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The Cone Collection Comes Visiting : Baltimore's Prize Matisses, Picassos Stop Off at L.A. County Museum

October 06, 1985|WILLIAM WILSON | William Wilson is The Times' art critic.

Every art pilgrim's worst waking nightmare is to arrive at a favorite museum only to find it closed for repairs, or even for lunch.

At this very moment, there are travelers in the city of Baltimore whipping themselves into seizures because the Baltimore Museum's famous Matisses are not to be seen.

Where are the masterworks?

As of today, they are here. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has lucked into an exceedingly rare loan of a group of paintings and sculptures from the fabled Cone Collection, because the Baltimore Museum galleries are being modernized and the museum's directors decided to share treasures that would otherwise languish in storage.

The ensemble of 35 works by 12 legendary modern innovators is dubbed "The Spirit of Appreciation." It includes a Cezanne as magisterial as it is sensitive, a ferociously sophisticated Gauguin, a gentle Pissarro, volcanic Picassos and estimable concoctions by Vincent van Gogh, Jacques Lipchitz, Aristide Maillol, Marie Laurencin, Odilon Redon, Gustave Courbet and Felix Vallotton. California art lovers, however, are liable to feel the greatest affinity for 15 works by the artist who is not only arguably the greatest pure painter of the century but one who always seems to have lived here in spirit. Henri Matisse is Lotusland's kind of painter, and this exhibit includes such works as the once shocking 1907 "Blue Nude."

Then, of course, there are art lovers who actually prefer a good story to a problematical painting. They will have a fine time contemplating the curious lives of Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone, the proper Victorian Baltimore spinster sisters who came to be, along with Gertrude Stein and her siblings, among the earliest and most perceptive collectors of modern art.

The Cone clan started with a German-Jewish immigrant couple in the Baltimore pushcart-peddling trade. Thanks to two enterprising sons in that couple's brood of 13, the Cones became international export magnates in a single generation. Their accumulated fortune was to buy Claribel and Etta independence rather than conventional domesticity. Claribel was said to be too, uh, stupendous to be good wife material. Instead, she took the unusual step of becoming a medical doctor--although she never practiced.

Etta--horsy and retiring--followed the line of the dutiful old-maid daughter, acting as a kind of executive housekeeper for the family. But the sisters' real profession--in the fashion of the day--was shopping. Those formidable Victorian shoppers liked to descend on Europe and see how much of it they could stuff aboard capacious ocean liners. The Cones' transatlantic buying binges began in 1901 and continued for nearly 50 years. They bought enough to fill a museum--and finally did. Many of the acquisitions were the usual exotic memorabilia and furnishings, but of a quality that reflected study and natural connoisseurship. Their unusual plunge into radical art came when they rekindled an old friendship with the expatriate Steins in Paris. Gertrude and her brother, Leo, nurtured the Cones' dawning love of art and introduced them to Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

Picasso's mistress, Fernande Olivier, was palmed off as "Mme. Picasso," but even so, respectable Etta found them "appalling but romantic." Nevertheless, a friendship was struck. The Cones brought Picasso color comics from the Baltimore Sun and bought his drawings.

On his part, Picasso took one look at the strapping women and elegant men of the two families and pronounced: " Ils ne sont pas des hommes, ils ne sont pas des femmes--ils sont des Americains ." ("They are not men, they are not women--they are Americans.")

Fascinated as they were by the bohemian Picasso, "the Miss Etta Cones" (as he called them) felt more at ease with Matisse's professorial courtliness. They went on collecting his works for 20 years, often with the maestro's advice. They bought from the Steins when their friends needed money. Dr. Claribel waited until 1925 to acquire "Blue Nude" at auction. Even then, buying the painting publicly was a courageous act because "Blue Nude" was so controversial. When it was shown in New York's epochal Armory Exhibition of 1913, a copy was burned in effigy by an affronted citizenry.

Even in the informal surroundings in which I previewed the exhibition--the works were in storage and had to be lifted out of racks--that big painting exercises a riveting fascination. The central figure's awkward pose and strange torsions are forceful reminders that Homo sapiens is an animal, not a graceful automaton. At the same time, the resonant rhythms of the line and bold deployment of color add up to an object of almost ineffable beauty. Even after all these years, seeing "Blue Nude" is like hearing Stravinsky for the first time and realizing that his purposeful disharmonies uncover new levels of aesthetic truth. "Blue Nude" is one of those rare paintings that tilt our equilibrium but call us back after we've left the museum.

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