Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021

© B. Krist / Visit Philadelphia

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Creative thinking

Give NYC a pass. Philadelphia has all the art you want — minus the mobs of people

The obvious choice for a run-yourself-ragged eastern seaboard weekend of art-viewing is Manhattan — if you don’t mind looking at Guernica with 340 other museum-goers listening to canned Picasso lectures on their clattery little lavalier audio guides. For a far more spacious viewing option — and a far less expensive city — Philadelphia offers three world-class museums within walking distance of one another: the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation and the elegant and recently refurbished Rodin Museum.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is the grand dowager of the three and it’s in the process of being radically transformed.

Thanks to the original Sylvester Stallone Rocky movie, it boasts one of the most famous museum stone staircases and facades in the world. A Greek Revival, U-shaped structure, the museum features an imposing ceremonial entrance that, with its eight dolomite Corinthian columns and the graceful pediment they support, echoes the Parthenon. A temple to art of the monolithic kind: large American cities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries threw them up with pecuniary abandon. It opened, in 1928, just in time for the Depression.

But what is old school magnificent on the outside feels a bit poky and dimly lighted within, with cul-de-sac corridors and a lack of flow from gallery to gallery. Detractors call it the “Gothic Garage.”

After long debate and a number of financial crises, the museum finally hired Frank Gehry to rethink the building, adding considerable gallery space and creating, in the Athenian mode, a Forum where visitors can meet, greet and people watch. And all for only half a billion dollars.

What’s unusual, coming from an architect known for his swooping titanium fantasies like the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, is that the museum’s neoclassical exterior will scarcely be touched.

Gehry’s expansion (7400 square meters) will be underground; he calls it his “rabbit in a hat trick.” The museum board hopes that his conjuring feat, when it opens in 2015, will raise the museum’s profile, and perhaps the city’s as well, the way the Guggenheim Bilbao changed a drab, industrial city into a major international art destination.

Until then, visitors can still explore the original building and its manifold holdings (227,000 items and counting). At times, with its armour collection, Korean porcelains, rooms dedicated to lace or Persian and Turkish carpets, an English drawing room by Robert Adam and yes, Grace Kelly’s wedding dress, it feels like a very grand and slightly dotty granny’s attic, or an omnium-gatherum of all the things that exist in the art world. But this is also the place to see the work of the great American realist painter, photographer and sculptor Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) as well as one of the best collections of American painting and crafts of the last three centuries.

Current and upcoming exhibitions include Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love (through December 7), a retrospective presenting the brash and subversive fashion of the African American designer who was the toast of Paris in the 1980s, a dazzle ended by his death at the age of 3c6 in 1990. Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography is on view October 21 through January 4. Strand explored street photography to portraiture to abstraction, and pioneered new forms of landscape photography in the American Southwest, Egypt and Morocco.

A stone’s throw

Further along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Barnes Foundation raises its cool, cream-and-white modernist flanks, as much a symbol of early 21st-century architecture — it opened in 2012 — as the Museum of Art is of early 20th-century style. Modernist bordering on minimalist austerity, the Barnes’ exterior is two great pale stone rectangles from which a luminous cantilevered light-box extrudes. The big stacked blocks of stone from the Negev desert evoke the cyclopean stone masses used at ancient Mycenae, while the shining white box above, massive though it is, appears light and airy, like a huge Chinese lantern.

The last time I visited the Barnes was in the early 1980s, when it was located in the Main Line, a suburban area south of Philadelphia popular with “old-money” families who built their mansions there in the late 19th century. The Barnes collection was in a mansion-esque museum purpose-built by Dr Albert C. Barnes who, up from poverty, made his new money, and scads of it, with an anti-gonorrhea treatment. Dr Barnes’ Foundation wasn’t easy to find; reservations had to be made in advance and the original galleries, 24 in all, were cramped to the point of claustrophobia, the lighting varying from murky to Stygian.

But it’s doubtful anyone ever regretted making the trek to the plush suburb because Dr Barnes had a superb eye for art and over four decades assembled a collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist French paintings valued at US$25 billion in 2010. Shoehorned into one room, an avalanche of Renoir’s luscious pink-bosomed ladies; in another, a whirling circus of Picassos; in a third, a whole countryside of Cézanne landscapes; and interspersed among them shining wonders by Modigliani, Soutine, Seurat, Degas and Van Gogh, along with a Barnes-commissioned mural, the stunning La Danse (II), surely one of Matisse’s greatest works.

When the Barnes Foundation hired US architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to design a downtown “campus,” there was a great hue and cry, along with legal battles, art critics’ screeds against the move and complaints that Dr Barnes’ legacy was being destroyed. The biggest surprise for visitors to the new building is that the 24 original galleries are still there, minutely recreated and still hewing to Dr Barnes’s ideas about hanging art.

The paintings, in their original chunky gold ormolu frames, hang chock-a-block. Barnes abhorred chronological display and often threw canvases together on the basis of colour, subject or form. Best of all, there are no loquacious wall tags telling you what to think. Instead, small printed booklets are available in each gallery with information on what’s on the walls. The architects have preserved the heavy wooden benches from the original building so that viewers, suffering from Stendhal Syndrome — an ecstatic vertigo brought on by too much beauty — can safely sit and stare. Or they might ponder Dr Barnes’ fondness for Pennsylvania Dutch metalwork: hinges, bridles, saws and strange objects that look like instruments of torture hang between the ormolu frames.

Emerging from this aesthetic bombardment, viewers can decompress in the building’s vast central atrium, the Light Court, its soaring ceiling a light canopy that diffuses soft light into the space. The scale is grand, from the 1000-kilogram, bronze-and-glass entry doors to the massive interlocking acoustic panels that soften sound, but the effect is intimate and warm, with long low seating, a perfect entrance and exit to the honeycomb of galleries.

Bodies of work

Just next door to the Barnes is the small, exquisite Rodin Museum, a stand-alone building that is technically part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Built in 1929, the Beaux Arts edifice, designed by French architect Paul Philippe Cret, originally housed the 227-piece Auguste Rodin collection amassed by a local movie-theatre mogul named Jules Mastbaum. Visiting the Musée Rodin in Paris in 1924, Mastbaum came away with a small bronze bust by Rodin and subsequently began purchasing other pieces.

In more recent years, Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum had fallen on hard times. The free-standing sculptures in its surrounding garden corroded by pollution, the garden itself untended and the original interior walls and woodwork painted over, frequently in odious colors. After a $9-million refitting of both building and garden, the museum reopened in 2012, and now stands as the sweetest spot outside of Paris to see the great master of modern sculpture’s works.

In the intervening years since Rodin’s death in 1917, it’s become hard to see the artist’s modernity, thanks to the proliferation of bronze casts of dubious provenance and quality, and cities and corporations around the world using them as street furniture or hulking markers of good taste.

The Rodin museum restores the shock of the new to the artist’s works by placing one of the three original castings of his Gates of Hell front and centre in the building’s entry portico. (Rodin didn’t live to see his masterpiece in bronze, having worked only on its plaster original, now housed in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.) Six metres high and four metres wide, the Gates were inspired by early Renaissance sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise commissioned for the Baptistery of Saint John in Florence. Ghiberti’s Gates were inspired by scenes from the Old Testament; tempestuous Rodin chose Dante’s Inferno.

The Thinker sits atop the Gates and it’s downhill from there on: the lower the figures are positioned on the gates, the more they writhe in agony and despair. Those closest to The Thinker are, like him, classically formed and realistic, but as the eye traces down, the bodies become more abstract, with less anatomically correct detail, in order to arouse more primal emotions. Toward the foot of the gates, the figures seems scarcely human, more a terror-stricken mass than suffering individuals.

The interior of the museum features pieces that are less alarming and more intimate. There are studies of hands in bronze and marble; busts and statues of the great and glorious (George Bernard Shaw, Gustav Mahler and Balzac) and intensely erotic male and female nudes, sometimes alone, sometimes intertwined that, because of their rough bases, seem to emerge from the earth itself.

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