DENVER — Color is perhaps the first thing one sees in a room hung with the work of Henri Matisse, the first impression that lingers, and maybe the last. He was, after all, first among the fauve artists - the "wild beasts" of color.
But there's so much more, as a traveling exhibition of paintings, drawings, and sculpture amply demonstrates. "Matisse from the Baltimore Museum of Art," at the Denver Art Museum, showcases some remarkable work by the modern master, though it is by no means a complete retrospective. Cutouts are notably missing.
In fact it is all from the Cone collection - a collection dictated by the taste of Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone. The spinster sisters from Baltimore inherited a great deal of money and indulged their taste in avant-garde art. They cultivated friendships with Leo and Gertrude Stein, Matisse, and other artists, and collected with a fervor - every summer would find them traveling in Europe on art-buying sprees.
Though they complained to each other through their lives of the backwardness of Baltimore, both ladies were engaged in the civic and cultural life of the city and loved it enough to endow it with their large collection.
And with the Cone ladies in mind, it helps bring the work into personal perspective. We find ourselves trying to peer through their eyes. They attended the famous Paris Salon D'Automne in October of 1905 where the breakthrough work of Rouault, Vlaminck, Marquet, Derain, and of course, Matisse, was exhibited. The following year, Etta met Matisse and bought her first two works from him.
Curators at the Denver Art Museum have been mindful of the Cone friendship with Matisse and arranged the collection in such a way as to evoke the ladies' presence with photographs, labels, and the drawings Matisse did of each of them. It's clear that their taste and interests dominate, just as their understanding of Matisse's enormous contribution to modern art contributes to our enjoyment.
In each room, the curators have been careful to allow the images to "speak" to one another - to reflect both Matisse's interest in delicate simplicity, and his interest in ornamentation. These features are not as opposed as they appear to be.
For example, on one wall of the first room, the highly decorative "Purple Robe and Anemones" (1937) and the more austere "Ballet Dancer Seated on a Stool" (1927) have essentially the same composition (rectangles with a circular form) and both include the figure of a woman. Both collapse foreground, middle ground, and background onto a single plane.
We are no longer looking through a "window" as we did with Renaissance perspective. The figures in these paintings are flattened and abstracted - and since they were created 10 years apart, "Purple Robe" is flatter, more abstract than "Ballet Dancer." The flowers in the vase on the round table in "Purple" blend into the wallpaper, as does the woman and her purple robe.
Matisse meant to imply reality beyond the picture plane. And all the elements possess meaning beyond what we see. He looked at exotic objects, which he assiduously collected his whole life, as "actors." The same pewter vase or pitcher appears in many different paintings over the years. The highly decorated wallpaper and the flowers, too, take on different functions in different paintings.
"A glass of water with a flower in it is different from a glass of water and a lemon," he said. "The object is an actor: A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a different role in ten different pictures" ("Matisse on Art" by Jack Flam, University of California Press).
* 'Matisse from the Baltimore Museum of Art' runs through June 25 at the Denver Art Museum. It then travels to the Birmingham (Ala.) Museum of Art, July 16-Sept. 10, and to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in October.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society