia last Sunday, but it was closed”
"All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
And so I was in Philadelphia for three days this week. Philadelphia was once a beautiful city, thanks to the town fathers’ adhering to an unwritten rule: “thou shall not build higher than the brim of William Penn’s hat” - the statue on top of City Hall. This rule survived for almost a hundred years until the real estate industry took over; their lust to build taller and taller towers to aggrandize the image of the mega-corporations that have made this city their home, have spoiled the skyline of this historic city. Comcast was not satisfied building the tallest tower in town… they are now embarking on a second one to house their latest acquisitions…
…I came to town at the invitation of The Philadelphia University, Department Architecture and Design as their guest speaker. On what subject?.. ME - Ah, the magic of living long enough to become an icon! Let it suffice that I had a lovely attentive audience of 250 students and teachers with standing room only…
My primary commitment fulfilled, I had two days of leisure to enrich my cultural experience…two crisp days of light snow to welcome the spoiled Floridians. (I was traveling with my “Wing-man”, Chris Eitel)… We visited the new Barnes Foundation in downtown Philadelphia (we’re not allowed to call it a museum for political reasons) and the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington.
The almost secretive entrance to the new Foundation building
The lobby of the new Foundation building
A great mix of pictures, furniture and artifacts that were the hallmark of Barnes' vision
Barnes was an inventive genius, who in the early ‘20s discovered an anti-gonorrhea drug before the advent of antibiotics. This made him a millionaire many times over and gave him the means to indulge his first love; collecting Impressionist and Modernist masters. This he did with great gusto, owning 800 paintings and over 2,500 objects. Going through the collection in its new home, I was overcome by Barnes’ voracious appetite for modern art… He was a hoarder and vacuumed up every available Matisse, Renoir, Cézanne and any other impressionist painters that he could lay is hands on…
Everything about Barnes invited controversy; his method of collection, his placement of the art on the walls, even the transfer from his private residence to the new magnificent Barnes Foundation building.
Barnes created a foundation to house his collection and envisioned it to be available to a privileged audience by appointment only… This policy proofed near fatal to the Foundation as they ran out of funds to maintain this principle… Many directorial changes, backbiting and in-fighting later, it was agreed to move the collection to its new quarters in the heart of Philadelphia. The Foundation is now housed in an elegant building designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, New York Architects. Visiting The Foundation; I came away with the impression that it is an art warehouse - not a museum edited by curators. … Barnes had the uncanny skill to intermix paintings with obtuse industrial and house objects. In his vision, they achieved symmetry of form and color with the paintings, but with a total disregard for context. The collection of iron object is staggering; hinges, locks, escutcheons, cutlery… not rusted or blackened but all polished to a dull luster, displayed on wheat colored fabric covered walls. The rooms are faithful replicas of the original Barnes mansion that housed the collection.
Walking through the unprepossessing slab-wall entrance of the new building, I was impressed by the baronial height of the lobby running the full length of the museum with a sliver of light piercing the roof and a wall-to-wall window at the far end.
The following day, we were treated to a private tour of the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Delaware. Winterthur was once the private home of Henry Francis du Pont and his father Henry Algernon du Pont built 1839 it in the style of an 18th and 19th Century European country house. It was a far cry from what it is today. What you see now is the vision of Henry Francis du Pont, inspired by his interest in American architecture and fine decorative arts. Construction took place between 1929 and 1931; the whole façade was changed, and an enormous extension built. It really bears little relation to what it looked like before, both inside or out.
The Winterthur Museum in the snow
Henry Francis du Pont was an avid antique collector and in 1951 turned the mansion into a museum. Over the years, he added numerous additions to the house that increased it to 175 rooms, now displaying 85,000 objects! The Museum is nestled in the midst of a bucolic thousand-acre park, accessible to all Wilmingtonians to use and enjoy. …
Though eons apart in their respective collections, there was a marked subliminal similarity between Albert Barnes and Henry du Pont. They were personal friends, entertained each other for dinner, and when together they spoke French. Both Barnes and du Pont carefully placed art and objects to create room settings that were all about shape, color, proportion, balance etc. That is what the two of them had in common. Du Pont’s passion was for American decorative arts while Barnes was engrossed by the impressionists. They had a similar interest in things simple and functional; both displayed their collections in a seemingly random mish-mash clutter with total disregard to curatorial accuracy. However, there was nothing unintentional about either Barnes or du Pont. Both were very visual and placed every little thing in just the exact spot that they considered to be “right” - ironwork on the wall for Barnes, embroidered pocketbooks to give points of color for du Pont. For du Pont, historical accuracy was always trumped by aesthetics. Unlike the Barnes, where a very restrictive will prohibited any changes in the rooms, Winterthur’s interiors (which du Pont said were his works of art, and that the process of collecting was his artistic medium) were constantly changing throughout his lifetime, and generations of curators have continued to make changes after his death. Some rooms, like the Chinese Parlor, were “frozen” to prevent major changes, and they are supposed to reflect H.F. du Pont’s visual aesthetic. Both collectors had a vision of the unintentional corollary between forms and color. They both nonchalantly integrated these into their voluminous collections.
For a designer of modern furniture, there is nothing more humbling than seeing the glorious cabinetry and decorative details of 18th and 19th Century furniture creations.
The bonus of our tour at Winterthur Museum was the behind-the-scene visits to the Furniture Restoration shops, the Textile Conservation Studio and the Embroidery Study Room, which was one of the highlights of our visit. Winterthur is one of the prime institutions selected to receive a portion of the Erica Wilson Archives, which consist of over 2000 examples of her designs and creations.
We were the guests of my friend Lance and Christina Funston, who have converted an old carriage house into an eclectic home, displaying their own diverse collection Asian art and artifacts… Three days in Philadelphia were really not long enough…. Mr. Fields, we are coming back!
The Funston's converted carriage house beautifully decorated by Christina Funston
The Winterthur Museum just opened the Downton Abbey exhibition; costumes from the popular BBC series now showing on PBS.
Movie to see:
“The Art of the Steal” (about the Barnes Foundation)