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  Issue Date: 1 / 2018  

Museum Musings in Philadelphia

Iris Brooks


       Visitors to Philadelphia revel in rich stories of American history, flocking to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, but the impressive array of art in this city is also compelling. As the Ben Franklin Parkway (named after a founding father who was also an inventor, scientist, printer, and philosopher) turns 100, Philadelphia is celebrating a mile of art and architecture throughout the museum district along its majestic boulevard modeled on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. There are venerable art institutions within walking distance of each other: The Rodin Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Barnes Foundation, which creates new ways to view art by intermingling timelines, genres, and geography. And beyond the physical structures I discover an interpretive audio tour of sculptures in a “museum without walls” along with installations in gardens and fountains, and trees, some of which take on the attributes of sculptures.
        Philly is part of a worldwide initiative celebrating the French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1849-1917) with great fanfare. Rodin, considered the “Father of Modern Sculpture,” is being lauded around the world on the centennial of his death. The Rodin Museum in Philadelphia–a gift of philanthropist and movie-theater magnate, Jules Mastbaum–houses the largest collection of the artist’s work outside of France. The Rodin Museum, located on the Ben Franklin Parkway, opened to the public in 1929 in a Beaux-Arts style building designed by French architect Paul Cret. The historic Rodin Museum is administered by the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art.
        Rodin–who rebelled against idealized forms, believing art should be true to nature–is best known for his sculptures, “The Kiss” (1884, with over 300 versions produced before Rodin’s death),“The Thinker” (1880, with one rendering serving as Rodin’s tombstone and another, cast in bronze in front of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia), Burghers of Calais (1889, representing civic sacrifice), and “The Gates of Hell” (1899, but never completed). Beyond these well-loved images, this small museum offers much to see both inside and out with over 140 bronze, marble, plaster, and terracotta artworks. The current show is based on the theme of romantic love in an exhibit titled, The Kiss Installation.
       Why is Rodin so important? Rodin broke with the convention of rooting sculpture in past stories and myths, instead opting for more emotive works. The expressive sculptures of Rodin transcend the external and convey inner truths with a focus on the human psyche in pieces capturing both the body and soul in motion. He was more interested in portraying humanity rather than heroics. Movement and passion are in evidence in works such as “The Waltz” (1905). Soulful portraits can also be seen in the sculptures he made of writer Victor Hugo (who did not sit for a formal portrait; Rodin considered him “something of a tiger or an old lion”), Balzac (made after Rodin spent years reading Balzac’s poems to capture his creative genius), and the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (created as the two men observed each other in silence). But Rodin was also accomplished at drawing and his prolific, spontaneous sketches often served as the initial stage for his sculptures. Visitors at the Rodin Museum are encouraged to create their own drawings with sketchpads and pencils provided by the museum.
       “I have no working rule.”
        The Barnes Foundation has been described as a gallery in a garden, suggesting a relationship of art and nature within its city locale. This private collection, originally established on the estate of Dr. Albert Barnes from 1912-1951, was controversially transferred to the museum in Philadelphia in 2012, enabling greater access for more viewers. And while the architecture of the environmentally-responsible building designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien is strikingly different from its previous residential suburban setting in Merion, the permanent collection is hung on the walls as its collector envisioned.
        As I enter the museum, I see a large group of elementary school kids gleefully participating in break dancing in the spacious lobby. I imagine this is far from the vision Dr. Barnes had in mind. But after speaking with one of the museum educators, I learn the children were focusing on figurative paintings in the galleries as well as African masks and this dance activity is one component of an art education program connected to anatomical studies. After further investigation, I find 10,000 students from K-12 in the School District of Philadelphia engage with the Barnes collection annually. And Dr. Barnes was most interested in art education, particularly advocating “learning by doing” connecting with the experiential education approach of John Dewey.
        The large collection of art in the museum encompasses impressionist, post-impressionist, and modern European painting as well as Native American pottery, African masks, furniture, and wrought-iron metalwork (functional and decorative door hinges, locks, keys, utensils, ice tongs and oil lamps). The unusual way the art and objects are displayed is particularly noteworthy; groupings are not limited to genre or geography. Instead the art is shown as Barnes preferred, juxtaposing objects from different eras and various media, allowing for visual connections between lines, light, and colors displayed without the customary constraints of the art world.
        Barnes decoded artwork, guiding viewers with his concept of “wall ensembles.” Sometimes it is not apparent what the relationships between the objects are. Other times shapes of the layout, creating triangular arrangements highlighted by metal objects or a large brass ladle above a painting with a similarly colored and shaped halo are interesting. At first I am frustrated by the lack of signage and strain to see the relationships, sometimes consulting the docents along the way. Then I remember this is how Barnes chose to display his own art collection in his home, and I shift my mindset, to experience it without trying to always understand his decision-making process.
        Although Barnes died in 1951, his approach to art education still exists, mixing timelines in exhibits such as the current Kiefer Rodin show, encouraging new perspectives. This current, temporary exhibit also creates new ways of seeing by pairing the work of master Auguste Rodin with contemporary European artist, Anselm Kiefer in works linked together by concept and inspiration.

       “We do not make art–art keeps us alive, sustains us, entertains us, shocks us, calms us, and brings us peace. . .
        In the end, the artist produces meaning in a sea of absurdity.”

       -Anselm Kiefer
        Shared aesthetic concerns of Rodin, known for his life-like sculpture and internationally acclaimed contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer (born 1945 in Germany) interact at the Barnes Foundation in an exhibit, Kiefer Rodin (November 17 - March 12, 2018), co-curated with the Rodin Museum in Paris. Rodin and Kiefer are both independently spirited artists–who lived a century apart from one another–occupied with continual experimentation and metamorphosis, ruin, recycling, reassembling, and reconfiguring sculptural fragments in new combinations.
       While I do not always see a literal call and response relationship between the artists as some suggest, it is still a most provocative show filled with works by Kiefer specifically created for this exhibition. And I am pleased to find my namesake in a Rodin piece, “Iris, Messenger of the Gods,” which conveys strength despite a lack of a head and an arm. The exhibit at the Barnes Foundation both aims to and succeeds in its goal to "see how both artists capture the architecture of the human body and the drama of humanity" while promoting conversations between art from different times and places. For those interested in a more in-depth understanding of the work and synergy between the artists, the fully illustrated catalog, Kiefer Rodin is recommended.
        Kiefer is influenced by Teutonic mythology, Gothic cathedrals, found materials, poetry, and alchemy. His medium often involves an unlikely mix of materials–paint, plaster, woodcuts, dirt, sand, and straw–to create something in between painting and sculpture as well as installations of large sculptural assemblages within glass cases. He feels the Kiefer Rodin exhibit is not finished, but an attempt to view Rodin in a new way. He sees both himself and Rodin as artist “wanderers between worlds” (day and night, good and evil, etc.) who incorporate, reuse, and reconfigure old work, combining fragments from past pieces. Both artists drew inspiration from cathedrals (with an architectural appeal which is both sensual and spiritual), considered unfinished structures filled with the mysterious, and gateways to the soul. These artists connect cathedrals with cultural identity as well as with forests, reawakening their love of nature. Cathedrals of France, the only book Rodin wrote, inspired this exhibit. While I would have welcomed more explanatory text at the Barnes, Kiefer believes, as stated in the Kiefer Rodin catalog, “Everyone must be able to give his own interpretation.”
        Art is not limited to displays in museums and galleries. Philadelphia is filled with murals and sculptures in public places. An audio tour of the sculptures displayed along the Ben Franklin Parkway is highly recommended in this city which has exciting outdoor sculptures in a growing public art collection believed to be the oldest, (dating back to the 1700s and significantly expanded in the 1870s) and the largest in the country. The city of Philadelphia remains a leader of art in public places as seen in its pioneering “Percentage for Art” program, which mandates the inclusion of site-specific works for every new construction or large renovation project. This model has since been adopted by many cities across the United States.
        The outdoor sculptures may be appreciated with the accompaniment of the paperback book, A Guide to Philadelphia’s Public Art written by Margot Berg and produced by the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. This informative book–with photos, artists, titles, dates, and locations–is organized by neighborhood, making it user-friendly to everyone, including out-of-town visitors who may view pieces ranging from the gilded bronze Joan of Arc dating from 1890 (which was a gift from Philadelphia’s French community) to artist Robert Indiana’s iconic, red Love sculpture from 1976 (painted aluminum on a stainless steel base). This artwork has adorned a Museum of Modern Art Christmas card, a U.S. postage stamp, and been the inspiration for its namesake, Love Park.
        Or you may opt for a free app through your phone created by Museums Without Walls: AUDIO program, where you browse by title, artist, or an assigned number. This audio app provides more in-depth audio descriptions extending beyond nuts-and-bolts information with tales of the pieces, some of which are narrated by the artists. The commentary–shared by historians, educators, relatives, and artists–is often recorded in a conversational style. Hearing the stories from those who have direct connections with the art helps bring it alive. As I take an outdoor stroll through the museum district, listening to anecdotes about the art is a fun way to learn about the sculptures.
        “Kopernik” (1973) by artist Dudley Talcott, is an astronomical sculpture reminding us we are not at the center of the universe. The Polish Heritage Society commissioned it to celebrate the 15th-century astronomer Copernicus on his 500th birthday. Derrick H. Pitts, the chief astronomer from the nearby Franklin Institute (where you can see their new exhibit on 3D printing or visit their planetarium) explains: “Copernicus straightened out 500 years of misunderstanding of how our solar system works.” Outside the Franklin Museum is “The Aero Memorial” by Paul Manship. The artist’s grandson narrates this audio segment. He calls it a celestial sphere and speaks of his grandfather pointing out constellations on starry nights, while an art historian suggests close, careful inspection of this piece, where you can see a portrait of the artist in the globe.
        The audio tour enlightens me about the Calder family, with three generations of sculptors from Philadelphia. Each of the three Alexander Calders are represented on this outdoor walk, with the youngest, best known for his moving mobiles (a concept he is credited with inventing) or kinetic works embodying elements of chance with 3-dimensional worlds in constant flux. An example of this can be seen in the lobby of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Titled “Ghost,” the 34-foot length piece hanging over the Great Stair Hall Balcony is constructed from metal rods and sheet metal painted white.
        While Alexander Calder is known for playful mobiles dominated with abstract, shapes, on the Museum Without Walls tour I stop to view “Three Discs, One Lacking” (1964), a grounded sculpture placed in between the works of his father and grandfather. Rather than a figurative statue, this Calder (1898-1976) worked with modern materials such as steel and rivets, engineered into simple and elegant works conveying movement. Looking through the negative space of “Three Discs, One Lacking,” we see the work of his grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder (1846-1923) in a 36-foot high, stone statue of William Penn on top of City Hall. The opposite direction leads us to his father’s piece, “Swann Memorial.”
        The Swann Memorial Fountain is a sculpture (an homage to Dr. Wilson Swann of the Philadelphia Fountain Society) created by Alexander Stirling Calder (1870-1945). This piece was made with the intention of it being a functional fountain in 1924, providing fresh water for horses (which numbered 35,000 in the area during Dr. Swann’s lifetime). This large, multidirectional sculpture with reclining Native American figures made of bronze conveys strength, wisdom, and beauty; it is also known as “The Three Rivers Fountain.” The sculpture represents local waterways in the area: The Schuylkill River, the Wissahickon Creek, and the Delaware River. Located on Logan Circle, the fountains are turned on every spring.


        You don’t need to be on a formal art tour to discover art in Philadelphia. The cosmopolitan Logan Hotel is situated in a prime location for museum hopping along the Ben Franklin Parkway. But beyond the proximity of the museums in this cultural district, the newly renovated luxury Logan Hotel is also noteworthy for its own art collection and art-centric guest rooms. I recommend browsing through engaging, local artwork (Ben Franklin quilt, Philadelphia Textile, and historic photo mobile) while staying overnight at the inviting hotel or strolling through, accessing the Logan Hotel Art Tour App for a fuller experience.
        The art in the hotel encompasses a variety of media and is primarily focused on works by local artists with some thematic ties to Philadelphia. At the entrance to the hotel is a piece titled, “The Philadelphia Elite Silhouettes,” created with 300 images (sourced with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania). It is composed of well known Philadelphians such as writer Edgar Allen Poe, opera star Marian Anderson, and statesman/colonial scholar James Logan, after whom the hotel is named. “The Grace Series” contains large-scale, portrait paintings by Elizabeth LaGumina, which are inspired by Grace Kelly, a Pennsylvania resident who became an actress and the Princess of Monaco. “The Bank Robbery,” exhibited in their Library, is an abstract wall hanging inspired by Philadelphia’s history of currency. I am particularly drawn to some of the art, such as “Quills of Monticello” by Chris Nelke. Looking at the gold leaf covered feathers, I learn Thomas Jefferson bred special geese for their feathers to be used for his quill pens, the popular writing implements during the early 1800s. While the Logan Hotel Art Tour App does not have an audio component, it is a fun way to read about the art in the public spaces as well as your own guest room.
        Without leaving the hotel you can start the day with a full breakfast at the Urban Farmer, where a post-meal treat might be a packet of vegetable seeds to take home. Fresh-squeezed orange juice and Eggs Benedict on oversized, house-made English muffins are a great way to fuel your day. And upon completing hours of viewing art both in and out of the museums, consider a swim in the salt water pool or an in-house pampering spa treatment with arnica to address sore muscles before another day of strolling along the tree-lined promenade displaying flags from around the world, en-route to another alluring art museum in Philadelphia.
       STAY & SPA
       The Logan Hotel Philadelphia
       Barnes Foundation
       Philadelphia Museum of Art
       Rodin Museum
       Visit Philly
       Museum Without Walls: AUDIO Tour App

Iris Brooks is a widely published travel and arts writer who has explored and written about all of the continents. Learn more about her work as she explores a sense of place, collaborating with dynamic photographer Jon H. Davis at their NORTHERN LIGHTS STUDIO website, here.
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