Another Brit aims a broadside at Mobtown

This Just In...

September 07, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

I HAVE COME to expect that someone somewhere, at any moment of any day, might be bad-mouthing Baltimore. The cheap shots and the unwarranted sarcasm don't bother me much anymore, but let's face it: Diss happens.

Doesn't matter if the Queen City of the Patapsco Drainage Basin deserves it. Doesn't matter if we make news by leading the nation in, say, sexually transmitted diseases, providing material for late-night TV talk-show hosts. Baltimore gets dissed even when things are going relatively well here. It happens annually, even weekly. I suspect that, in some parts of the world -- like, say, Uzbekistan -- it happens daily. (Typical broadcast from Radio Tashkent: "Good morning, fellow Uzbeks! Life is hard, but thank God we're not in Baltimore! Ha, ha, ha!")

Jim Murray, Randy Newman, Howard Cosell, Jay Leno, the boring actress I won't mention (or even look up on the Internet) who was in He Said, She Said with Kevin Bacon, Time magazine -- they've all taken shots at Nickel Town.

But we haven't heard as much of the trash talk of late. (Or maybe we aren't as sensitive to it as we used to be.)

When the Ravens made it to the Super Bowl this year, we heard --ad nauseam -- players talking about how they weren't getting any "respect" from the national media. But that wasn't about the city, that was about the team, and it was pretty much baloney anyway.

What I'm talking about is a frontal attack on all that we hold dear --Charm City, Crabtown, Ripkenville. I'm talking about a razor rip across the municipal jowl.

We haven't had a good one in some time.

Right?

Not right.

Someone ripped Baltimore a good one over the summer, and it wasn't a moronic sports-radio caller or a spoiled American actress. It was a British fellow skilled in overwrought sarcasm and the scholarly sneer. I couldn't let it pass. His diss was too good to miss.

Columnist Brian Sewell of the London Evening Standard visited the Royal Academy of Arts to have a look at "Masterpieces of French Painting," an exhibit of works from the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery. Baltimore's pride has been on tour. It landed in London in June and will be there another two weeks.

This is what Sewell wrote about it:

"It is no more than a rag-bag of amusements ... incoherent, random and utterly pointless as any thing other than an inducement to visit Baltimore. Baltimore? Yes, Baltimore -- not a city on the tourist route in North America, but one literally on a backwater of Chesapeake Bay, forgotten in the shadow of nearby Washington, with little to amuse the visitor other than two unexpected and astonishing museums.

"The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery reflect the richness of the city's marine and mercantile past in the 19th century, though both were founded in the 20th when the city had begun its tumble into a decline that in the 1960s seemed complete and irreversible, dirty, dilapidated and polluted. Both museums are exemplars of the briefly fashionable taste of the self-made rich whose fortunes were founded on liquor, railways, coffee, oil, industry and shops, men who were happy to exploit possessions to establish themselves as Baltimore's new society."

In other words, backwater tastes in a backwater town.

Wait. There's more:

The exhibit "is not a triumphant survey of French art, but an unconscionable jumble of this, that and the other, some of it of fine `parlour' quality, much of it the relic of extremely cautious taste in then contemporary art and a little of it ludicrous and even downright bad."

Sewell explains how William Walters amassed a collection of art and "curiosities" that eventually became a public museum. Then, in analyzing Walters' taste in certain paintings, accuses him of being a dirty old man: "We must wonder what drove William Walters to acquire such a picture, but when we encounter Millet's long-legged naked goosegirl about to bathe with her charges, we know that he bought pictures for the stirrings in his trousers that they caused."

But Sewell is at his meanest in putting down the Cone sisters, Etta and Claribel, whose collection of Matisse is the pride of the BMA and the city. He makes Matisse sound like a slickie boy who scammed a couple of rubes.

"Matisse was wily enough to develop a flattering relationship with these women, even to visit Baltimore, and they bought many pictures from him."

Sewell called the Cone collection "the pretty, the decorative and the trivial," and he dismissed Matisse as "the irredeemably shallow painter and rotten draughtsman they deserved."

The worst part of the show, according to Sewell, were Renoirs, also collected by the sisters Cone: "A nasty little thing of Washerwomen and a worse of Roses, this a squalid daub unworthy even of a chocolate box. Indeed, had the curators of the exhibition set out to undermine the reputation of the Cones as connoisseurs, they could hardly have done so more effectively."

Sewell goes on and on.

"One wonders what on earth induced the Academy to house this exhibition and, at M-#7, charge quite so heavily for admission, when Christie's and Sotheby's regularly offer twice the number of pictures of as good or better quality and charge no one so much as a bean to see them. One wonders, too, how Barclays could have been so ill-advised to sponsor it and write such a flatulent justification in a catalogue that is more a history of the social scene in Baltimore than an exegesis of the pictures."

Whew!

All I can say to Brother Sewell, over there in England, is: "Nice job you guys did at Fort McHenry! Ha, ha, ha!"

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