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Editorial Notebook

October 11, 2003

WE CLAIM HIM as Baltimore's famed purveyor of the macabre, a writer of ghostly tales who gloried in the grotesque. Edgar Allan Poe is known to us through the written and spoken word: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary... His stories and poems engage the imagination and evoke a whorl of disturbing images: a torture chamber, the extraction of a corpse's teeth, a murdered spouse's entombed body. But for a time in late 19th and early 20th century France, the writer's dark prose and verse also inspired several visual interpretations of his works.

Browsing through the Baltimore Museum of Art's George A. Lucas Collection last winter, director Doreen Bolger noticed an illustration of Poe's The Raven, by Edouard Manet. The print sparked a question: Is there a story to tell about Poe and the visual arts? A search of the museum's collection and queries to curators produced about two dozen pieces: brush-and-ink lithographs and etchings of Poe's literary subjects, woodcuts and portraits of the writer. Ms. Bolger saw the beginnings of an exhibit and presented the idea to a class at the Johns Hopkins University.

The assembled works form Haunting Visions of Poe: Illustrations by Manet, Matisse & Gauguin, on exhibit at the BMA through Jan. 11. It's museum work at its most basic, from the ground up, and showcased in one small room. It's a boutique look at how the written word translates across mediums, how an image can be claimed and reclaimed, how the visual is not immutable.

A corner of the exhibit features three sketches of Poe by Henri Matisse, who was born 20 years after the writer mysteriously collapsed on a Baltimore street and died -- 154 years ago last week. The pieces stand out not for what they convey about the writer, but for what one discovers about Matisse's creative process. He began with a free-hand sketch of Poe. A second drawing captures Poe in detail, from his mane of wavy hair to the shadowy contours of his cheekbones. The final illustration is only 60 or so lines, an eerily precise depiction of the writer's melancholy visage.

To Andy Moskowitz, a museum art exhibit will never again look the same, from the collection of pieces on display to the catalog to the wall color. Now he surveys a space with a discerning eye, notes the wall labels and considers the storyline, items that many wouldn't think twice about. Neither art historian nor critic, artist nor collector, Mr. Moskowitz was one of Ms. Bolger's Hopkins students. He relished the behind-the-scenes look at the museum, the hands-on experience of exploring an unexplored notion of Poe (who actually grew up in Richmond, Va., later lived in New York, and eventually moved in with an aunt in Baltimore).

That a group of Hopkins students helped develop the exhibit is worth replicating. What better way to cultivate the next generation of BMA patrons and promoters?

In researching the exhibit, the students learned that the French weren't interested only in making art. A party thrown by French author Stephane Mallarme for Paul Gauguin featured recitations of The Raven.

In the end, Ms. Bolger found the answer to her initial question. The French offered their haunting visions of Poe. But the written word remains at the center of this confluence of story and art. So it's fitting that a corner of the gallery holds a comfortable chair with Poe's books beside it: And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting ... And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;/ And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/Shall be lifted -- nevermore!

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