For reasons cosmic as well as cosmetic, returning the Matisses to their original condition is the right decision.

FRAMES OF REFERENCE

March 03, 1998|By JOHN DORSEY | JOHN DORSEY,SUN ART CRITIC

After 12 years of controversy, the Affair of the Matisse Frames has ended. And a good thing for all concerned: the Matisse paintings, the memory of the Cone sisters, the museum-going public and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

As part of a 1986 reinstallation of the Cone wing, former BMA deputy director Brenda Richardson removed most of the traditional frames the Cone sisters had put on their 42 Matisse paintings and replaced them with narrow metal strip frames. It caused consternation in the community that kept flaring up whenever the issue resurfaced.

Now new BMA director Doreen Bolger has decided to return the traditional frames to the Matisses by January 1999. Let me count the ways that that's the right decision.

As an issue of aesthetics, it can be argued both ways and it doesn't really make that much difference. Neither traditional frames nor strip frames ruin the Matisses. If they could be ruined by frames they wouldn't be much as art.

And while this controversy proves that frames can make a big difference to people, it's probably more a matter of tradition than of aesthetics. Museum-goers didn't want to see Matisses put in strip frames any more than they would want to see Grandma's portrait put in a strip frame.

The continuing nature of the controversy is indicated by a brochure the museum printed in 1993, seven years after the reframing, and still found in the Matisse gallery. In it, Richardson argues, in defense of the strip frames, that Matisse, along with other modern artists, preferred unobtrusive frames and that "the Baltimore Museum of Art chooses to honor Matisse's radical modernity."

If the BMA had really wanted to be consistent, it would also have put strip frames on the Cones' two van Goghs in the adjacent gallery, "A Pair of Boots" (1887) and "Landscape with Figures" (1889), since its brochure relates that van Gogh "insisted on a frame of the utmost simplicity." But they are in traditional gilded frames and look none the less radical for it. The same is true of Picasso's "Still Life" (1924) and "Head: Study for a Monument" (1929) which are far more radical than the Cones' Matisses of the same years.

Many of the Cones' Matisse paintings are from the 1920s and 1930s, and show him at his least radical. Typically, they show patterned interiors, often with a woman or flowers or both, such as "Seated Odalisque, Left Knee Bent" (1928), "Anemones and Chinese Vase" (1922) and "The Yellow Dress" (1929-1931). Traditional frames do not violate such pictures, any more than they do the van Goghs and Picassos near by.

In fact, if anything, they may look more radical with contrasting traditional frames than they look in minimal strip frames. After all, if you want to make a person look as young as possible, you photograph him between two older people, not two younger ones. Similarly, the Matisses may well have looked more radical in the Cones' traditionally furnished apartments than they do in a modern, spare gallery setting.

This is not a plea to put the Matisses in re-created Cone settings. But it's good to learn that in addition to changing the frames, the museum will try to make the gallery space more inviting. These mostly small paintings would look even better if the gallery where they hang were broken up into smaller spaces, inviting visitors into greater intimacy with them.

Such a change would also make the large Matisse gallery look less like a hall linking the courtyard of the main building with the west wing for contemporary art, and would encourage visitors to linger rather than pass through.

The question of honoring the Cones' wishes can be dispensed with easily. As the BMA's brochure on the frames states, they didn't buy the paintings with frames on them, they added the frames. So, of course, that is the way they liked them.

The greatest effect the return of the traditional frames will have, however, is on the visiting public. Many not only objected to the strip frames but were alienated from the museum because of them.

If, as the brochure states, curators and scholars of modern art approved of the strip frames, they are certainly outnumbered by those among the museum patrons who, the brochure also acknowledges, "are outraged at what they see as a violation of the paintings."

It's more than that, though.

As deputy director for art and curator of modern painting and sculpture, Richardson worked closely with former BMA director Arnold Lehman from his appointment in 1979 until his departure to become director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art last year. During that period, the museum gained a reputation with many visitors as aloof and arrogant.

There were multiple causes of this perception, but the Affair of the Matisse Frames solidified it. Lehman and Richardson, many believed, ran the museum to suit themselves and didn't give a damn about public opinion.

In was a terrible community relations move, and their persistence in it only tended to set the museum's bad reputation in stone.

Museums shouldn't be run by public opinion poll. But when an essentially minor issue becomes a rallying point for opposition among an institution's public, it's stubborn, foolish and damaging to the institution to persist in an unpopular course of action.

So the symbolic value of restoring the traditional frames is far greater than the aesthetic considerations. It eliminates what was a major source of opposition to the museum's administration for more than a decade, and for that reason above all it's the right thing to do for the museum-going public and for the museum.

If Doreen Bolger has acted in those interests, she certainly hasn't done her own image any harm, either. Nothing else would have made her as instantly popular as this will do. The only problem is that she can't do it again, and in terms of popularity it will probably be hard to match.

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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