Barnes Foundation photo credit VisitPhilly(1)The Barnes Foundation. (Photo: VisitPhilly.)

 

I hadn’t seen my cousin Hilda Friedman in over 30 years and was surprised to discover that at 91, she was still in the same suburban house where she has lived since the 1950s. On her own. Without a companion or housekeeper.

Her blond hair is white now. Her gait, a little unsteady. But I had no trouble recognizing the pretty, petite woman who had been the exception among the women of my parents’ generation. They identified themselves as “homemakers.” Hilda was an artist.

When she first took up painting in the 1950s, no one in the family took her seriously. She was an abstract expressionist at a time when painting-by-numbers and realism were popular. “Better she should learn how to cook for her husband than make like Picasso,” they said. To her credit, Hilda never turned on the stove. And she never stopped painting.

“Excuse the mess,” she said, leading me into her studio. It didn’t look messy to me. It looked glorious, filled with canvases, paints, paper, brushes. The tools of an artist still actively engaged in her work. Every room of her home was filled with her paintings, drawings, and etchings. On the walls, piled on tables, leaning one against the other.

I could think of only one place that created this overwhelming assault on the senses. The Barnes Foundation.  According to the founder’s eccentric methodology, every inch of wall space, from floor to ceiling, was filled with paintings and decorative art —without titles, names or dates.

I took a shot, “Hilda, have you been to the new Barnes?”

“No,” she said.

When Alfred Barnes assembled the largest collection of French impressionist art in 1922 on his private estate outside Philadelphia, he made it almost impossible for the public to see it. It was like getting into the White House. No walk-ins. You had to make a request in writing and hope you were granted permission. In his will, Barnes made sure that his collection would never be moved.

However, in 2012, the executors of his estate broke the will and moved the entire collection into a modern museum in the city, walking distance from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Traditionalists, including my cousin, were furious. Which probably accounted for Hilda’s not stepping inside the new Barnes in the four years since it had opened. And yet she gladly accepted my invitation.

“I don’t like it,” Hilda snapped before even opening the museum’s door. “The architecture is too cold. The paintings aren’t happy here.”  

Once inside, she was delighted to renew her acquaintance with works of art she hadn’t seen in decades. Sitting enthralled in front of Matisse’s The Riffian, a large painting of a Moroccan tribesman, Hilda said, “This has always been one of my favorites. But I’m seeing things I never noticed before, like all those green verticals.”

When her audio headset inexplicably jumped from English to Spanish, Hilda refused to get a new one. “I don’t need it,” she said and struck up an impromptu conversation with a stranger, a professional artist half her age. They talked shop, comparing the mediums in which they work and their subject matter. Hilda appeared to be enlivened by this chance meeting with a fellow artist.

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  • Marion H Sadler July 22, 2016 at 12:14 am

    Great stories must be told. A clean house lasts only a week! Art such as paintings, carvings, poetry, music, plays and opera last forever and record current times they share their innermost love of live to a world too busy being busy at their own worries.
    I do not think there is sanity, love or emotion without the arts.

    Reply
  • Rocky July 21, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    Stacia,
    This was just delightful! What a lovely tour through the museum. I feel like I was with you!

    Reply
  • Mary Dougherty July 21, 2016 at 4:22 pm

    Lovely. I saw the old Barnes; now I need to go to the new location/arrangement.

    Reply
  • Barbara July 21, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this article, Stacia! I would love to have tea with your cousin! And, you of course. This piece brightened my day.
    Thank you!
    b

    Reply
  • Suzanne Fluhr July 21, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    I live within walking distance of the “new” Barnes Museum and am so embarrassed and annoyed with myself for never having yet visited. Your cousin reminds me of my father’s artist friends with whom he attended the Tyler School of Art, graduating in 1950. He told me that when he was a Tyler student, they werent allowed to go to the Barnes Foundation because Mr. Barnes and the Dean of Tyler were feuding. I guess even artists can be silly.

    Reply
  • Diane Bones July 21, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    Wonderful piece, this woman is an aging role model for us all!

    Reply
  • Roz Warren July 21, 2016 at 11:33 am

    An exceptional essay! And particularly enjoyable for this Philadelphia reader.

    Reply
  • Nora Brossard July 21, 2016 at 8:55 am

    Stacia, we met once or twice years ago, when you were doing travel writing. I’m a travel/wine PR person. I love, love, love this piece. It reminds me a bit of my beloved grandmother,a terrific artist who studied with Milton Avery at the Art Students League here in Manhattan. Unlike your cousin, her final ill health kept her from doing art, and that may have contributed to her loss of spirit and life at the age of 89. I’ve visited the Barnes in its original site, was against the move to PHiladelphia, but you make me want to go see it.

    Reply
  • to you toPhyllis Dupret July 20, 2016 at 7:43 am

    The Art of Aging is simply wonderful…I’ve already shared it on my facebook page and my google site…THANK YOU … I lift my coffee mug to THANK YOU on this terrific Wednesday morning in mid-July…I am Hoping you have a Wonderful Wednesday……….

    Reply