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Henri Matisse
installation of Blue Nude and Large Reclining Nude
the Cone Collection
at the Baltimore Museum of Art

Henri Matisse
Large Reclining Nude

Photo from the BMA Cone Archive

Tyche of Antioch
late 4th century A.D.
in "Antioch: The Lost Ancient City," at the Baltimore Museum

Mosaics with Peacock
ca. 526-40 A.D.
in "Antioch"

Reliquary cross
mid-12th century
at the Walters Art Museum

Rubens vase
Early Byzantine
4th century
at the Walters

Hugo van der Goes
Donor with St. John the Baptist
ca. 1475-80

Savior Goddess Tara and Other Deities (The Green Tara)
Central Tibet
ca. 1705

Ritual box
18th century

Embracing Lovers with Sparklers
ca. 1775

Henry Darger
15 at Battle of Norma Catherine
at the American Visionary Art Museum

Malcah Zeldis
The Holocaust

Sava Sekulic
Man Letter

Alan Shields
in "25 Years of Dieu Donné Papermill"
at the Maryland Institute

Michelle Stuart
Zoomorph: Air

Linda Benglis
Prey Being
Bubblin' Baltimore
by N. F. Karlins

Two of Baltimore's oldest art institutions have recently unveiled revamped spaces and collections. Other art venues have opened new shows. The harbor area and outlying areas seem as vibrant as ever.

On a recent visit of a few days (that I regretted could not stretch into a few weeks), I started out at the Baltimore Museum of Art with its fabulous Cone Collection of works by Henri Matisse. Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone made frequent visits to Paris, where they visited former Baltimore friends Gertrude and Leo Stein, met Picasso and Matisse, and bought lots of art. Consisting of more that 500 pieces by Matisse (with additional works by other artists, 113 by Picasso), the Cone Collection is considered by many to be the most comprehensive collection by Matisse.

A two-year renovation that opened in April has expanded the exhibition space by 45 percent and installed selected pieces in eight thematic galleries. The attractions include a gallery devoted to small, focused changing exhibitions, and a touch-screen virtual tour of the Cone sisters' conjoined Baltimore apartments on Eutaw Place.

The virtual tour, a collaboration between the museum and the University of Maryland, Baltimore, is one of the best integrations of high-tech in a museum context that I've seen. Using archival photographs, the programmers were able to model 600 objects in 3-D. A simple touch of the screen sends you roving through the sisters' rooms. You can select individual pieces to scrutinize as they appear, or change direction and investigate a different area.

Nearby, a selection of furniture and objets d'art once belonging to the globe-trotting sisters -- lots of intricate lace, chunky jewelry, books, textiles -- is installed along with a generous selection of paintings by Matisse and other artists.

The installation of the new galleries combines just the right number of three- and two-dimensional pieces. The rooms are airy and inviting. Matisse's odalisques have never been more seductive, yet I came away with a new appreciation of his still-lifes. Every visitor will find his or her own favorites.

The Focus Gallery features "Picasso: Cubism to Classicism" until Feb.3, 2002. It is the third exhibition highlighting the Picasso drawings in the Cone Collection. The Cone sisters didn't care much for Cubism but collected drawings, prints and books by Picasso from early in his career and from the 1920s and 1930s. The Cubism pieces come from other sources and complement the sisters' holdings.

The Baltimore Museum is also presenting a traveling show, "Antioch: The Lost Ancient City," through Dec. 30. One of the four great cities of the Roman Empire (the others being Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria), Antioch was rediscovered in the 1930s after succumbing to earthquakes, invasions and other disasters. The Baltimore was one of four participating institutions -- along with the Worcester Art Museum, Princeton University and Musées Nationaux de France (Louvre) -- in the dig. Organized by the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Mass., the exhibition brings together holdings from all four and other collections as well.

The mosaics are especially stunning. The Baltimore's courtyard normally holds 28 Antioch mosaics, some of which have been moved to join others with which they were originally unearthed. A reconstructed dining room floor from the early 2nd c. AD has a striking suite of them. Multiple patterns surround a scene with Herakles and Dionysos in a drinking contest, bracketed by mosaics of a dancing maenad and jolly satyr. Plump Dionysos is clearly the winner, turning over his cup to signal his victory, while Herakles looks a bit dizzy.

The glass, metalwork, jewelry, gaming pieces, libation vessels and wall fragments give viewers an excellent idea of what upper class daily life was like from about 100 to 500 AD. Military equipment, religious and cult objects add other dimensions.

"Antioch: The Lost City," already seen at the Worcester Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art, closes in Baltimore on Dec. 30, 2001. Although the exhibition ends its tour then, you can still purchase a catalogue of the show. It's published by the Princeton University Press in association with the Worcester Art Museum and costs $64 in hardback, $29.95 in paper.

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Further downtown, the Walters Art Museum debuted a three-year renovation of its 1974 Centre Street building in late October with a new permanent reinstallation of works spanning 5,000 years. "Wondrous Journeys: The Walters Collection from Egyptian Tombs to Medieval Castles" fills 39 galleries spread over two floors. Other celebratory special shows include a show of maps in a new gallery devoted to maps and manuscripts, a show of 19th-century American paintings from the permanent collection, and an installation by contemporary artist Dennis Adams.

Concentrating of the reinstallation, I can vouch for the effective historical groupings that shun the "masterpiece only" idea -- though there are plenty of masterpieces sprinkled about. The strengths of the Walters have been played up with more Byzantine ivories on display and, for the first time, a large number of pieces from the institution's Ethiopian holdings, said to be the finest outside of that country, and its huge collection of Russian icons.

All these works are integrated into a sweeping tour of civilizations along with such well-loved treasures as the Rubens vase and Hugo van der Goes's Donor with St. John the Baptist. The Rubens vase is an early Byzantine agate vessel, about 7 and ½ inches high, with a gold rim that once belonged to Rubens after passing through the hands of several noble and royal collections. Deeply undercut tendrils and leaves cover the entire surface. The small panel painting by van der Goes of Ghent is a moving depiction of a Renaissance man at his devotions attended by an equally realistic St. John.

Comfy benches and a random-access audiotour that you can customize (it even includes musical selections!) will appeal to first-time and repeat visitors alike. The walls are gray, not my favorite color, but they work well with the dramatic track lighting. On the second floor, a bright mosaic wall map of the ancient world gives the geographically challenged a good idea of where major sites were located. It's by Baltimore tile artist Rick Shelley.

A real coup for the museum is to be found in its new special exhibition galleries on the first floor. More than 150 works are being presented from one of the finest south Asian art collections in private hands. "Desire and Devotion: Art from India, Nepal, and Tibet in the John and Berthe Ford Collection" highlights relationships between Hindu and Buddhist art and the often sensual representations of union with the divine. The Fords, long-time Walters's supporters, have announced that some of their treasures will be taking up permanent residence at the Walters at the close of the show's tour.

Standouts are The Green Tara, an 11th century "thanka" that is considered a landmark in Tibetan art, an 18th-century silver Tibetan ritual box dedicated to a protective female deity with demons attacked by scorpions on the sides, and a slew of sexy Indian miniatures. One particularly endearing drawing from Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow, from around 1775 shows Embracing Lovers with Sparklers. Their diaphanous outer garments are as profoundly delicate as their passion is deep. The male lover may allude to the Mughal emperor Jahangir (reigned 1605-27).

"Desire and Devotion" may be seen at the Walters Art Museum through Jan. 13, 2002. It will be shown at the Santa Barbara (Ca.) Museum of Art, Mar. 2-June, 2, 2002; the Albuquerque Museum, Sept. 7, 2002-Jan. 5, 2003; and the Birmingham (Ala.) Museum of Art, Mar. 9, 2003-May 25, 2003.

A catalogue, published by Philip Wilson Publishers of London, is available online and in bookstores for $50 hardcover, $30 softcover.

*          *          *
The American Visionary Art Museum near the harbor had scheduled its museum-filling show, "The Art of War and Peace," before the United States was attacked on 9/11. It premiered on Oct. 6, 2001, and now takes on even greater significance.

Chicago-based curator Michael Bonesteel located more war material -- most of it protesting war -- than representations of peace, perhaps because war is more dramatic. It certainly is in the work of Irving Norman (1906-1989). Born in Poland, Norman gained a reputation for his "Social Surrealism" in California. His mammoth, roughly 9 by 20 foot triptych War and Peace from the 1960, along with his other huge oils, are a real find.

Better known are Henry Darger's long watercolor panels featuring the seven Vivian sisters battling evil in the form of numerous uniformed men. Bonesteel recently completed a book on Darger's visual works and voluminous writings. Italian-born American Louis Monza, a prolific artist in several media, served in WWI but most of his paintings here, like The Fall of Paris, deal with WWII.

Among the other Americans here, the recently deceased Howard Finster, the Alabama artist and preacher, has an installation featuring many of his smaller pieces warning about sin and the heavenly rewards of a Godly life.

In a show filled with hundreds of works, those of Malcah Zeldis shine. Both her Peaceable Kingdoms and portraits of religious and ethical leaders, like Mother Teresa and Lincoln in Richmond, are appealing, as is her charming imaginary tête-à-tête with Anne Frank, Anne and I. Still, most haunting are her atrocity paintings, like The Holocaust from 1975. Her use of flaming colors is as wild and unimaginable as the subject.

Works by many non-American outsiders like the Soldaten in acrylic by the German Josef Wittlich, guns made of cast-off materials by Frenchman Andre Robillard, and textiles with themes of suffering and peace woven by Peruvian Edwin Sulca are part of this exciting show that finds room for all this, plus Hmong story quilts and a couple of Kiowa ledger drawings.

"The Art of War and Peace" remains at the American Visionary Art Museum through Sept. 1, 2002. I only wish that there were a catalogue for this immensely interesting show.

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The touring show "Rags to Riches: 25 Years of Paper Art from Dieu Donné Papermill" recently rolled into the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. New York's own very special place for paper-makers and artists who use or would like to learn how to use paper is celebrating its 25th anniversary with commissioned work by three artists and a survey of artistic practice with paper.

Donna Stein has pulled together a visually impressive show and documented the many techniques used through the years at Dieu Donné in a catalogue that will be a must-have for many artists. (It's $25 in paper from Dieu Donné or any of the show's venues.)

Alan Shields, a veteran maker of paper multiples, was one of the three commissioned artists. He has created constructions made from wire and wire screens dipped in vividly colored pulp. The cheery architectural results both hang from the wall and, in the case of the upside-down ziggurat Stepwell, sit on a tabletop.

Free, gestural drawings by Michelle Stuart that conjure up insects and other small creatures are made of string dipped into sepia-toned wax, layered between sheets of paper, and finished with a tacking iron. Organized into wall-size grids, these encaustic drawings inspire wonder at the natural world and admiration of the sensibility behind them.

Squirmy and wormy are the saffron-colored tubes that crawl out of the wall made by Lynda Benglis. Coiled metal wiring, manipulated by the artist, is enclosed in pigmented paper. Inspired by the Zuni Indians of the American Southwest, these mysterious presences carry titles like Brother Animals and Prey Being.

The exhibition, already seen at Michigan State University's Kresge Art Museum, will close on Dec. 16 at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Meyerhoff Gallery. "Rags to Riches" will be at the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Kansas State University, Apr. 2-June 30, 2002; Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, Long Island, N.Y., Nov. 23, 2002-Jan. 26, 2003; Milwaukee Museum of Art, Apr. 11-June 22, 2003; and Fort Wayne (Ind.) Museum of Art, July 26-Nov.2, 2003.

N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.