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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Art of the Steal paints cultural conspiracy in broad strokes

click to enlarge PIECE OF WORK: Albert Barnes inside the main gallery of the Barnes Foundation
  • PIECE OF WORK: Albert Barnes inside the main gallery of the Barnes Foundation

Painter Henri Matisse described Albert C. Barnes' collection of Post-Impressionist and Early Modern art as "The only sane place to see art in America." In the first half of the 20th century, Barnes assembled a massive collection of masterpieces, including dozens by Matisse and Cézanne, and almost 200 by Renoir. The Barnes Foundation building itself resembles a work of art, with paintings, furniture and other decorations arranged closely together according to aesthetics, rather than artist or period. Admirers called the Barnes Foundation a "perfect jewel box" that makes more conventional museums look stark and sterile by comparison.

Barnes waged cataclysmic feuds with the Philadelphia art and civic establishment when he established the Barnes Foundation in the suburb of Merion. He kept visitors to a minimum and vigorously opposed the idea of relocating the collection. Barnes died in 1951 but, as The Art of the Steal reveals, the battles over his collection raged on for more than half a century afterward. The engrossing documentary frames a passionate debate between artistic concerns and a dead man's wishes on one side, and the hunger for money and power on the other.

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(Photo courtesy IFC Films)

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