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Twin Peaks

Matisse Picasso

Catalog of the exhibition by Elizabeth Cowling, John Golding, Anne Baldassari, Isabelle Monod-Fontaine, John Elderfield, and Kirk Varnedoe
an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Queens, February 13–May 19, 2003.
Tate Publishing/Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Museum of Modern Art, 398 pp., $60.00, $35.00 (paper)

1.

One day during the 1930s, Henri Matisse walked through the door of La Coupole on the Boulevard du Montparnasse and a visible thrill ran through the restaurant. As waiters raced forward to greet him Matisse turned to his companion and murmured, not without an edge of irritation, “They think I’m Picasso.”1

This incident reveals something about the relationship between the two artists, who are now the subjects of a large exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which many have been foolishly seeing as a kind of championship match for the title of greatest artist of the twentieth century. Throughout the greater part of their careers, Picasso was better known and his art was more widely discussed and more seriously considered. Although Matisse cannot be said to have lived in Pi- casso’s shadow, the much-publicized presence of his precocious younger rival certainly blocked out some of the light that he quite reasonably expected to fall on him. In Picasso’s later years, he became as much a public figure as a movie star or leading politician. He liked to ham it up for photographers like David Douglas Duncan, and images of his family life were reproduced in magazines throughout the world. That would have been unthinkable for Matisse.

From the time they first met, in 1906, Matisse and Picasso were in direct competition with each other—initially for the preference of their first patrons, Leo and Gertrude Stein, then for the acclaim of other artists and critics, and eventually for the position of leader of the European avant-garde. Matisse, nearly a dozen years older than Picasso, was first to achieve all of these aims, but in every case his triumph was short-lived. Just as Matisse appeared to have command of the field, Picasso would overtake him. Matisse was acutely aware of the implicit comparison that was constantly being made between them and he was often uneasy about it. In 1918, when they were given their first two-man show in a Parisian gallery, he was convinced that Picasso and his friends were out to undermine him by the way they publicized the exhibition. In 1945, when he and Picasso were about to have their second joint exhibition, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Matisse wrote that showing alongside Picasso made him feel “as if I were going to cohabit with an epileptic. How well-behaved I will look (even a bit silly to some) next to his pyrotechnics.”

Shortly after they met, Matisse remarked about their different temperaments, “North Pole and South Pole.” While Matisse lived in a settled bourgeois style and was known to be obsessively private and discreet, the bohemian Picasso seemed free of inhibi- tions and his art was often interpreted as a kind of autobiographical confession, frequently charged with violent and explosively erotic themes. Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with modern art is aware of how the various women in his life are supposed to have affected the rich variety of his styles.

During the first few years they knew each other, Matisse and Picasso were actively engaged in redefining the very nature of painting. Being collected by the Steins not only meant selling them paintings but also going to their Saturday night salons, where each artist would see the work of the other hanging next to his own. So each was constantly aware of what the other was doing, and their works frequently served as a direct prod or source of inspiration for the other. A number of the key paintings in the dialogue of those years—such as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Matisse’s Blue Nude and Bathers with a Turtle—figure prominently in the early part of the Museum of Modern Art exhibition. Even now, almost a hundred years after they were made, their energy and freshness take the viewer’s breath away. Seeing them, you experience some of the same excitement that was felt a century ago by those who witnessed the birth of modern painting.

2.

The presence of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Bathers with a Turtle gives the Museum of Modern Art exhibition a distinct edge over the two previous versions of the show, in London and Paris. Both of these enigmatic and powerful paintings are large and raw representations of female figures, and they are at the summit of the two artists’ early achievements. Placed side by side at the entrance to MOMA’s spacious gallery in Queens, which is filled with superb examples of their intense and inventive works in the years leading up to World War I, the two paintings set the tone for the entire first half of the exhibition, which seems to radiate out from the gateway they provide.

To an unusual degree, the exhibition takes its point of departure from the accompanying catalog, which sets forth the basic structure of the show, in which thirty-four pairs or groups of works by the two painters are related formally or thematically and shown together although they were not necessarily done at the same time. The groupings include, to mention only a few examples, portraits, self-portraits, paintings that are relatively abstract, and many nudes. These groups of works serve as the subjects of the thirty-four essays written by the six co-curators, which are based on a stimulating combination of close viewing and wide reading, and which are full of acute insights. The rationale for the groupings varies, ranging from specific instances in which the painters influenced or inspired each other to the more coincidental sorts of resemblances or “affinities” that frequently occur in the two artists’ work.

Picasso’s famous portrait of Gertrude Stein (1905–1906), for example, is paired with a 1917 portrait by Matisse—both apparently chosen for their formidable, mask-like faces and for their affinities with Ingres’s famous portrait of Louis-François Bertin, whom Manet had wittily dubbed “the Buddha of the bourgeoisie.” Matisse’s The Studio, quai Saint-Michel of 1916–1917 is set next to Picasso’s Painter and Model of 1928, which is related by subject but not by style, while Matisse’s nearly abstract The Moroccans of 1916 adjoins Picasso’s Three Musicians of 1921, a comparison based on their similarly large size and imaginative use of black. At the end of the show, two elegiac works painted decades apart—Matisse’s 1918 Violinist at the Window and Picasso’s The Shadow of 1953—are paired because in each the artist depicts himself as if he were standing behind his own body.

The Museum of Modern Art exhibition gains strength from the willingness of the New York curators, John Elderfield and Kirk Varnedoe, to cross the boundaries of the catalog’s groupings and provide, in the ways they have hung the paintings, intriguing vistas and thought-provoking instances of call and response. While looking at Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, for example, Matisse’s Blue Nude is within sight on a farther wall off to the left, reminding us of the importance of that particular Matisse to Picasso’s work at the time; also visible is Picasso’s Still Life with a Skull, which grew directly out of Les Demoiselles and even contains a partial image of a figure resembling the figures in Les Demoiselles. Juxtaposed against this angular and brooding Picasso still life is Matisse’s fluid and sensuous Goldfish and Sculpture of 1912, which strikingly contrasts their different approaches to still life painting. And just within eyeshot of those two works is Matisse’s other great goldfish painting, the somber and ferociously abstracted Goldfish and Palette of 1914. The purposeful flow of the gallery spaces and the placement of drawings and sculptures in relation to the paintings create intricate networks of relationships that instill a sense of excitement and discovery, even of exhilaration.

A sequence showing eight vertical paintings of women by the two artists, completed between 1907 and 1917, is especially impressive and shows how much of the vocabulary of modern painting they created and refined during those years. The different ways in which the hands are rendered in these paintings—ranging from specific well-articulated grasping gestures to mere scumbles of paint—offer an object lesson about the way each artist used clashes of style within individual works for expressive ends, and how deeply engaged they both were by ideas about the inherent arbitrariness of visual representation.2 The works from this period also reveal how carefully the two artists were looking at each other’s work, and how thoroughly they were able to absorb what they took from it. As Elderfield aptly describes it, the two artists often exchanged visual ideas “not simply by borrowing from the other, but…by discovering oneself in the other and, therefore, the other in oneself.”

During these early years, Matisse and Picasso were the strongest and most influential advocates of a new kind of painting. Both were concerned with the autonomy of the picture as distinct from what the picture represented, and they both aspired to emphasize the psychic rather than the physical reality of the world around them. The spiritual and magical qualities of many of their works from this period make it clear that one of their common goals was to create a kind of painting that could evoke the sacred through objects in the everyday world. To do this, they emphasized the way the objects they depicted retained at least some of their physical identity but were also transformed into something else. Transparent or translucent effects had an important part in the work of both painters at this time, allowing them to suggest paradoxically that their subjects were at once material and disembodied. They each treated forms in a distinctive, elliptical way, enabling them to evoke their subjects without fixing them in a specific place.

Both artists were interested in trying to depict inner and outer realities in the same image, and to do so they invented radically original sorts of expressive means. Picasso’s Harlequin of 1915 may be his first clear depiction of the sort of divided personality that would become one of the staples of his later imagery. In this painting elements of two separate figures are combined in one, as if to suggest the tension between different states of mind within the same person. In Matisse’s adjoining Goldfish and Palette, the artist’s body is suggested but not clearly depicted at the right side of the picture, so we sense his spectral presence somewhat as he might discern his own body while engaged in the act of painting—as present but not entirely visible.

Within the formal vocabulary that Matisse and Picasso were then developing, the violently intersecting and overlapping planes and tensely worked surfaces of their paintings can be understood as attempts to project inner states of feeling commingled with descriptions of things in the external world. Although pictorial ideas like these have now become commonplace, even conventional, seeing side by side the actual paintings in which the ideas were worked out conveys a vivid sense of how disturbingly original those pictures were at the time. The wall on which Harlequin and Goldfish and Palette are hung, along with Picasso’s monumental Man Leaning on a Table and Matisse’s starkly distilled Piano Lesson, is not only one of the high points of the exhibition but it also presents one of the most powerful and moving ensembles of modern pictures that anyone is likely to see together for a very long time. Despite the obvious stylistic differences in these pictures, they also confirm just how many underlying concerns Matisse and Picasso shared.

  1. 1

    On me prend pour Picasso.” Recounted by Jane Simone Bussy in “A Great Man,” The Burlington Magazine, February 1986, p. 81.

  2. 2

    For an excellent recent study of the stylistic tensions in Picasso’s work, see Elizabeth Cowling, Picasso: Style and Meaning (Phaidon, 2002).

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