A valentine for Baltimore

February 05, 1999|By Bennard B. Perlman

WHEN was the last time an exhibition encouraged museum-goers to focus on frames rather than the art? That is exactly what will happen when the Baltimore Museum of Art's exhibition "Reframing the Cone Collection" opens on Feb. 14. Think of it as BMA director Doreen Bolger's Valentine's Day present to the city.

For the past several months, workers have been busy replacing the narrow modern frames of the BMA's Matisse paintings with the traditional wide, embellished and gilded ones used by collectors Dr. Claribel and Etta Cone. It is a necessary correction of a mistake that was unveiled nearly 13 years ago at the debut of the Cone Wing.

I still recall being wracked by a sense of horror and disbelief to find Henri Matisse's magnificent oils resting in frames that made the masterpieces seem smaller, less vibrant.

But hope springs eternal. Six months later, at a National Gallery of Art exhibition, "Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice," I observed that his "Pewter Jug," plus several other oils on loan from the BMA, were in their original frames. And in 1991 a selection of the BMA's Matisses were on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where they, too, were refitted with their earlier frames. Did this mean a return to the old?

I wrote to then-BMA director Arnold Lehman, inquiring whether the period frames would remain on the art when the works were rehung at the BMA. No, I was informed, in part because Matisse's son and grandson preferred the works' new appearance.

As a result of public criticism of the new frames, the BMA published a four-page brochure, "What's in a Frame," meant to support the change. Indeed, on its front page was the statement that "members of Matisse's own family, including his son Pierre Matisse and grandson Paul Matisse, are effusive in their excitement at seeing the paintings as the artist himself wanted them to be seen."

Absent frames

In further support of the BMA's point of view, the publication, written by then-deputy director Brenda Richardson, contains three photographs of Matisse's dining room and studio in Nice, where 16 of his 18 works are shown without traditional frames. In fact, they are hung on the walls without any frames at all. Didn't Ms. Richardson realize that most painters choose not to expend funds for expensive frames until works are sold or at least exhibited?

Over the years, I've gathered much evidence that's contrary to Ms. Richardson's point of view.

For example, the "Matisse in Nice" catalog shows photographs of the artist's 1923 exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris and his 1931 retrospective at the Galerie Georges Petit. In it 60 of his paintings are surrounded by wide, elaborate frames.

In 1990 the National Gallery held its "Matisse in Morocco" exhibit. A yellowed piece of paper marks page 265 of my copy of the exhibit's catalog, where the essence of a letter dated Aug. 6, 1912, to Matisse from the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin requested "that Matisse make a nice frame for the large blue picture [A work entitled `Conversation,' which Shchukin had just purchased]." A 1914 photograph of two walls in the collector's Moscow home reveals a dozen Matisse oils, all with decorative gold frames.

Also, Barbara Pollack's book "The Collectors: Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone," notes that the Baltimore sisters purchased some frames created by Matisse's daughter Margot for his paintings.

A visit to Nice

My fascination with the Cone Collection and Matisse's art led me to visit the Matisse Museum in Nice many years ago. Imagine my sense of civic pride when, once inside, my wife and I happened upon a roomfull of Indiana high school students. The first thing the museum docent said: "Of course, you have so many of the great Matisse paintings in your own country, in the Baltimore Museum."

Now that the minimalist frames are being removed and the traditional frames restored, the BMA's Matisses regain the stature and presence that was lacking over the past dozen years.

Bennard Perlman is a Baltimore artist and writer. His great uncle Moses Long was married to Carrie Cone, the oldest Cone sister.

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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