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The Girls Are Back in Town

Cone Collection Back Up at BMA and Better Than Ever

Home Schooled: "Purple Robe and Anemones" and other Matisse works are enhanced by the Cone Collection galleries’ makeover.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 4/25/2001

The Cone Collection

Baltimore Museum of Art

In its previous incarnation, the Baltimore Museum of Art's Cone Wing, which housed the famous collection of Post-Impressionist and early modern art acquired by Baltimore sisters Claribel and Etta Cone, could seem like merely a connecting corridor between the museum's main building and its contemporary-art wing. There's little chance of the just-reinstalled Cone Collection being overlooked. The newly redesigned galleries that house more than 100 pieces of the 3,000-plus-piece collection show it off in all its glory.

It's still possible to walk straight through the Cone Wing, but the new layout--highlighted by a central rotunda gallery--offers visitors plenty of tempting detours along the way. The paintings themselves are once again matched with their original, ornate frames (as opposed to the homely metal frames they were fitted with in 1986, to much public outcry). Works from different media are juxtaposed in the same space, suggesting previously unconsidered connections between the pieces. And the whole collection benefits from the warmer, more sympatico interior design that surrounds it.

"We've had the collection for 50 years, but we're always looking for new ways to bring it to life," says Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) director Doreen Bolger about a reinstallation so extensive that it amounted to a reconstruction.

The collection was bequeathed to the BMA in 1950 after Etta Cone's death and has been the museum's biggest draw ever since. Now, after a two-year renovation of the wing that contains it, the collection is back on view. The look and layout have changed dramatically, with that central rotunda leading your eyes and feet into seven surrounding galleries.

Appropriately, the rotunda is devoted to the works of Henri Matisse, with whom the Cone sisters were particularly close and whose work they avidly collected. For an aesthetic high, stand near the middle of the rotunda and look at Matisse's painting "Blue Nude" (1907), arguably the most important painting in the entire museum. This lounging female nude is painted with such visceral authority that she seems to have a near-sculptural quality. As ferocious as she is feminine, she embodies a primitive power that never loses its punch, however often you see her. Now reluctantly turn away from the "Blue Nude" and look at the opposite wall, on which hangs a later Matisse treatment of an odalisque subject, his "Large Reclining Nude" (1935), also known as the "Pink Nude." Unlike the expressive fury of his "Blue Nude," this painting, created nearly 30 years later, is much more abstracted and emotionally cooler in approach. The earlier picture is angry; this one is calm.

One of the smartest moves in the reinstallation is the thematically rich mingling of paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. In the middle of the rotunda, you'll find a bronze sculpture, "Large Seated Nude" (1923-'25), whose upraised arms and general body language correspond to Matisse's career-long treatment of female nudes in various mediums. You can look between the sculpture's upraised arms and see the paintings "framed" as you've never seen them before. From this central spot, you also can look through the four doorways leading into the rotunda and make visual connections with the artwork hanging in the other Cone Wing galleries.

Your central perch is also as good a place as any to consider the overall philosophy behind the redesign. The last Cone Wing makeover, engineered by a previous museum administration 15 years ago, was intended to remove distractions (the gilt frames) and focus attention on the artwork. In practice, though, the metal frames gave the mostly moderately scaled paintings the appearance of having been blandly stamped against the walls. The current redesign warms things up considerably. All the original frames are back on the paintings, and the galleries themselves benefit from a colorful makeover that makes extensive use of red oak for the floors and doorways. The woodwork boasts classical references that relate to the John Russell Pope-designed neoclassical main museum building to the east, but these references are spare enough to also complement the museum's contemporary-art wing to the west. Also, the walls in each gallery have been painted colors that evoke a Mediterranean mood suitable for Matisse.

Matisse's greatest paintings would survive against virtually any backdrop, but where this reinstallation works particularly well is in its showcasing of his smaller works. Even a painting as modest in scale and compositional ambition as "Girl Reading, Vase of Flowers" (1922) comes off looking like a star here. In this painting, a woman reads a book that's resting atop a blue tablecloth. The table also supports a vase filled with variously colored flowers. Behind this woman is colorfully striped wallpaper. There's a lot of color in this work, and fortunately it's installed against a straw-yellow gallery wall whose hue complements the painting rather than competing with it. (The gallery containing this particular piece houses many similar paintings of domestic interiors done by Matisse in Nice, which are among his most decorative and colorful.)

Another gallery is dedicated to temporary exhibits that will be culled from the Cone Collection's extensive holdings. This will be especially useful for works on paper, which are rarely put on display for extended periods of time due to conservation concerns. The first such mini-show is filled with early works by Pablo Picasso.

Other galleries dedicated to the collection include a couple that showcase the Cone sisters as patrons and collectors of artists besides Matisse. Presumably as part of its recent attempts to make Baltimore artists feel like they're a vital part of the BMA, this section of the Cone Wing now includes works by such deceased but alive-in-memory Baltimore artists as Herman Maril, John McGrath, Abraham Leon Kroll, Aaron Sopher, and Florence H. Austrian. (Austrian is represented by an undated painting of Mount Vernon's Emmanuel Episcopal Church.)

These locally connected paintings are of more than provincial interest--they give a sense of what American artists in general were up to while Matisse and Picasso were turning the art world upside down. One of the most interesting cases in the collection is an American artist with no Baltimore connection, the Russian-born Max Weber, who studied with Matisse in Paris. Weber's 1909 painting "The Bathers" owes an obvious debut to Paul Cézanne, but one of the twisting female nudes is like a riff on Matisse's "Blue Nude" (which, conveniently for compare-and-contrast purposes, hangs right around the corner).

The final galleries present the Cones' collections of textiles, jewelry, furniture, and even an ancient Egyptian bronze statue of a cat. There's a wooden chest with drawers you're invited to open in order to discover yet more exotic stuff they gathered. A nifty touchscreen "virtual tour" of the Cone Collection, developed by the Imaging Research Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is another kind of treasure chest. It gives a sense of what all this fine and decorative art looked like when it resided in domestic quarters.

Although the Marlborough building at 1701 Eutaw Place, where the Cone sisters resided in adjacent apartments, still stands, its interior was gutted in the early 1970s and turned into subsidized housing for the elderly. By studying 37 photographs taken inside the Cone sisters' apartments in the 1930s, the UMBC crew determined where nearly everything was displayed at home. Touch the screen and take a trip through their apartments. This is a virtual opportunity to go into Claribel Cone's bathroom. You won't be surprised to find paintings hanging even in there.

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