Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Collecting Art with Passion

Large Reclining Nude by Henri Matisse
I managed to catch the tail end of a fantastic exhibition held at the Vancouver Art Gallery called "Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore". It featured only a small fraction of the some 3,000 paintings, sculptures, textiles and objects they amassed.

The Cone sisters, Claribel and Etta were from a German-Jewish immigrant family. The patriarch Herman Kahn changed his name to Cone almost immediately upon arrival  in the United States in 1845.

At first the father set up a wholesale grocery business that did modestly well, but it was their brothers Moses and Ceasar who got into the textile business, supplying cotton to Levis Strauss and the family prospered. Their fortunes continued to increase when the Cone Mills Corporation supplied the army with uniforms during World War II.

From left: Claribel Cone, Gertrude Stein and Etta Cone
Claribel studied medicine but was not a practicing doctor, rather one involved in research, while younger sister Etta was an accomplished pianist and preferred to look after her aging parents.

But Etta surprised everyone when her brother gave her $300 to spend on furnishing her home and instead spent it on paintings by Theodore Robinson. She and Claribel got to know Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, and through them on a trip to Europe, the sisters met Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse and bought some of their early pieces.

Their relationship with Matisse flourished through correspondence that spanned over four decades. They bought pieces directly from the artist and their interest in collecting textiles influenced him to include colourful fabrics as backgrounds for his works. One famous work is Large Reclining Nude, where Matisse began experimenting with simplified forms and bold, flat planes of colour. He photographed the progression of the work for Etta, which compelled her to buy the painting in the end.

The sisters traveled often to Europe and would buy as much as they could carry back -- paintings, sculptures, textiles and books. They noted all their purchases down in ledgers which are useful for researchers today to learn more about their collection.

World War II prevented them from traveling and so they went on a shopping frenzy after the war was over. They went into a Parisian auction house and bought seven crates of paintings, including a vivid painting by Paul Gauguin called Woman of the Mango, featuring a Polynesian woman wearing a dress in a gorgeous deep purple holding a mango against a brilliant yellow background.

They also collected various textiles, mostly lace, but also embroidery and fabric from Japan and eastern Europe. The same goes for jewellery and other objets d'art.

Woman of the Mango by Gauguin
The two sisters lived in the Marlborough apartments in Baltimore and the exhibition showed a video reproduction of their home, the narrow corridors filled with art as well as each of the rooms. One time Matisse visited them and was so pleased to see that they lived and breathed art in their daily lives.

An interesting side story is the close relationship between Gertrude and Etta; while they may not have had a sexual relationship, it greatly affected Etta and this was evidenced by her jealously of Gertrude's later companion, Alice Toklas.

After Claribel died in 1929, Etta was in grief and was determined to put together a catalogue of their collection and privately publish it. The project took many years to complete, some 400 pages. Once word got around to museums about the sisters' collection, they came calling, hoping to acquire the works.

However, the sisters had already determined that the entire collection would go to The Baltimore Museum of Art, which it did upon Etta's death in 1949. The estimated value of the over 3,000 pieces in the Cone collection today is worth an estimated $1 billion.

They could have been like other society women, but the Cone sisters were avant garde -- seeing the future through art and at the same time encouraging artists to explore and create.

Van Gogh's Landscape with Figures
And at the same time they put together an amazing collection of pieces over the decades, not to show off their wealth or boast their culturedness, but simply because they loved each work for what it was.

Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore
Vancouver Art Gallery
May 26-September 30, 2012

VAG warning -- If you are compelled to take notes of any of the exhibitions at the VAG, do not bring a pen. I was unable to write down information about the show in my notebook because I was not allowed to use a pen, though pencil is fine and texting is better. This is such a bizarre rule as I have used a pen to take notes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, the Louvre and Musee d'Orsay and was never told I was not allowed to use this writing instrument.


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