Uncovering allure of Asian artwork

Japanese woodblock prints from Cone Collection on exhibit

April 17, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

It's commonplace that 90 percent of what's in museums lies mostly unseen, locked away in storage vaults that no one besides the odd staffer ever visits. Then every once in a while someone decides to pull these hidden treasures out, and suddenly we realize what we've been missing.

Such is the case with the delightful little show of Japanese woodblock prints from the Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which runs through May 12.

These diminutive pictures of beautiful geisha girls, courtesans, Kabuki actresses and other inhabitants of what the Japanese called ukiyo-e, or "the floating world" of private pleasure and entertainment, are surely among the BMA's most charming holdings. Yet this is the first time in 50 years that they have been put on public display at the museum.

The Cone sisters, Claribel and Etta, are well-known as pioneering collectors of modern art whose purchases of works by Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin and others have immeasurably enriched the appreciation and understanding of European modernism in their native city.

Less well-known, however, are the approximately 150 Japanese woodblock prints and books the Cone sisters bought early in their careers, and which in a sense helped prepare them to approach the bold new forms presented by modern art.

Both sisters initially were introduced to Japanese prints by their expatriate friends (and fellow Baltimoreans) Leo and Gertrude Stein, whose home in Paris they visited often around the turn of the 20th century.

Leo Stein, an enthusiastic student, collector and dealer of modern art who had visited Japan in the 1890s, was well aware of the influence Japanese prints had exerted on such artists as Bonnard, Cassatt, Manet, Matisse and Picasso, and his interest in Japanese art undoubtedly rubbed off on the sisters.

As early as 1901, during her first trip to Paris, Etta recorded her fascination with Japanese prints in her diary - and chided herself for spending more than she planned to acquire some: "I got the fever bad & couldn't help it," she confessed.

Over the next few years, the sisters purchased many more Japanese prints, including works by such acknowledged masters as Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige. They seemed particularly drawn to images of women, such as Utamaro's stylish depictions of actresses and courtesans, and to landscapes like Hokusai's famous views of Mount Fuji.

The BMA show presents many lovely examples of this art, whose elegant designs and vibrant colors eloquently evoke not only Japan's colorful feudal past but a bygone era in European history when the traditional arts of Asia were still intimately tied up with the cultural ferment out of which modern art was born.

Woodblock

What: Japanese prints from the Cone Collection

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive

When: Wednesdays-Fridays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., through May 12

Admission: $7 adults; $5 senior citizens and students

Call: 410-396-7100

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