In a dramatic about-face, the Baltimore Museum of Art will remount 42 Matisse paintings from its celebrated Cone Collection in their original gilt frames rather than in the stark modern ones they have occupied since 1986.
The remounting, to be completed by January 1999, represents the first major policy shift announced by the new director, Doreen Bolger, who started work at the museum last month. It is also the latest development in a long-running controversy over the museum's stewardship of the modernist artworks collected by Baltimore sisters Etta and Claribel Cone in the first half of this century.
When the Matisses were first exhibited in their current frames after a major building renovation in 1986, museum officials justified the change by saying it more closely reflected the way the artist intended his work to be shown.
But critics complained that the new installation, with its stark gray walls and tiny metal strip frames, gave the rows of paintings a "postage stamp" effect that trivialized the art and ran counter to the wishes of the Cone sisters. Letters of protest poured into the museum and local newspapers. One writer likened the new frames to "poisonous mushrooms after a rain." The controversy became a local cause celebre.
In an interview yesterday, Bolger said the return to the original frames was intended not only to defuse the long-running argument but also to be part of a larger effort to strengthen the museum's educational mission and make it more accessible.
"While it's important to respect the artist's intentions, it's also important to recognize the role the Cone sisters played in shaping this collection," Bolger said. "There's no one right answer."
The reframing and reinstalling of the Matisse paintings will be accompanied by other changes in the gallery where they are housed, Bolger said, including repainted walls, more informative labels and other alterations designed to make the space more inviting to viewers.
Bolger also said she plans to eventually reinstall the museum's African, North American and Oceanian collections.
The changes Bolger is instituting in the Matisse gallery reverse some aspects of the approach adopted by former BMA Director Arnold Lehman and Deputy Director Brenda Richardson, who supervised the 1986 renovation of the museum's Cone Wing.
Lehman left the BMA last year to become director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. Richardson, who also held the post of chief curator, resigned last month after the museum's staff was reorganized. She did not return calls seeking comment on Bolger's changes.
To counter criticism of the 1986 renovation, Richardson published a brochure with an essay written by herself explaining why she put the Matisses in modern frames.
The brochure cited artists' changing ideas about the role of picture frames at the end of 19th century and included several photographs of Henri Matisse's Paris studio showing his paintings in simple, strip frames.
Richardson's essay suggested that artists often had little control over framing decisions, which were made by dealers or customers. She also pointed out that some artists disliked elaborate gilded frames because the color clashed with the yellow tones in paintings.
The brochure did not mollify many critics, however, who argued that the frames chosen by the Cones were an aesthetically integral element of the collection. Others were dismayed by the relatively small scale the paintings assumed in the 1986 renovation. The original carved frames had made many of the paintings seem larger and more important.
Connie Caplan, vice chairwoman of the museum's board of trustees, said she was delighted by the return of the original frames.
"I think it's a wonderful decision," she said. "There were two problems with removing the old frames: First, the modern frames created a black line of shadow around the edge of the painting; and second, the paintings were diminished in scale because the frames added to their overall dimensions."
Bolger said yesterday that while she felt there were arguments on both sides, she came down on the side of the original frames because they were the ones chosen by the Cones.
"It's interesting to have had them displayed as they are now, but that approach represents the vision of a particular period, the 1970s," Bolger said. "I think the Matisse installation came out of a very sincere point of view on [Brenda Richardson's] part, which she believed passionately. I just happen to believe the opposite."
Reaction to news of the reinstallation was generally favorable among local museumgoers, artists and arts administrators.
"I like it just because the Cone sisters were well known and this was their collection," said Megan Hamilton of the Fells Point Creative Alliance.
"Even though their collection was pretty idiosyncratic, people are enamored of the Cones and like to see their contribution to these works."
Michele Kermes, who serves as a docent at the BMA, said that she was comfortable with either approach.