I drafted this post on a plane back to San Diego after having spent most of week in Philadelphia for a conference. This particular conference has the perverse habit of holding almost all of its meetings in February, almost always in places where winters are less benign than California’s.
Last week I walked on snow, slipped on ice, and encountered sidewalks heaped with piles of dark, bleak urban snow. But I also saw still waterways encrusted with transparent ice, architecturally leafless winter trees, and stands of sturdy grasses asserting themselves through snow-covered embankments.
I didn’t die. I returned with all of my fingers and toes intact. But as beautiful as things were I felt out of place. Visiting other people’s winter was like visiting other people’s houses. You don’t know the rules. What can you touch? Where should you sit? When do you open the windows and doors on warm days?
Over time you can learn the rules and begin to feel comfortable in the strange house, but a week isn’t enough. It all still seemed exotic when I left.
These are a few shots from my exotic adventure, most of them taken the day after the conference concluded, most of them on a trip out to the Barnes Collection in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion.
The Barnes is best known for its important post-impressionist and early modern artworks, all of which are “permanently”* displayed in a gallery in the exact locations where its founder Albert C. Barnes placed them during his lifetime. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many Cezannes and Renoirs stacked up on gallery walls in one location. It was thrilling and uncomfortably tight at the same time.
In addition to being one of the more important collections of post-impressionist and early modern art, The Barnes is also a small garden estate that calls the grounds an arboretum. This is a landscape of big trees and larger lawns. If you’ve read some of my other posts bashing lawns you’d probably never think you’d read me something nice about them, but here’s one thing: A lawn covered with snow gives you a sense of space similar to a lawn with no snow in the spring. It’s a flatness, whether the flatness is white or green, and the flatness serves as a uniform foil for the plants placed in it. You can still read the space and get a sense of how it would be during other times of year. Additionally I’d guess that it’d be easier to focus on the seasonal cycles when some things stay the same.
All you cold winter-dwellers will know these plants better than I do. The only IDs I have are from the plant labels placed generously around the grounds. But I was deterred by the blanketing snow to go exploring off the cleared paths. It’s back to that other people’s house thing. Was it okay to go traipsing all over the place, maybe stomping on some precious low plants I didn’t see under my boots? There wasn’t anyone to ask on my way out, so I tried to be the good houseguest and wandered off only a couple times–nothing equivalent to peeking in closets or checking for dust on the frames of the host’s Picassos.
A note about my asterisked “permanently” above: Many of the paintings were removed for conservation in preparation for the entire collection about to be moved whole to a new building on Philadelphia’s museum row, a prime block of land with plenty of room for a small museum, but not enough for even a small arboretum. The major soap opera and powerplay behind the relocation are the subject of the recent documentary The Art of the Steal. Plants don’t have the same dramatic value as wars over eight-figure artworks, so not surprisingly there’s no discussion of the arboretum in the documentary. Also not surprisingly I didn’t see any copies of the film available for purchase in the official Barnes Foundation giftshop.
Along with lots of other gardeners I’ve gone all sad and nostalgic on how gardens seldom outlive the gardeners. The drama of this collection’s relocation tells you that a will with very specific instructions is no guarantee that things will be left as you envisioned. Art collections, lifetime gardens—nothing is forever is it?