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)


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.


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