An afternoon in Philadelphia

Back in 2012 we spent a cold winter’s day in Philadelphia, looking around some of the historic sites and taking refuge in cafes. Returning last weekend for a conference, some hot June weather made exploring the city uncomfortable from the opposite end of the thermostat, so I elected to spend a free afternoon in the air-conditioned comfort of some of Philadelphia’s wide selection of museums.

Interestingly, both places I visited were former private collections now housed in purpose-built structures, but they were very different in terms of visitor experience and display.

My first stop was the small-but-perfectly-formed Rodin museum, where a wide-ranging selection of works in wax, clay, bronze and marble were on display in a space filled with light, with yet more sculptures arranged in the garden outside.

The opportunity to see so many works by a single artist, with preparatory sketches (in this case three-dimensional ones) as well as finished works, is something I find completely fascinating. In addition to such iconic works as The Thinker and The Kiss, I particularly enjoyed the way in which the collection highlighted various aspects of Rodin’s work, and especially his attention to (some might even say obsession with) the human hand.

This piece was probably my favourite thing in the whole building – I thought it was magical. Created by Rodin’s assistant Paul Cruet, this is a cast he took of Rodin’s right hand just a few weeks before Rodin died, with the addition of the small torso which was apparently one of many plaster fragments lying around in Rodin’s studio.

The whole place was quite delightful – light, airy, and with informative panels of text discreetly situated sufficiently close to the sculptures they described. My next stop, at the Barnes Foundation, couldn’t have been more different. Although perfectly attractive from the outside, you approach the galleries through a cavernous and largely empty entry hall – a far cry from the human-scale elegance of the Rodin collection next door.

Upon arriving amongst the actual artwork, I was immediately frustrated by the lack of descriptive text. I managed to locate a high-level overview in the audioguide, and discovered that there were at least lists of the works on display available in each gallery, but my many questions about Barnes and his philosophy went unanswered.

The audioguide occasionally produced a few gems, although I wasn’t overly impressed with that either – you were given just a couple of points of reference in each gallery, and there was little consistency in whether the description would be of a single work or about the display more generally. There wasn’t even a satisfactory overview available for purchase in the gift shop either (not that I could discover, anyway).

Grumbles aside, this is undoubtedly a spectacular collection. Even without the benefit of any supplementary details, I observed a ridiculous number of works by Cezanne (69, according to the website), Renoir (181!!), Matisse (59) and Picasso (46) – so many so, in fact, that they rather started to lose their impact (plus I’m really not that into Renoir at the best of times). I was also pleased to discover two artists I had never heard of – Glackens and Prendergast – who I later learned were American contemporaries of the Europeans.

From one of the room guides I managed to glean that Mr Barnes organized his collections more-or-less based on which items looked good together. I thought this worked particularly well in some of the smaller rooms, where African sculpture was presented alongside Modigliani and Picasso paintings (as well as some sculptures by Lipchitz, a few Rousseaus and Gauguins, and the occasional Van Gogh). Barnes’ point, of course, was that the modern artists had been inspired by these kinds of anthropological artefacts, and it was fun to see them together.

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