A space worthy of its contents

April 22, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Why are we so fascinated by the Cone sisters, Claribel and Etta?

Is it because they were native Baltimoreans whose taste for the new and unfamiliar put them far ahead of their time? Or because of the magnificent art collection -- thousands of paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and other modern masters -- that they bought and bequeathed to the city?

Or is it simply that they lived with an oversized, passionate love for art that many people share but that most can only dream about pursuing with the intensity and devotion they brought to the task?

Whatever your view, you'll probably find evidence to support it in the new installation of the collection that opens today as the culmination of a two-year, $4 million renovation and expansion of the Cone Wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The freshly renovated Cone Wing represents the first major reinstallation of the museum's most famous collection since 1985 and the biggest project it has undertaken so far under the leadership of Doreen Bolger, who succeeded Arnold Lehman as BMA director in 1998.

It promises to make Baltimore a mecca for students of early modernism, particularly for those interested in Picasso's formative years and in the major divisions of Matisse's long and fruitful career.

And with its cozy, room-size spaces, muted wall colors and modern lighting, it also offers a delightful reintroduction to the local community of the museum and its collection after a nearly two-year hiatus during which the reinstallation was planned and executed.

The Cone sisters, who from the turn of the century regularly visited Europe to buy art, were patrons and friends of both Picasso and Matisse when those artists were still relatively unknown and prices for their works correspondingly low.

The Cones bought dozens of Picasso's early drawings of the circus and other subjects -- the collection includes a charming pen-and-ink self-portrait by the artist in which he appears appealing to his patrons hat in hand -- as well as drawings, prints, paintings and sculpture by Matisse that provide important insight into the artist's creative development.

The artworks the Cones amassed, which eventually totaled more than 3,000 objects in various media, is today one of the most important collections of modern art anywhere, a priceless cultural resource for Baltimore and the world. And the Picassos and Matisses that the two sisters had the combination of foresight and luck to buy now form the core around which the new installation is organized.

An invitation to linger

The biggest changes visitors will encounter on entering the redesigned Cone galleries are apparent at once. First, there's the smaller scale of the rooms, which feel more like those in an elegant private home than did the cavernous institutional spaces of the old installation.

Then there are the colors: muted blues, greens and mauves on the walls, rather than the stark, minimalist whites of yore. The lighting is softer too, and in tandem with the new colors it gives all the rooms a much warmer feeling that invites visitors to linger.

The galleries themselves are arranged thematically rather than chronologically. The first space one enters from the courtyard offers an overview of Matisse's work that includes early paintings such as "Still Life With Peaches" (1895) and "The Dam at the Pont Neuf" (1896), which show the influence of Chardin and the Impressionists, as well as later works, such as "Woman in Turban (Lorette)," painted in 1917, that point toward the artist's mature style.

In addition, this gallery contains such seminal sculptures as "The Serf" (1900-1903) and "Madeleine I" (1901), which in their roughly modeled surfaces and energetic contours suggest Matisse's growing interest in abstraction as a way of describing recognizable forms without resorting to the illusion of realistic depiction.

From this space the viewer can proceed into the next Matisse gallery, which contains one of the collection's most famous paintings, the stunning "Blue Nude" of 1907. Or one can veer off into adjoining spaces on the left and right that focus, respectively, on the Cones as collectors and on Matisse's paintings from Nice, in the south of France, where the artist lived between 1917 and 1930.

Scholars will undoubtedly discover in the latter a treasure trove of new insights into the artist's development during this period, when Matisse constantly experimented with the problems of using light, line, color and pattern to express his ideas and feelings.

This gallery contains some of the artist's most characteristic works, including landscapes, still lifes and the enigmatic paintings of women in pairs or alone that, in particular, seem to have captivated the imaginations of the Cone sisters.

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