Adat Shalom’s New Perspectives

From the President, The Scroll, March 2014 

An entrance fee, timed tickets booked months in advance, no winter coats, computer bags or briefcases. Little clear plastic purses offered in exchange for ones that were deemed too large, and guards that ensured that patrons did not step outside of a rectangle painted on the floor of each room.

Waiting in line to swap our e-tickets for a lanyard showing that we paid, I envisioned white walls with a single painting hung on each one, highlighted with its own spotlight and a little plaque containing the name of the painter, the title of the work, and a line describing what the painter had in mind when creating the work.

Surprisingly, I found none of those things. The walls were not white but pastel. They were filled with ensembles of paintings, metalwork, chairs, dressers, and ceramics. Everywhere one turned, there was an onslaught of things to see. The docent called our attention to Renoir’s The Artist’s Family which depicts Renoir’s wife, three children and a babysitter. Then she turned to a side wall, pointed to a nude, and said suggestively “and here is just the babysitter.”

So began the introduction of two of the 181 Renoirs at the Barnes Foundation’s museum in Philadelphia, home to the largest collection of Renoirs in the world. The museum also has 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, and many other great masters’ works, all of it the life’s collection of Albert Barnes, recently moved with great controversy from the suburbs to the city.

Individually, the paintings were, of course, incredible, but the way that Barnes juxtaposed them in ensembles made the artists come alive, their place in history relevant, the relationship between them intriguing. The narrative was as much about what Barnes chose to collect and how he arranged his collection as it was about the paintings themselves. Barnes was said to have rearranged his collection in his enormous house every day in order to offer new insights. The museum is a replica of the particular configuration Barnes had created on the day that he died. Room after room offered clues to the Barnes’ thinking. He matched motifs in painting with the shapes of hundreds of his Southwestern pieces of metalwork. At time he paired artists together or spatially set off one against the other. And sometimes he played with themes, such a putting a painting of heaven on one side of a wall and hell on the other. It was overwhelming as it was captivating. We yearned to understand more.

On the train back, heading right to a meeting at Adat Shalom, I thought about what a treat it was to have found a place where I could see old things in a new light, works from past generations brought to new relevance, connections made afresh, insights experienced with friends. After a while, I realized that it wasn’t the museum that I was thinking about: it was Adat Shalom.

vChag Pesach Sameach.

Have a wonderful Happy Passover.

• Alissa J. Stern, President