A last look at Matisse

Renovations: Paintings, reframed as Etta Cone envisaged, on view for two months before wing goes dark.

February 13, 1999

THE GOOD news is that the Cone Wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art will reopen in 2000.

The new layout will display early modern art collected by Claribel and Etta Cone, especially works by Henri Matisse, which is the BMA holding most important to the nation's inventory.

The bad news is that the Cone Wing will close April 18 for some 18 months, to replace the roof, reconfigure the main gallery for viewing more Matisses more intimately, and rearrange the floor above. During renovations, individual Matisses will be on display in other rooms and, possibly, other museums.

Unhappily, this closing coincides with similar work at the Walters Art Gallery, reducing the space in both museums that may be visited.

In this last showing, 42 Matisse paintings are back in the frames that Etta Cone ordered for them, which are largely broad gilded wood, reminiscent of an earlier era in European art. In 1986, the Matisse paintings were put in minimalist metallic strip frames, such as often surround minimalist art of recent decades.

Good arguments were made for each frame type. These paintings show Matisse leading from the 19th century Impressionist legacy toward abstract modernism. Matisse helped move art forward. The Cone sisters as collectors moved taste forward. That is the unique value of their judgment and collection.

Whether 'tis better to frame Matisse as what went before or what came afterward is a nice philosophic question. The point about Baltimore as an art town is that many people since 1986 have contributed passionately to this debate, which might not rage at all in some cities equally blessed with large art museums.

Frame, shmame, it's the paintings that matter.

They are up now, will come down soon, and then go up again in the next millennium. You have been warned.

Pub Date: 2/13/99

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