Cone Collection returns to its friends at the BMA Art: A party welcomes the return from Japan of the celebrated collection of Cezanne, Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse and other artists.

March 17, 1997|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Gertrude Stein is scowling. The nudes are reclining. And all is right with the world, as far as the Baltimore Museum of Art is concerned.

The museum yesterday celebrated the return of its signature exhibit from a half-world away with an afternoon's worth of free activities, drawing hundreds of newcomers and old friends to see late 19th century and early 20th century works well-known to most Baltimore art lovers.

"I used to come here all the time and just sit in the Cone Collection when I was a kid," said Baltimore native Nancy Union Stumpf, who returned from Lewes, Del., with her husband and two sons to visit the museum in Baltimore. She wandered around the paintings and sculptures with the contented ease of an adult walking through a favored childhood playground.

Seventy-three selected works of art from the 3,000-piece Cone Collection traveled to Japan last fall, drawing more than 350,000 visitors to Tokyo's Isetan Museum of Art and to the Osaka Municipal Museum through mid-February. Yesterday, museum officials re-opened their mainstay exhibit with a flourish.

The museum showed Park School second-graders' versions of paintings long familiar to patrons. A jazz quartet cranked out favorites, a nod to the Cone sisters' days in Paris. Other schoolchildren plunked down in front of various paintings and tried to reproduce details of still lifes with crayons.

Visitors with no discernible ability to speak the language sat and watched an eight-minute Japanese documentary on the museum. And, of course, everyone had the opportunity to be a Cone sister for the day by having a snapshot taken with their heads poking through a blown-up photograph where the Cones' faces should be.

"They think it's neat that they can stick their faces in there," said Berlinda Recacho, an assistant in the programs department. "There's kind of a novelty about it. Other people ask who they are and they get a history lesson."

Etta and Claribel Cone -- Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel to BMA stalwarts -- are the Baltimore sisters who plunged much of their fortune into contemporary art in the early decades of this century. (A 1920 painting of writer Stein, one of the Cones' mentors, hangs in a gallery near other works purchased by the sisters.)

The Cone Collection is derived from their passion and was given to the museum after Etta died. At the collection's core lies an extraordinary cluster of works by artists Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso. It is particularly strong on works by Matisse.

"I went through this big Andy Warhol phase, so I came here pretty often," said Rebecca Synnott, 21, a junior majoring in art and philosophy at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. "I'm kind of sizing it up. I keep on looking at Matisse. I think he's my new artist -- for the month."

Caricaturist Tom Chalkley, who attracted long lines in the museum's second-floor atrium, was appreciative of the art that sparked the day's events. But he appeared unruffled by the competition posed by the famous paintings a short stroll away.

"Nah. It's two completely different things," Chalkley said as his fluid strokes quickly evolved into a depiction of 12-year-old Kimberly Hooper playing the piano. "What's really great about it -- I've got a crowd that might appreciate a little bit of experimentation."

The late 19th-century paintings of Cezanne and Claude Monet upended convention by moving away from realistic portraiture. The brash colors and distorted depictions of their work led Matisse and his peers to be termed "wild beasts" by critics in the early 1900s. In Chicago, art students burned a Matisse painting in effigy.

In Baltimore and the United States in the 1990s, Monet, Matisse & Co. help to define mainstream artistic sensibilities. "Monet is my favorite artist," said Ilana Ullman, 7, a second-grade student at Fort Garrison Elementary School. "I like all of the bright colors that he uses."

Luckily for Ilana, Monet was back, with his rose-tinted French fields and blue-hued sunsets streaming over bridges. Picasso was there, shown in his blue phase, his nude phase and his

surreal phase. Vincent Van Gogh, he of the jagged horizontal brush strokes, was represented with his contorted landscapes.

There was, too, a raft of nudes and still lifes, many of them Matisses, mostly showing his work in the years after he had moved past his most shocking art.

Not everyone held out solely for the heralded turn-of-the-century art. "I like the Dutch painters and Rembrandt in particular," said Al Loizeaux, a 56-year-old Baltimore electronics technician, who was looking at a BMA display of Rembrandt etchings. "There's just a real human warmth to it that appeals to me."

An exhibit reflecting the work of the American artist Andrew Wyeth which had replaced the Cone Collection for several months drew crowds, too.

"It's nice to see other things also. In my thinking, every piece of art has value," said S. Sabo, a security guard who stopped to suggest that a child not poke 20th century furniture being displayed. "But it is such a fabulous collection of Matisse that anyone studying Matisse would have to come here."

"You know how they have comfort foods?" Sabo asked. "This is like a comfort collection. This is something that's real solid and is always there."

And after the collection's five-month sabbatical in Japan, her words are accurate once more.

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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