Begins restoring original frames to Matisse paintings and prepares for Cone and Old Masters renovations, hoping to ease a gilt trip and make collections more approachable.


December 01, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Henri Matisse is being framed.

A dozen years after being surrounded by metal strips, The Baltimore Museum of Art's famous Matisse paintings are currently being returned to their traditional frames. The transition from the modernist strips -- which many Baltimoreans said made the paintings look like postage stamps -- will be complete by early next year, promises BMA director Doreen Bolger.

The BMA announced the reframing schedule yesterday as part of a much larger plan to renovate and reinstall first the Cone wing, where the Matisses reside, and then the Old Master painting wing. The whole project will take one and a half to two years beginning in April.

"It is all part of our effort to emphasize the permanent collection of the museum and make it more familiar and more attractive to visitors," said Bolger.

Early last March, within a month of arriving at the museum, Bolger announced that the strip frames would be replaced with the traditional, mostly gilt frames used by collectors Claribel and Etta Cone.

The traditional frames had been removed as part of a 1986 reinstallation by former BMA deputy director Brenda Richardson. The consternation among the museum-going public was so great that Richardson put a brochure in the Matisse gallery defending the strip frames as in keeping with "Matisse's radical modernity."

She had her supporters. "The assumption that visitors can only appreciate art in pretty, important-looking frames is insulting," wrote Regan Causey Tudor of Lutherville in a March letter to The Sun.

But others defended the traditional frames.

"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.

"There were two problems with removing the old frames," said Constance Caplan, vice chairman of the BMA board. "First, the modern frames created a black line of shadow around the edge of the painting; and second, the paintings were diminished in scale." Yesterday Caplan said she was "eagerly anticipating" completion of the reframing.

As of now, the traditional frames are returning one at a time. Current visitors to the Cone wing's Matisse gallery will find some paintings still in strip frames, some in traditional ones and blank wall space for those currently in reframing.

On Feb. 1, the Cone wing will be closed for repainting of the gallery and final reinstallation of the Matisses. It will reopen on Feb. 14 -- what might be called Bolger's Valentine to Baltimore -- with all the traditional frames in place.

Then on April 19, the Cone wing will close again, this time for a year or a little more, for a major renovation. Some of the Cone wing pictures will be on view elsewhere in the museum during the closing.

The wing will get a new roof, but of more interest to the museum-going public, the galleries will be redesigned. The goal is to make the spaces more flexible and visitor-friendly and to better explain the works of art.

The brief exhibit of the Matisses with traditional frames before the wing closes serves two purposes, according to Bolger. First, People are eager to see the frames," she said; and, second, it will help take the focus away from the frames once the paintings are reinstalled. "It will be important to see them in a larger context," Bolger said.

In the redesign, the Matisse gallery will be broken into smaller areas for better contact with the art and to make the room look less like a pass-through space from the museum's central court to its contemporary wing. The redesign will also attempt to better combine paintings with sculpture and works on paper.

The small spaces at one end of the Matisse gallery that show furniture and other items from the Cones' Baltimore apartments may be given increased importance as part of an orientation gallery. There will be more of an effort to tell the story of the Cones' collecting history through increased use of photos and other materials. "It's a wonderfully documented collection," said curatorial chairman Jay M. Fisher.

The museum promises to tell more about Matisse, too.

"In the Cones' Matisse collection the course of his career is pretty much all there, but we haven't pointed that out," Fisher said. "How he thinks across media, for instance -- sculpture, paintings, drawings, prints -- or how he revisits ideas."

Bolger hopes the redesign will make the experience of visiting the wing more pleasant. "Part of it is aesthetics and part of it is comfort," she said. "What makes people feel at ease, in terms of floor covering, lighting, barriers or no barriers."

An independent exhibit designer, to be named later, will be hired to work with the museum's staff on the redesign and reinstallation of the Cone wing. Cost of the Cone project is estimated at about $1 million. About half will be for the roof and will come from city capital-improvement funds; the other half, which the museum will raise, will go toward the redesign. Bolger estimates the wing will reopen between April and June 2000.

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