The City's Strategic Asset on Museum Drive


February 03, 1992|By TIM BAKER

The Baltimore Museum of Art's triumphant Monet exhibitionended its three-month run January 19. Since then, the museum has been closed because of city budget cuts. But when the doors reopen Wednesday, another blockbuster exhibit goes on display.

The shimmering Monets will be immediately followed by the finest collection of Henri Matisse's works outside of Paris. The show includes masterpieces like his radical ''Blue Nude'' of 1907 and his fluidly erotic ''Pink Nude'' of 1935. In all, you'll see 42 oil paintings, 18 sculptures, 36 drawings and hundreds of prints. They stretch across Matisse's entire career and show the way in which he, along with Picasso, spelled out the vocabulary of modernism and decisively influenced 20th-century painting.

The exhibit also contains major works by Renoir, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin, as well as some of the most important early Picassos. No wonder it drew huge crowds when it opened in Boston last fall.

You won't want to miss this one. But don't worry. You don't have to rush to buy tickets. This exhibition will be here for a long time. In fact, it'll be here forever.

Of course, I'm talking about the Cone Collection. It has come home to Baltimore after three months at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The Baltimore museum swapped its Cones for Boston's Monets. Boston critics hailed the Cone paintings as ''an astonishing hoard,'' and 205,000 New Englanders went to see them. Now that they're back on display at Museum Drive, we can renew our own sense of wonder and appreciation for one of Baltimore's great treasures.

Between 1901 and 1949, Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone, two wealthy Baltimore sisters who had grown up on Eutaw Place, purchased some 3,000 works of art in Europe and America. At least initially, their purpose was not to create an art collection as such, but to decorate their suites in the old Marlborough Apartments.

You can see their rooms in contemporary photographs displayed by the museum. The decor was post-Victorian with heavy Renaissance furniture. At first, the style appears vaguely familiar, like your grandmother's house looked back in the 1950s. So it's a shock to see the paintings which hang on the walls in the photographs of the Cones' apartments. Remember this was the 1920s and 1930s.

What would it have been like to have had tea with the Cone ladies in those years? You'd have stared at the bold singular images and brilliant colors of Matisse's ''Purple Robe and Anemones'' and the exotic primitivism of Gauguin's ''Woman with Mango.'' Could you have kept your mind on polite conversation? Probably not if you had sat in front of Matisse's ''The Blue Nude'' hanging over the sideboard. Even today, the painting disturbs museum visitors with the force of its sinuous lines, dislocated forms and disconcerting colors.

The photographs reveal just how astounding the Cones' achievement was. At a time when contemporary art was not widely known, appreciated or collected, these two spinster ladies, who came from a parochial 19th-century middle-American town and who had had no training in the fine arts, purchased a large number of avant garde paintings, sculptures, drawings and other works which radically departed from accepted cultural and artistic norms and profoundly shaped the directions of Western art for the rest of the century.

The Cone sisters' motives and inspirations remain obscure. They must have been puzzled and even shocked by much of what they saw and bought. But they kept buying anyway. There are a few critical lapses. Unlike their close friend Gertrude Stein, the Cones didn't like Picasso's Cubist paintings and wouldn't buy them. But on the whole they acquired a group of art works which define early modernism.

Their adventuresome spirits and ingenious artistic convictions are revealed in the depth, the passion, the explosive originality, and the joyous abundance of the collection they put together and left behind, as Brenda Richardson, the museum's curator of modern painting and sculpture, points out in her superb book, ''Dr. Claribel & Miss Etta: The Cone Collection.''

The Monet swap shows the creative ways in which the Baltimore Museum of Art has decided to take advantage of its most valuable asset. It will use it strategically to bring great works of art to Baltimore from other outstanding collections around the country and the world.

Friday the museum announced another trade. Next fall it will send 15 Matisse paintings and drawings to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for a huge Matisse retrospective. In exchange it will receive seven of the most significant and widely recognized works of modernism: Van Gogh's ''Starry Night,'' Cezanne's ''The Bathers,'' Picasso's ''Two Nudes,'' Chagall's ''I and the Village,'' Henri Rousseau's ''The Sleeping Gypsy,'' Edward Hopper's ''House by the Railroad'' and Jackson Pollock's ''Number 1, 1948.'' The exhibition will open next November and run through January 1993.

Only a few other cities in the world possess the artistic assets with which to trade the MOMA for those seven paintings or persuade Boston to part with its precious Monets. It's a reminder of Baltimore's extraordinary strengths.

The city's factories, railroads and shipping yards may have declined. The municipal budget may be ravaged by cuts and layoffs. Drugs and crime may stalk our streets. But the Cone sisters and Baltimore's other benefactors have endowed this city with a magnificent legacy of intellectual, cultural and artistic institutions. They give the entire central Maryland community a coherent nucleus without which suburban office parks and soulless shopping malls would drift aimlessly in empty orbits.

Tim Baker writes on issues of city and state.

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