Say It in French

Matisse comes to Denver -- via Baltimore.

The unbelievably good Matisse From the Baltimore Museum of Art, which opens to the general public on Sunday at the Denver Art Museum, is the third and final exhibit in a series of blockbusters there that have showcased the School of Paris. It is, hands down, the finest of the three.

The first two shows -- Toulouse-Lautrec From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was presented a year ago, and Impressionism, on display last fall -- were rousing successes. They attracted thousands of visitors, many for the first time. Impressionism alone set an attendance record, with some 218,000 people jamming the place.

Matisse, which will run through the spring, is also predicted to be popular.

"Large Reclining Nude," oil painting.
"Large Reclining Nude," oil painting.

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Through June 25

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Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway

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And politically speaking, the crowds thronging to the DAM throughout 1999 arrived just in time. These friends, both old and new, helped the museum pass a bond initiative last November in a landslide. The scheduling was a brilliant tactical maneuver on the part of the DAM's gifted director, Lewis Sharp, for two reasons: It made the museum a must-stop for thousands of area residents and, in doing that, pushed the fabulous 1971 Gio Ponti and James Sudler building beyond its capacity. A little hocus-pocus, and a strong case was made for expansion.

The $62.5 million in bonds will now provide funding for the construction of a freestanding wing, to be built across West 13th Avenue from the existing museum. Another $50 million will be raised by the DAM's trustees to pay for programming and maintenance of the new facility. This is a big chunk of private dough, and it will give the DAM some clout with Mayor Wellington Webb and the city council during upcoming discussions about the selection of an architect to design the new building.

For its part, Matisse comes too late to have any political significance, but the fact that the DAM brought it here anyway shows that despite all the talk about money, the museum's real bottom line is art.

The artwork in this exhibit has been culled from the Cone Collection, which is the Baltimore Museum of Art's centerpiece. In addition to the nearly seventy pieces seen in Denver, the Cone Collection includes hundreds of other Matisses, as well as works by Picasso, Cézanne and other French masters and Japanese prints and antique furniture.

The BMA allowed the Matisses to travel because the Cone Wing is currently being remodeled. Instead of casting the pieces into storage, the museum brought them to Denver and will later take them to the Birmingham Museum of Art, which has itself remodeled in preparation, before returning them next year to refitted digs back in Baltimore.

The collectors who assembled the Cone Collection were in some ways an unlikely pair. Claribel and Etta Cone were two unmarried sisters from a prominent and wealthy Jewish family who lived in Baltimore at the turn of the century. The sisters were two of the thirteen children born to Hermann and Helen Guggenheimer Cone, who had come by their fortune in the textile trade in the mid-nineteenth century and got wealthier with the passing years.

Claribel, born in 1864, and Etta, born in 1870, were raised in a privileged environment, and since their parents were progressive at a time when education for women was a debatable issue, Claribel was encouraged to become a physician. "Dr. Claribel," as she was called by her friends and family, eventually achieved international distinction for her work in the field of gynecology at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Medical School, the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in Philadelphia, and the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Years later, this medical career would provide the link to her interest in modern art by way of her friendship with Gertrude Stein, a much younger woman, who, with her brother Leo, were among the most important collectors of modern art in the twentieth century. In the 1890s, while Dr. Claribel was doing research at Johns Hopkins, she met Stein, whose family had moved to Baltimore so she could study medicine at the university. The Steins were affluent Jews in the same social circle as the Cones, and the two families lived within blocks of one another. Every day, Gertrude and Claribel rode the trolley together to the hospital. They became close friends and, it's been speculated, may even have become intimate.

Unlike Dr. Claribel, Etta didn't go to college. Instead she ran the family household and later traveled extensively in Europe -- the kind of thing polite ladies of means were expected to do if they remained unmarried, and a situation that led to her being called "Miss Etta" by one and all.

Miss Etta also became friendly with the Steins. But if it may be assumed that Dr. Claribel was romantically involved with Gertrude, it is assured in Miss Etta's case. In fact, Miss Etta saw Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude's longtime companion, as her successor, and refers to her as such in correspondence preserved in the Cone Collection's archive.

Miss Etta began collecting artwork in 1898 with the purchase of several paintings by American impressionist Theodore Robinson. She added to the collection in fits and spurts until 1922, when Dr. Claribel became interested, and the two quickly built the collection as it exists today. The sisters had remained close to the Steins for decades and bought many of the works either from them or with their assistance.

Dr. Claribel died in 1929, but Miss Etta continued to collect up until a few weeks before her own death, in 1949. Though the most prominent museums on the East Coast were vying for the Cone Collection, including the Museum of Modern Art, Miss Etta chose to leave it to her hometown museum, and the BMA constructed a wing in 1956 specifically to house the collection. It's that same wing that is undergoing renovation now.

The Cone sisters collected broadly, but they developed a special relationship with the great modern master Henri Matisse, and they purchased in depth from his oeuvre. After Dr. Claribel's death, Miss Etta's friendship with Matisse grew, and the great artist advised her on how to improve her selection of his work. Matisse was well aware that the Cone Collection was going to wind up in a museum, and he wanted it to be a good reflection on him.

It is -- a fact that can be seen clearly in Matisse.

The exhibit was co-organized by the museum's curator of the Modern and Contemporary department, Dianne Vanderlip, and associate curator Gwen Chanzit, who worked together with Jay Fisher, the curator of the Cone Collection. It has been installed in the Hamilton Galleries, which have undergone a light facelift -- mostly repainting -- that has entirely recast the formerly dignified space last seen during Impressionism. The fanciful new mood, like that of so many of Matisse's paintings, may remind some of springtime in Paris. Surely that was the intention of exhibition designer Jeremy Hillhouse, who came out of retirement to do the show.

The atmospheric effect begins in the reception room, where visitors line up to enter. The room has been painted yellow, with darker, Matisse-ian squiggles stenciled on top. The effect is like printed wallpaper. On the walls are quotes by Matisse, which have been translated into English and which concern the nature of his artistic struggle. One theatrical gesture in this room -- and the first of many seen throughout the show -- is the vignette created by the combination of an antique birdcage hung from the ceiling in front of several panels of sheer, multicolored drapery.

Vanderlip and Chanzit used the first gallery to briefly survey Matisse's career, and it's impossible to overstate how stunning this space looks.

We are immediately confronted with a pair of masterpieces. Ahead and to the right is "The Serf," a bronze sculpture from 1900 to 1903. Behind it, on the wall to the left, is "Purple Robe and Anemones," an oil on canvas from 1937. These two pieces are so distinct from one another that they could easily be the work of different artists.

"The Serf" is notably Rodinesque. It takes the form of a standing nude male, his massive muscular legs spread wide apart. Although his arms are missing, they were originally supposed to be part of the sculpture. But when the clay model was broken, the arms were lost, and Matisse had it cast in this way. (It turns out that the man who modeled for "The Serf," Bevelacqua, often posed for Rodin as well.) It is finished in a rich dark-brown patina.

"Purple Robe and Anemones" is expressively painted and brightly colored. It features the use of flat planes of color standing in for the illusion of three-dimensional space. A woman is seen reclining on a chaise next to a metal vase of flowers. Matisse has crammed the picture full of decorative motifs including stripes, checks and curlicues.

Before you're drawn into the next gallery -- and drawn you will be -- you might want to ponder the quiet charm of one of several superb drawings in the show, "Self-Portrait," a charcoal and estompe on paper from 1937. With some smears and a few lines, Matisse created a credible portrait that looks just like him, as we can see when we compare it to the many photos of the artist that are also included in the show.

Now, prepare yourself for the second gallery.

Ahead, beyond a jungle of low showcases in which lovely small sculptures have been placed, is the magnificent "Blue Nude," an oil on canvas from 1907. From an art-history standpoint, this is the most important painting ever to have been hung in Denver, and when I first caught a glimpse of it, I did a double take. If this show had been nothing more than "Blue Nude," it would be worth the price of admission and the hassle of long lines.

"Blue Nude" is an example of Matisse at the height of his powers as a modernist painter. It was one of his greatest and most renowned examples of the Fauvist style, the movement that propelled him to the status of a legend and led to a lifelong rivalry with Picasso, his only competitor in the stratosphere of early modern art. Both artists -- Matisse with color and Picasso with line -- were attempting to deconstruct the traditions of pictoral space that had been handed down from the Italian Renaissance. And they succeeded, with abstraction serving as their combined legacy.

Behind us, to the left, is "Large Reclining Nude," formerly known as "The Pink Nude," an oil on canvas from 1935. This painting is displayed alongside a series of photos that record the various experimental states the painting went through. The photos reveal that the grid of white lines against dark blue that surround the figure are not emphatic composition devices (as I'd always assumed), but are meant to express the upholstery on the chaise on which the nude is lying. And that phallic form above her? It's a vase of flowers and the back of a wire chair! So there.

The sculptures in this room are also remarkable. Don't miss the 1909 bronze "Serpentine," in which a sinuous woman leans against a gloppy post. It's remarkable for its openness -- an important attribute in early modern sculpture, because pieces like this broke the inherent tradition of solidity in the medium. Also not to be missed is "Reclining Nude I (Aurore)," a bronze sculpture from 1907 that is stylistically intertwined with "Blue Nude." It has been placed next to "Blue Nude," which is very effective.

The third gallery is dominated by several fine drawings, including portraits of Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta that were done in the same style as Matisse's self-portrait at the start of the show. The portrait of Dr. Claribel, a charcoal on paper from 1931, was a posthumous commission from Miss Etta. As a surprise, Matisse created the portrait of Miss Etta, also in charcoal on paper, at the same time.

Beyond is a room devoted to landscapes, often depictions of the seaside in the south of France.

Proceeding on, there is a residential room, complete with chairs. The entry has been marked by another spectacular painting, "The Yellow Dress," an oil on canvas from 1929-31. In this room, along with a few paintings, some with musical subjects, are photo enlargements of the artworks in situ in the apartments of the Cone sisters. The apartments, three in the same building, were so crammed with art that's it's hard to image how anyone could have moved around in them. They must have been awe-inspiring.

The show winds down with a gallery given over to still life and interior paintings, and finally one in which there are several of Matisse's famous "Odalisque" paintings, in which the exotic world of the harem is, actually or symbolically, the setting. These paintings remind us that modern art came out of the French academic system, since harem girls were a favorite subject for many nineteenth-century French artists.

As you leave Matisse, not quite over the aesthetic numbness brought on by having actually seen the "Blue Nude," you'll no doubt find yourself already planning a return trip to the show.

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