Gift, exhibition confirm the BMA as Matisse center

October 21, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun reporter

Home to the world's most comprehensive collection of work by Henri Matisse, the Baltimore Museum of Art is raising its international profile as an authority and a leading exhibitor of the French Modernist master.

Last night, the museum moved closer to that goal as it announced a major gift of 77 Matisse prints - the largest acquisition since the Cone Collection laid the foundation for the BMA's Matisse holdings in 1950. And next Sunday, the museum will open Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, the first major U.S. exhibition of his sculpture in a generation.

"They could easily become the main Matisse center in America," said art historian Yve-Alain Bois of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. "Because of the Cone Collection and its riches, they have the capacity to become very instrumental in Matisse scholarship."

BMA Director Doreen Bolger envisions the museum's becoming an international leader for Matisse research, sponsoring exhibitions, publications and lecture series to draw visitors from around the world.

"We have the artworks, the scholars and the recognition of our colleagues worldwide that we're investing the time, energy and talent into this project," Bolger said. "Very few museums house comprehensive collections of artists of Matisse's stature: There's the Picasso Museum in Paris, the Kandinsky museum in Munich - and the BMA in Baltimore for Matisse."

Matisse, one of the towering figures of 20th-century art, was a pivotal figure in the birth of modern art, along with Pablo Picasso and others. He was instrumental in freeing painting from the conventions of academic realism in order to capture the raw intensity of experience through pure line and color.

The BMA's Matisse collection is unique because the comprehensive holdings range from painting to sculpture to drawings. It is particularly strong in works created between 1917 and 1930, when the artist was living in Nice in the south of France, where he produced some of his most memorable drawings, paintings and prints.

The only comparable collections in America are at Washington's National Gallery of Art, which owns the artist's cut-paper pieces and other late works; the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa., which has early paintings from his Fauve period from 1905 to 1908; and New York's Museum of Modern Art, which owns early paintings and abstract works from the beginning of the 20th century.

The Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Foundation's gift of 77 prints to the BMA will be displayed in an exhibition planned for 2009. It significantly expands the BMA's pre-eminence in Matisse prints, which began with the 1950 bequest from Baltimore sisters Claribel and Etta Cone that includes 42 paintings, 22 sculptures and more than 500 works on paper, spanning every phase of the artist's career.

Not mass-produced reproductions, the prints the BMA will receive are considered original artworks because they were created and printed by hand in limited numbers under the supervision of Matisse.

"What's important about [the gift] is not the quantity but what it brings to the collection that's not already there," said Jay Fisher, the BMA's deputy director for curatorial affairs. "This is the graphic work Matisse made during the last decade of his life, when Etta Cone was not collecting much because of travel restrictions during the Second World War. The gift allows us to fill that gap."

The Matisse foundation was established by the heirs of the artist's son, Pierre Matisse, who became an important dealer of modern art in New York during the 1930s and who died in 1989. His widow, Maria-Gaetana Matisse, was instrumental in shaping the foundation's educational and philanthropic mission before her death in 2001.

"We thought of the Baltimore museum as an institution that could benefit from a donation because their holdings of Matisse are already remarkable and also because of the commitment Ms. Bolger and Mr. Fisher have shown to consolidate and strengthen the role of their museum in the field of Matisse studies," said Alessandra Carnielli, director of the foundation.

"This donation of graphic art is going to add quite a bit to what they already have, and it will make the museum even more prominent among American institutions for Matisse artwork," Carnielli added. "With this donation they will house the largest collection of Matisse's graphic art in the United States."

Carnielli estimated the value of the 77 prints given to the BMA at $600,000.

She said the only larger collection of Matisse prints was housed at the French National Library in Paris.

The BMA owes the breadth of its Matisse holdings largely to the Cone sisters' long friendship with the artist. The Cones were introduced to Matisse in the early years of the last century by Baltimore-born author Gertrude Stein and her brother, Michael, who were living in Paris.

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