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The Joy of Color, the Ecstasy of Form

A re-evaluation of Matisse as decadent sensualist -- brought to us via the Cone Collection at the MFA

While the Baltimore Museum of Art completes construction of its new modern-art wing, Houston's Museum of Fine Arts is displaying a selection of masterpieces from the BMA's prestigious Cone Collection, widely acclaimed as the hallmark of Baltimore's permanent collection and as one of the most distinguished collections of modern French art. The 45 paintings and sculptures that compose "Van Gogh to Matisse: Impressionist and Modern Masters from the Cone Collection" have been selected from an enormous treasure of works in all media acquired by the two spinster Cone sisters, Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta, over the course of nearly 50 years. The entire collection includes some 3,000 objects: important works by American artists, hundreds of prints and drawings, illustrated books, a large group of textiles, 18th- and 19th-century jewelry, furniture and other decorative arts, in addition to Oriental rugs, objects of African art, Japanese prints and antique ivories and bronzes.

Claribel and Etta were born in 1864 and 1870, two of 13 children of Herman Cone, a Jewish German immigrant, and his wife, Helen. The Cones prospered in post-Civil War Baltimore, where they established an extremely successful dry-goods business and eventually expanded into textile manufacturing. Claribel and Etta set up housekeeping in a fashionable Baltimore neighborhood with their bachelor brother Frederic. They furnished the rooms with objets d'art of every description, which they gathered on their worldly travels. The two sisters were compulsive buyers in the tradition of upper-class ladies of Victorian-era America, but they also formed one of the world's preeminent collections of modern art at a time when modern art was not widely collected, and when there were few patrons of the avant-garde. Under the tutelage of their friends, expatriate Americans Gertrude and Leo Stein, the sisters purchased major examples of paintings by Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, Renoir, Pissarro, Vallotton and Bonnard, in addition to works by American artists Theodore Robinson, John Graham, Max Weber and Elie Nadelman. The MFA exhibition includes stunning works by such masters and emphasizes especially the Cone Collection's incomparable holdings of work by Henri Matisse.

Of all the artists whose works the Cones collected over the decades, Matisse became their touchstone. Beginning with the first purchase by Etta, in 1906, the sisters remained devoted to Matisse's art throughout their lives, amassing a collection of 42 paintings, 36 drawings, more than 200 prints and 18 sculptures by the fauvist master. Etta, in fact, maintained a cordial personal relationship with the artist, and her commitment to Matisse didn't waver when Gertrude Stein's allegiance shifted directly from Matisse to Picasso.

As the MFA sampling reveals, the biographical facts of the sisters' lives and the unique personalities of Etta and Claribel were inextricably woven into the nature of the collection. The way in which the collection was built -- when and why each work was added -- proved to be a direct reflection of the two women and the era in which they lived. Accordingly, the sisters didn't follow the collecting patterns of other early Matisse devotees -- Dr. Albert C. Barnes in Merion, Pennsylvania, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morosov in Moscow, Michael and Sarah Stein in Paris, for instance -- who often showed more adventuresome taste and grander ambition when selecting their Matisses. Rather, Claribel and Etta chose each work of the Matisse collection from an idiosyncratic perspective and without reference to current critical opinion.

Simply put, the Cones bought what they liked, with an eye to how it would fit in the heavily adorned decor of their surroundings. With few exceptions, the sisters seemingly took to heart Matisse's dictum that a painting should be like a comfortable armchair. The Cone Collection represents Matisse at his most conservative and traditional, and within a range of subject matter that is fundamentally luxe. Mostly, the Cones responded to that aspect of his art which can be broadly defined as portraiture. Whether portraits of models or of inanimate objects, such paintings spoke to the Cone sisters' responsiveness to tough, evocative figuration.

By the same token, George Shackelford, curator of European painting and sculpture at the MFA, has selected bold, singular images representative of the overriding strengths of the collection: Blue Nude; The Pewter Jug; Ballet Dancer Seated on a Stool; Seated Odalisque, Left Knee Bent, with Ornamental Background and Checkerboard; The Yellow Dress; Large Reclining Nude; Purple Robe and Anemones, among others. For those who missed the Matisse retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art last year, the 22 Matisse paintings and bronzes on loan are a rare opportunity to examine the breadth of the artist's discoveries, innovations and sensibilities.

Navigating the MFA's small galleries that showcase groups of Matisse's works, and viewing the examples displayed alongside paintings by other significant 20th-century artists, it's tempting to be hard on Matisse, this workaday sensualist who raised decoration to a level of panic. Images are slammed up to the surface; linear rhythms and color combinations register as willfully arbitrary patterns.

From Manet he learned that black, far from signifying an absence of rich and powerful hue, can read as a rich and powerful hue. Matisse also possessed the ultimate power of making a flat disk of yellow turn into a lemon, bathed in sunlit air. In Matisse's hands, color isn't so much liberated as it is animated. Seventy-some years have done little to diminish the impact of full-throttle chromatic intensity. His women are unidealized human forms with plain and chunky bodies. Later on he used more conventionally pretty models, but it's the flat-faced, indomitable women with curving stomachs and short, strong legs who are more powerful in their sexuality -- really, a kind of caricatured simplification of sexiness that never looks absurd.

In Matisse's brilliant interiors and lush portraits, every detail is a surprise, the whole orchestration a riot. To gaze at such works is to comprehend Matisse's single-minded convention that there should be pictures to hang on walls -- never mind why. That idea hardly seems a response to a world at war, in which many of his friends were killed, gassed or wounded. But war, like age and pain, is not to be seen in Matisse's works. He sought a world within a world, a space of pleasure, a room in which the inhabitants are wrapped in beauty. For Matisse, anything outside that reality did not count. His task was to spread joy, to create a world in which it was possible to be happy. Matisse's world is one of palpable hedonism, a world that is luxurious and has an atmosphere of rich fabrics, rare porcelains, floral opulence, heavy carpets, sumptuous cushions, ornamental women, and windows through which we glimpse yet another luminous world of palms, bright seas and manicured gardens. It's easy to distrust Matisse's realm, so much like a bubble of intimacy, when our world seems so remote, threatened, fragmented and bleak. These days, we almost expect an artist's work to be political, to be critical of the established order. Perhaps Matisse's sheer congestion of pattern and possessions, combined with virtues of beauty and calm, evokes guilty, quite delicious pleasures.

What is remarkable about Matisse, of course, is his consistent effort to create an art of Zen-like happiness in defiance of the misery and tragedy of the world. Matisse makes a science of pleasing (his exotic odalisques seem far more about painting than they are about sex). He treats the entire cosmos, from intimate still life to grand landscape, as a kind of sensuous body, inherently desirable and pleasurable. In general, his attitude toward voluptuous models is no different from his attitude toward plants, vases or tables, all of which seemingly meld as emblems or arabesques. For Matisse, belief in pure form amounted to a moral conviction.

Even so, works like Blue Nude or Interior, Flowers and Parakeets prove that Matisse was not some sweet, graceful artist, but a painter of bodies and spaces created by the most basic picture-making means -- that is, nothing but nervous, animated line filled with large areas of color. Blue Nude erupts with distortions that energize the picture with exhilarating rawness. The blue doesn't seem like an attempt to capture the light, in the manner of the Impressionists. It feels like emotion, mostly: a membrane stretched over the body's pink skin and humming with eroticism. His gift for pure color, as well as his courage to gamble deeply and raise the stakes of all-over pattern and real motif, has distinguished him from a century of painters with a high-keyed, faux-naif luxury style.

So although Matisse took as his subject the props of bourgeois escapism, he sought (with marvelously enjoyable results) to create an art of therapy, of redemption, through his pleasure principle of color and his staggering sense of freedom.

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