BMA borrows cutouts from Paris museum in trade for 'Blue Nude' Cutting-Edge matisse

May 22, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

The Baltimore Museum of Art has one of the foremost collections of Henri Matisse works anywhere -- 42 paintings, 20 sculptures and hundreds of works on paper, almost all of them amassed by the Cone sisters during the artist's lifetime. But the BMA doesn't have any cutouts, the last great flowering of the artist's work. Made of painted paper cut by the artist, they are alive with the glorious color for which Matisse is known. But they are also among the most abstract works he produced, and Etta Cone, the sister who survived into the period when he produced them, did not follow him in that direction.

Starting Wednesday, though, the BMA will display a visiting exhibit of 31 cutouts. The works cover the period from 1937, when Matisse was getting into the medium, to 1953, the year before his death. They include the maquettes for the great book "Jazz" and the "Blue Nudes" of 1952, with which the artist recalled one of his most famous works, the BMA's "Blue Nude" of 1907.

In fact, the BMA's "Blue Nude" is why the BMA is getting the cutouts, which are owned by the Musee national d'art moderne/Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. The Pompidou is lending the works in return for the loan of "Blue Nude" to the Pompidou's 1993 show of Matisse's work.

To get 31 works in return for one is a pretty good trade-off, but Brenda Richardson, the BMA's curator of modern painting and sculpture, says it took just such a price for Paris to get our "Blue Nude."

When Richardson was approached a couple of years ago by the co-curators of the Paris show, the "Blue Nude" had just been to Boston and was about to go to New York along with 12 other Cone Matisses for the Museum of Modern Art's enormous 1992 Matisse retrospective.

"We'd had Matisses out a lot, . . . and I felt that was depriving the Baltimore community," Richardson says. But the curators made a convincing case for the importance of the Paris show, she says. "They then indicated they wanted this painting so much they felt they couldn't do the show without it, and were prepared to offer substantial reciprocation."

The Baltimore curator knew exactly what she wanted. "I knew of their holdings in cutouts, and also knew that this museum, with its wonderful Matisse holdings, is absent only the cutouts. Therefore, I put on the table the prospect that in exchange for the 'Blue Nude' we would like to do an exhibition of their cutouts in Baltimore."

To her surprise, the proposal found wholehearted support. As a result, Baltimore gets all but one of the Pompidou's cutouts, which was deemed too fragile to travel.

The 31 cutouts well represent Matisse's production in the medium, says BMA curator of prints, drawings and photographs Jay M. Fisher, who organized the show with Richardson.

"If you were putting together an ideal exhibition of cutouts that surveyed his involvement with the medium," says Fisher, "it would be difficult to do much better than this selection."

The exhibit begins with two 1937-1938 cutouts of dancers, among Matisse's designs for the ballet "Rouge et Noir" ("Red and Black"). These are so early in Matisse's experiments with cutouts that they are pinned to the backing with thumbtacks; later cutouts are pasted down.

Next comes the largest group in the show -- all 20 original maquettes for the book "Jazz," which Matisse worked on in 1943 and 1944. "Jazz" is a book of color prints dealing mainly with circus and theater subjects; it includes a written text by Matisse consisting of notes on his life as a painter.

The style of the "Jazz" cutouts, says Fisher, is "a reservoir of the kinds of things he did with cutouts, from the figural pieces which relate back to the 'Dancers' [of 'Rouge et Noir'] to the more decorative arabesques which relate to some of his large-scale decorative projects, like the great cutout at [Washington's] National Gallery."

It's safe to say that the "Jazz" cutouts, with their circus themes and dynamic shapes, are among the most exhilarating and accessible of all Matisse's works.

The BMA owns the finished book of "Jazz" and will show some of the pages as a comparison with the cutouts. There's a big difference.

"The care with which 'Jazz' was printed has become legendary -- yet the difference between the book and the original maquettes . . . is enormous," wrote Jack D. Flam, an art historian and Matisse expert, in the catalog of a 1977 exhibit of the cutouts at the National Gallery. "The maquettes are much fresher, have a much greater variation in texture and in color application as well as color, a much more sensitive line quality, and an unreproducible subtlety in the play between opaque and semi-opaque surfaces."

After "Jazz," Matisse began developing large, wall-size projects. One of these is among the Pompidou loans -- the two panels "Polynesia, the Sky" and "Polynesia, the Sea," each 6 1/2 feet tall and 10 1/4 feet long.

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