An Artful Amalgam


Baltimore Museum of Art shows off its recent acquisitions, a mix of treasures curious and captivating.

Art Column

July 02, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Think of museums as civilization's attics, the places where all of society's unused stuff inexorably accumulates into one vast repository of the recent and remote past. Eventually, at what seems like a glacial pace, whole worlds wind up there.

Actually, it happens a lot quicker than that. Museums exist to collect objects and preserve them against the flaky intrusion of accident and chance. They snatch objects out of time and wrap them in a protective cocoon of text that makes them comprehensible as history. And, because history keeps marching forward, so does the collecting.

An elegant, 200-year-old lady's writing desk, a famous painting by Corot, a 50-foot-tall African ceremonial mask and an early 20th-century photograph of a New Orleans prostitute by the mysterious E. J. Bellocq, a shadowy figure if ever there were one - all are grist for the museum's voracious maw.

These and other curious, notable and (sometimes) beautiful objects are just a few of the more than 2,000 treasures collected by the Baltimore Museum of Art over the past decade alone, and that are now part of the exhibition New on View: Recent Additions to the Collection.

Since 1995, the BMA has acquired paintings and sculpture, prints, drawings and photographs, furniture and glass, books, ceramics and textiles. There are about 90 works on view in the current show, a minuscule fraction of the 85,000 objects in the permanent collection but quite enough for a delightful few hours of reverie on a summer afternoon.

Most new-acquisitions shows are sort of a grab bag, and this one is no exception. There are some things in it that will immediately draw you across the whole room to look at more closely and others you'll probably pass by with hardly a glance. (Tip from a critic: Go back and look at the latter again. Sometimes the sleepers turn out to be the ones you fall in love with.)

There's old and new, familiar and strange, charming and, well, not-so-charming, depending on your taste. The fun thing about it is you get to explore what really appeals to you, with results that are often surprising.

A fine piece

Take that 200-year-old writing desk, which is so much more than just a piece of furniture. Made in Maryland around 1800-1810, it is an object lesson in gracious living, an example of the highest quality American craftsmanship available at the time and an evocation of an earlier era when people still poured out their hearts to each other in letters rather than by chattering on the phone.

The piece is scaled to the intimate dimensions of the home, with intricate patterns of satinwood inlay on rich mahogany, poplar and red cedar woods. Stand in front of it and you can't help thinking of it as a set piece out of one of Samuel Richardson's epistolary novels, in which 18th-century English ladies composed ardent missives to their suitors in a restrained and delicate hand.

(There's actually an interesting story behind this acquisition. It once belonged to a woman named Ethel Knight - surely a name worthy of a Richardson heroine - who lent it to the BMA for a 1947 exhibition on Baltimore furniture. Knight later bequeathed the desk to her niece, Maria Groome Tracy, whose property it remained until 2000, when she presented it to the museum as a gift.)

A quite different kind of refined elegance is visible in the multistory-tall house mask from the Dogon people of Mali. You don't need to know much art history to realize why African sculpture became an inspiration to early 20th-century modernists. The piece has a presence that is at once primal and majestic, with a formal rigor that almost (but not quite) belies the overwhelming supernatural forces it was created to summon.

A wall text explains that the Sirige mask was used by the Dogon people in a ritual called Sigi, held every 60 years to honor the dead, and that dozens of professional dancers participated in the ceremony, during which the mask was whirled in a circle until it touched the ground in front of the performer wearing it.

Like much African art, the meaning of this piece and the ritual of which it is a part are only partly accessible to outsiders.

One of the ironies of art history is that the aesthetic qualities of African art went entirely unrecognized until they decisively influenced the development of Western painting and sculpture. European modernism "aestheticized" African art by making its formal properties recognizable as qualities to be admired, but in fact aesthetics may have been the least part of the meaning of these works for the people who created them.

Not so new

No such problems arise with the painting by the 19th-century French painter Jean-Baptiste Camille-Corot, whose Sevres-Brimborion, View Towards Paris, painted in 1864, is one of the highlights of the entire BMA collection. Corot was the greatest French Romantic landscape painter, whose method of exact observation and habit of painting out of doors helped inspire the Impressionist revolution.

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