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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Henri Matisse, Striped Robe, Fruit, and Anemones, 1940. Oil on canvas. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.258 (c)2011 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Two museum exhibitions with lady-like exteriors but either some or a lot of interior muscle are on view along upper Fifth Avenue, and well worth attending (at least, if you’re an art lover who doesn’t get the bends at being forced to rise above 34th Street). The first of these two shows, the one with some muscle, is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is called “Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century,” and has been curated by Sabine Rewald (through July 4). Its official source of inspiration in an article by Lorenz Eitner published in 1955 on the Romantic motif of the open window, but a more immediate father-figure is Robert Rosenblum. His 1975 book, “Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition,” tried with typical pomonian perversity to downgrade the powerhouse of Paris, and re-route the modernist tradition through the weaker art of Teutonic Europe. The literature surrounding this exhibition similarly emphasizes the Northern European contribution to it, even though the show includes a sizeable number of French academic painters (plus a couple of Italians). Stylistically what it’s really about is painters who clung to the detailed brushwork & licked surfaces of 18th century neo-classicism well into the 19th century.

Not that I am opposed to neo-classicism, which in the right hands can offer crystalline tranquility & grandeur, nor was it only Ingres who was capable of it in the early 19th century. The most marvelous group exposition of it that I’ve seen is long gone but fondly remembered. This was “In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting,” which I saw at the Brooklyn Museum in 1996, and which included fine work by Northern European artists as well as French and Italians. I also liked the 19th Century Danish painters included at the Met in its 2002 show of European paintings from the Ordrupgaard Collection of Copenhagen. In “Rooms with a View,” many paintings and works on paper, mostly done between 1810 and 1820, offer very appealing neo-classical precision. A few, however, combine it with what the Met press release optimistically calls “Biedermeier coziness.” For “coziness,” read sentimentality.

I’m afraid that I was more irked than enlightened by the emphasis in the literature accompanying the show on the notion that all of these paintings of an open window represent Romantic symbolism and Romantic longing. The assumption seems to be that subject matter and subject matter alone defines Romanticism. Not for the leading French Romantics, it didn’t. While the German Caspar David Friedrich was blazing a trail for his Germanic followers by combining precise detail with offbeat subject matter, Géricault and Delacroix were taking painting in a much more radical direction with flamboyant brush work and a richer use of color. This was what Romanticism in painting was really about, and what led to Courbet, Manet, Monet and Renoir, who in turn would ultimately open up the floodgates for Cézanne, Picasso and abstract expressionism. None of these modernists had much use for the prop wash of neoclassicism, as it was perpetuated through Ingres’s followers in the Salons and in Northern Europe (charming as some of these Northern European painters could be). All of Rosenblum’s emphasis on subject matter, which forms the backbone of his claims that northern European painting paved the way for abstract expressionism, were rooted in his desire to justify subject matter for its own sake, as was only to be expected by a scholar whose enthusiasms in the 60s and 70s ran to Jasper Johns, and later included Bouguereau and Norman Rockwell. In the desire to emphasize subject matter — style in “Rooms with a View” occasionally gets ignored. To put it another way, from an esthetic point of view, this show was not quite as well-chosen as “In the Light of Italy.”

Still, there is a lot to like in “Rooms with a View.” This is not a large exhibition, either of numbers of works or size of works exhibited: we are talking chamber music, not a symphony orchestra. In all, 31 paintings and 26 works on paper are ranged through four comparatively small galleries (carving a modest footprint out of the cavernous exhibition space located at the top of the Great Stairs, right off the main European paintings galleries). Almost all of these pictures are on the small side, but this is nonetheless one of those traditional museum shows put together with the aid of generous loans (from museums in Germany, Denmark, France, Italy, Austria, Sweden and the U.S.) On view are works by 17 German artists, 10 French ones (plus one “French School”), 4 each from Denmark and Austria, 2 from Italy and one each from Norway and Sweden. The walls of the first two galleries and the last, which mostly display paintings, are painted an attractive pale sky blue, with lots of light, while the third – where the drawings are on display – is (to protect the drawings, of course) in semi-darkness.

The first gallery is devoted to figures in interiors, with a window in the background. The second is devoted to paintings of artists in their studios, again with a window in the background. In both these galleries, the coziness is most apparent (though it certainly doesn’t afflict most of the paintings on view & never reaches the heights of soup that characterizes the best-known examples of Biedermeier painting). The fourth gallery, which presents empty rooms with windows — not infrequently with views beyond the window — emphasizes landscape instead of genre. This can be seen, most notably, in “Window in Sunlight’ (1856), by the German, Anton Dieffenbach, in which the view outside is nearly all masked by leaves. Another reason to like this gallery are 4 handsome private studies of empty interiors by Adolph Menzel, whom I did a term paper on in grad school, and whose “Staircase by Night” (1848) is especially likeable. Still, the gallery with the works on paper is the finest in the show, if only because its centerpiece are the 2 magnificent sepia drawings with which Friedrich started the whole vogue for pictures of windows in 1806. Each of the 2 depicts simply a window, with practically nothing of the room surrounding it visible, and only a most delicate and distant landscape visible beyond. Primarily these are stories of structure, glass and light, the elements of form and color. Two other works that I particularly admired were also in this gallery. They are “View of the Karlskirche in Moonlight” (ca. 1825-30), a watercolor on paper by the Austrian Peter Fendi, and “View of the Villa Medici and Sta. Trinità dei Monti from Ingres’s Studio in the Pavillon San Gaetano, Rome” (1819), a graphite on ivory laid paper by the French artist, Achille-Etna Michallon.


The second lady-like exhibition on Upper Fifth Avenue has a lot more not-so-hidden muscle. This is “Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore,” an exhibition at the Jewish Museum of over 50 of the 3,000 works originally collected by Dr. Claribel Cone (1864-1929) and Miss Etta Cone (1870-1949), then bequeathed by them to the Baltimore Museum of Art. The 50-plus works at the Jewish Museum (through September 25) include 28 paintings, sculpture and drawings by Matisse. The show was co-organized by the Jewish Museum, the Baltimore Museum and the Vancouver Art Gallery (where it will be on view June 2 through September 23, 2012). The show was curated by the Jewish Museum’s Karen Levitov, and there is an 80-page catalogue, co-published by the Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, with 62 color and 18 black-and-white illustrations ($20 — a very good buy).

Matisse referred to Claribel and Etta as “my two Baltimore ladies.” He seems to have met them around 1904 through the avidly-collecting Stein family, four members of whom had abandoned the U.S. and set up residence in Paris, where they were avidly pursuing and buying the avant-garde. The literature at the Jewish Museum emphasizes the roles of Gertrude and Leo, and certainly the Cones had known them earlier. Gertrude and Leo had lived in Baltimore in the 1890s, when they were still undergoing their schooling–their parents having died, and their elder brother Michael having arranged for them to live with relatives there.: Gertrude (b.1874) was studying medicine at the Women’s Medical College of Johns Hopkins University, while Leo (b. 1872) was going for an undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins. The Cone sisters, being older, had completed their education. Claribel had a medical degree from the Women’s Medical College, and was teaching pathology there. She was the more outgoing and imposing of the two sisters. Etta had completed high school, then studied piano. She was shyer, more retiring, and would later look after household affairs when she and Claribel set up neighboring apartments in Baltimore (she would also carry on to complete the collection, after Claribel died). In the 1890s, the Cone sisters conducted Saturday soirees attended by the cultural elite of Baltimore — including Gertrude & Leo. These soirees, in fact, would become the model for the far better-known salons that the Steins would conduct in Paris.

By 1903, Gertrude and Leo had settled together in Paris. So had Michael and his wife, Sarah, who were far more single-mindedly devoted to Matisse than were Gertrude and Leo (Michael and Sarah even helped Matisse set up an art school, which Sarah attended). I can’t help but feel that Sarah, who propagandized shamelessly for Matisse, had some input with the Cone sisters. Gertrude and Leo divided their attention more between Matisse and Picasso. They introduced the Cone sisters to Picasso, too, and Claribel and Etta wound up collecting over 100 works by Picasso before they were through. Still -- to judge from the current exhibition -- the Cones couldn’t relate to cubism: the Picassos on view are limited to the Rose, Blue and Classical Periods (though there are some impressive examples of those periods). The Matisses, however run the gamut, from a 1905 (Fauve period) still life with “Yellow Pottery from Provence” to the very pink & famously diagrammatic “Large Reclining Nude” (1935). One gallery is splendiferously devoted to 6 free-standing sculptures, four of them by Matisse. One can go nuts trying to decide which of them to like best. I was torn between “Seated Nude with Arms on Head’ (original model, 1904; this cast ca. 1930), the “Large Seated Nude’‘(1922-29/ca.1930), the “Seated Nude Clasping Her Right Leg” (1918/1930), and the “Two Negresses” (1907-08/ca. 1930), of which I’d seen many photographs, all of which make it appear far larger & more colossal than it actually is.

That’s not even counting the wonderful Matisse drawings in this gallery and elsewhere, or the profusion of colorful (if not overly large) Matisse paintings (with the Nice period especially well represented). In all, there are 28 Matisses in this show – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, since the Cone collection in all has some 500 Matisses, valued by some experts as being worth together $1 billion. Still, the only Matisse that Matissophiles may miss is the well-known “Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra)” (1907), but it seems that Gertrude owned this painting before she sold it to the Cones, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is including it in their show “The Steins Collect.” That show runs through Labor Day, then on to the Grand Palais in Paris and, eventually, the Metropolitan Museum (February 2 – June 3, 2012). I queried the press office at the San Francisco Museum about “Blue Nude,” and in return received a checklist for “The Steins Collect” that indicates it is going to be one hell of an exhibition.

I don’t want to say that it makes the Jewish Museum show look modest by comparison, but there is this ladylike aspect to “Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters” that is a little hard to shake. Here I am talking about all the memorabilia and samples of other things that the Cone sisters collected – fabrics, lace, jewelry, vases, etc. In particular, I am talking about the old photographs of the two ladies themselves, stylishly dressed in the fashions of more than a century ago, with all the ruffles and frills then considered necessary. There’s a terrific contrast between the works by Matisse, which still look hard and strong and simple and lovely, and the fussy clothes and other artifacts of the sisters, which reek only of period charm. To put all this on view together, as though there were no difference between them, is to suggest that somebody doesn’t know the difference between art and fashion. On the other hand, in addition to the Matisses and the Picassos, this exhibition has much other real art to enjoy, ranging from a very neatly done Theodore Robinson to iconic Japanese prints to a fine Courbet to Gauguin (if that’s your pleasure) and a delectable little Delacroix, “Perseus and Andromeda” (1847). Karen Rosenberg, who reviewed this show for the NY Times, also singled out the Delacroix. For once, I agree with the Times.
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