Studio International

Published 02/09/2002

Matisse Picasso

Tate Modern, London: 11 May–18 August 2002

Les Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris: 25 September 2002–6 January 2003

Museum of Modern Art, New York: 13 February–19 May 2003

Matisse Picasso at Tate Modern has just finished, but moves on to Paris and New York later this year and early next respectively. One of the finest exhibitions of many years, it is a collaboration between the Tate, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux/ Musée Picasso with the Musée National d’Art Moderne/ Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It is primarily a selection of paintings, but includes sculptures and a fine section of works on paper. The exhibition has been jointly curated by a team of six curators, two from each city: Elizabeth Cowling (Edinburgh/London), John Golding (London), Anne Baldassari and Isabelle Monod-Fontaine (Paris), and John Elderfield and Kirk Varnedoe (New York). The catalogue is scholarly and comprehensive, thus keeping alive the marvellous connections and interaction between the artists and their works long after the exhibition has moved on.

The cost of the exhibition (sponsored by Ernst and Young) has been astronomical. The value of the works exceeds £1 billion. It is unlikely that such an exhibition will ever be mounted again. Its existence is largely due to the persuasive and determined John Golding, Chief Curator.

For the past six years, he has had to tussle with reluctant lenders in London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles and Leningrad, negotiate with the autocratic and protective heirs of the respective artists’ estates and impose his vision of a show that will change our perception of how modern art was shaped.1

John Golding is a painter and distinguished scholar. He is author of Cubism 1907—14. In curating Picasso’s Picassos (1981) and Picasso Sculpture/ Painter (1995) at the Tate, he gained the confidence of the families. The visual connections and groupings of works are the product of a painter’s eye. In addition, the exhibition has been supported by a vast team of assistants and experts. It is an unmissable exhibition. Indeed it is in effect, three exhibitions in one: a Matisse retrospective, a Picasso retrospective and an exhibition devoted to their relationship and their remarkable visual repartee.

Matisse and Picasso are widely recognised as the two most influential artists of the twentieth century ‘twin giants of modern art’. The exhibition explores the close relationship between the two artists. John Golding states emphatically, ‘This exhibition tells one of the most compelling and rewarding stories in the entire history of art’.2 In a recent interview he said, ‘For the first time, you can see how two great artists interacted on each other — how simultaneously they fed off each other. It’s one of the great love stories of all time. They were totally complementary and each of them realised instinctively his need for the other’.3

The relationship from 1906, when they first met, to 1917 was at times tempestuous; there was open rivalry between them. At a time of dramatic innovation when some of the finest art was produced the two artists vied for position and reacted dramatically to each other’s work. In 1917, Matisse moved from Paris to Nice. Picasso became more involved with the Surrealists. During the Second World War Matisse was isolated in Nice, Picasso lived in occupied Paris. After the war Picasso moved to the south of France. There, their relationship really blossomed. Reviewers have been apt to portray the Matisse Picasso exhibition as a Heavyweight Boxing match with Picasso in the blue corner and Matisse in a multicoloured corner. According to certain critics we will argue forever as to which artist is the best and the most important. Golding concedes that, ‘Picasso is the greater in the sense that he revolutionised more aspects of art — he’s a much more volatile, innovative artist. Matisse was the greatest colourist of his age but always more restrained’.

Matisse’s art (b.1869) was in part a response to the pain he experienced in much of his life. When he was only twenty, recovering from a serious illness (in Northern France), he decided to abandon his legal career and pursue his true vocation as an artist. He experienced severe poverty and self-doubt until he was 40 when the Russian merchant Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin began to buy paintings. When Matisse met Picasso in 1906 he was beginning to feel confident and self-assured. A vital experience for Matisse came in 1912 when he first visited Morocco. The glorious colours there, the simple exotic forms were liberating. In 1917 his move to Nice accorded him the opportunity to paint freely. Illness again, in 1941, forced him to compromise his activity when cancer confined him to his bed for the rest of his life. Far from going into decline he spent his last years in bed creating the most extraordinary and wonderful paper cutouts and designing the Chapel in Vence. He died in 1954. The exhibition includes a number of very fine examples of this late period. Matisse’s well-known statement on art establishes the very different nature of his work from that of Picasso’s, ‘A work of art must carry in itself its complete significance and impose it upon the beholder even before he can identify the subject matter. What I seek is an art of balance, purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which might be for every mental worker, be he a businessman or a writer, like an appeasing influence, like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue’.5

Picasso’s artistic career began with the recognition of his precocious work as a young child. He was a dramatic individual and all his life he maintained a political conviction: indeed he remained a member of the Communist Party and was dedicated to the Peace Movement. His most famous anti-war work Guernica, painted during the Spanish Civil War, is one of the most famous and powerful anti-war paintings of the 20th century.

Matisse and Picasso’s personal and artistic relationship dates back to 1906 when they were both regular visitors to the studio of Gertrude and Leo Stein. Both were aware of each other’s work already, but only met at the introduction of the Steins at the time Picasso was painting his famous Portrait of Gertrude Stein. In the early stage of their artistic friendship there was overt rivalry. In March 1906 the Salon des Independents exhibited Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre, which Picasso was deeply affected by. Matisse was then celebrated as the leader of the Fauve Movement, ‘which represented all that was most advanced and audacious in young French painting’. Yet in old age Picasso admitted, ‘You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he’.6

The two personalities were quite opposite. Matisse was older than Picasso by 12 years. He had trained as a lawyer, dressed immaculately and was erudite. Although he had experienced hardship earlier in his career he was, by 1906, quite self-assured. Matisse was criticised for being bourgeois all of his life. Picasso, on the other hand, produced precocious and brilliant work as a child and as a young man. Like Matisse he was always very prolific in his output. Success came quickly and he possessed great self-confidence. John McEwan observes: ‘Picasso’s need to break the bounds of convention was the result of burning self-confidence; Matisse’s search for artistic peace and purity the compensation for long travail’.7 Picasso’s personality was more volatile, ‘He could be capable of unkindness, even of cruelty, but such was his magnetism that those whom he had hurt or wounded invariably were irresistibly attracted back to him. He was elemental. Like nature itself he was unpredictable and he ignored all conventions: a born bohemian’.8

Gertrude Stein probably exaggerated the animosity between the two artists. Matisse later recalled that the early years of their contact were characterised by ‘intellectual generosity’, and that ‘disputes were friendly’.9 Intense curiosity, Golding observes, was an essential element in their early relationship; they visited each other’s studios frequently. In 1907 they exchanged pictures: Picasso gave Pitcher, Bowl and Lemon, 1907. Matisse gave Portrait of Marguerite, 1906. Similar in size and medium only, the two works show the artists at different stages of their careers and with quite different preoccupations and temperamental dispositions.

In terms of freedom from convention, Matisse had progressed further. If Bonheur de Vivre, 1905—6, characterises Matisse’s departure from academic convention and the development of a life-enhancing colourist language, the portrayal of an Arcadian dream, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, is a cataclysmic work that redefined painting in a most fundamental way. These two paintings are sadly absent from the Tate Modern; Les Demoiselles will be included when the show goes to New York in May 2003. They are pivotal works and are discussed accordingly in the catalogue.

Les Demoiselles is a complex painting that brings together many of Picasso’s interests at the time. A brothel scene, and the product of numerous studies and previous works, Picasso was also responding to Matisse’s experience of North Africa (Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra, 1907) and his collection of African masks. In Matisse’s work the female figure is by conventional standards quite ugly; in Picasso’s they are quite damned. The figures cease to be individuals — each aspect of their bodies exists only as elements in the overall concept. But there is also a vicious, iconoclastic treatment of the human form — a complete disenchantment is in evidence. In philosophical terms Nietzche’s stormy sea pervades the presentation of the figures. Although the figures in Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle, 1908 are ugly from an academic viewpoint, there is nonetheless tenderness in their demeanour. Matisse’s blues and greens create an Arcadian spirit in so much of his work. Picasso used African masks for their formal properties but also to denote a disenchantment with Western civilisation: implied is the view that in ‘primitive’ societies, a direct and authentic experience of life could be made available. Matisse, like most people at the time who saw Les Demoiselles, disliked it intensely. Indeed he felt profoundly threatened by it. Matisse collected African art but his work was not greatly affected by it. Picasso on the other hand, embraced their ‘anti-aesthetic’ qualities.

What Matisse and Picasso were doing in 1906—08 was not unusual. But figure compositions traditionally required that they be composed so as to tell a story; in consequence, such compositions had the complementary functions of describing an internal narrative and finding a place in the external narrative of the history of painting. Matisse and Picasso, in 1906—08, challenged the necessity that figure compositions describe an internal narrative. In doing so, they took on the complementary function of challenging the external narrative of historical continuity. Both Les Demoiselles and Bathers were thus interpreted as debasing and overturning the traditions of Western painting.10

Where Picasso’s greatest influences for Les Demoiselles came from tribal art and the art of Paul Cézanne, Matisse’s response in Bathers was influenced by Italian art of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, for example Giotto.

Cubism enabled Picasso to ‘possess his subjects’11 by viewing them from all angles, not just a single point. Matisse found Cubism too austere and cerebral and the suppression of colour was contrary to his primary passion. Matisse claimed ‘Picasso shatters forms — I am their servant’. Golding continues, ‘The Cubism of Picasso and Braque involved the reinvention of the vocabulary of painting (and subsequently of sculpture) in the interests of creating an art that was representational but anti-naturalistic. Matisse’s art, throughout his entire life, is tinged by naturalism. For him, art ‘consists of a meditation on nature, on the expression of a dream which is always inspired by reality’.12

Between 1914 and 1917 Matisse felt he could not ignore Cubism. He was influenced to some extent by Juan Gris in Collioure in 1914. By engaging with certain aspects of Cubism, Matisse produced a number of works that were rigorous in their structure. Indeed, by allowing a dialogue with Picasso during these years (and also with Gris) Matisse strengthened the formal structure of his painting. By the outbreak of the war in 1914, Picasso and Matisse were recognised as the two greatest living artists. In Golding’s view, in spite of the visual splendour of the great majority of Matisse’s art, he was in the final analysis ‘more pondered, more intellectually calculated, than that of Picasso’.13 On the surface Matisse has been seen as sensual and therefore not intellectual and yet an artist like Milton Avery, an absolute disciple of Matisse and a precursor of Abstract Expressionism in America, created paintings that were part of a direct dialogue with Matisse. And yet in certain instances they are also slightly mocking in response to what he believed was Matisse’s tendency to be too serious.

Matisse and Picasso both achieved works that broke from established convention; at times these were iconoclastic in the process; great dramas took place on the canvas itself. Certain brushstrokes in Les Demoiselles, for example, appear to have been carved in paint rather than applied in a normal manner. The process of discovery was at times a learned affair, with thousands of drawings and preparatory works attributable to both artists. And yet the late paper cutouts of Matisse have a purity and candour that comes from Matisse’s unique approach. They are a form of sculpting in time — mid-air with colour, not with a brush or with a pen, but with scissors. The true exploratory quality of both artists is one of the most exciting and moving aspects of this exhibition. The dialogue they also maintained is so informed that it does in fact alter one’s perception of the way their art evolved.

During the war years, the relationship between Matisse and Picasso changed when Picasso created a number of naturalistic, Ingresque portraits. Further, he worked with Jean Cocteau and Serge Diaghilev and composer Erik Satie. He travelled to Rome; in 1918 he married ballerina Olga Khoklova. In the 1920s he produced large, neo-classical works. Living in Nice, Matisse’s work became more naturalistic. At this stage the interaction between the two artists was probably the least important. In fact, Matisse did not wish to see Picasso, describing him as a ‘bandit waiting in ambush’. Unlike Picasso, Matisse was extremely self-sufficient creatively; he in fact shunned social activity and artistic collaborations. Matisse tended towards being reclusive though he did visit Renoir and was increasingly interested in the work of Pierre Bonnard. Picasso loved the theatre, women, and social interaction and disliked Bonnard intensely.

Golding adds to his list of wedges between Matisse and Picasso at this stage, the Surrealist ethos that increasingly dominated Paris in the 1920s.

The interchangeability of imagery, particularly of facial and bodily parts, was something in which the Surrealists were to revel. Picasso never became a true Surrealist, primarily because he was unable to approach the external world, to use a phrase of André Breton’s ‘with eyes closed’. Surrealism’s ideal way of facing perceived reality. Nevertheless he was to become, together with De Chirico and Marcel Duchamp, one of the three major influences on visual Surrealism.14

The Surrealists proudly claimed Picasso as one of their own. Picasso exhibited with them, but Breton and Cocteau both disapproved of Matisse and so, to some extent, he fell from grace.

The female figure in the form of an anonymous woman becomes important in Matisse’s Nice work. He found the overtly erotic work of the Surrealists quite offensive. Oriental and languid, these women inhabit a dreamworld. Picasso’s nudes of the late twenties, on the other hand, are charged with an overwhelming sexuality. Picasso later admitted the sexual drama in these works denoted autobiographical qualities as his marriage to Olga floundered. Matisse’s private life remained private — no hint is given through his painting even when in 1940 he separated from his wife of many years.

Picasso used all aspects of life for his art. For Matisse, art was perhaps an alternative or substitute for life. Where Matisse produced beautiful odalisques in the 1920s, Picasso produced anti-odalisques.15 A new muse in Picasso’s life, however, in 1932, Marie-Thérèse Water, brought about a new artistic development, using ravishing colour. The many changes in Picasso’s work were considered by some critics to signify ‘too eclectic and by implication too intellectual an artist’.16

By 1922 both artists were achieving recognition in New York. From 1940—45 Matisse and Picasso did not see each other at all. By then, however, their friendship was firmly established. It was not possible during these war years for the two artists to see each other’s work on a regular basis although they exchanged a number of important paintings. Matisse underwent major surgery in 1941. As a result he painted less and concentrated on drawing. Both artists were internationally recognised by the end of the war, at which point the French government acquired major works from each artist. In the winter of 1945—46 their parallel exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was a symbolic pairing of the two.

In 1947 Picasso moved to the South of France. He and his partner Françoise Gilot visited Matisse fortnightly. In spite of their close friendship, Matisse believed that Picasso visited him primarily to steal his ideas and yet he obviously benefited from Picasso’s visits very much. Matisse enjoyed Picasso’s vitality and amusing character; Picasso enjoyed Matisse’s serene, peaceful disposition. Picasso greatly valued Matisse’s opinion on his work. Picasso was critical of Matisse’s involvement with the Chapel at Vence, suspicious as he was of any religious affiliation. Stations of the Cross, at Vence, interestingly reveals ‘one of Matisse’s rare and unwilling recognition of the existence of pain and suffering, of the tragic in life’.17 Appropriately these images show the clear influence of Picasso.

Matisse died in November 1954. In the years that followed, Picasso painted a series of works that are both forms of tribute and mourning. During 1963 and 1964 he painted studio interiors very much inspired by Matisse’s works on the same subject. By this stage however, Picasso was able to assert himself again and establish a total and dramatic vision in the form of graphic work and sculpture. ‘The final stages of Picasso’s activity as a sculptor relate him yet again to Matisse in that they involved the use of scissors and paper. Picasso had watched the evolution of Matisse’s decoupage with fascination’.18 The end of Matisse’s life and the years that followed it are profoundly moving. The visual signs and forms, worked on by Matisse over a lifetime, are taken by Picasso as a tribute to his great friend and fellow genius. The interaction is celebrated today thanks to the brilliant and subtle initiative of John Golding and Co.

1. John Whitely, Telegraph Magazine, London, May 5, p.52.
2. John Golding, ‘Introduction’, Matisse Picasso, Tate Publishing, London, 2002, p.13.
3. Golding interviewed by Whitley, op.cit., p.52.
4. Matisse, ‘Notes of a Painter’, in Jack Flam, Matisse on Art, Oxford, 1973. Revised edition, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1995.
5. Quoted by Golding, ‘Introduction’, op.cit., p.13.
6. John McEwan, Sunday Telegraph, May 12, 2002, Review, p.11.
7. Ibid, p.11.
8. Golding, op.cit., p.13.
9. John Elderfield, Catalogue, p.43.
10. Golding, ‘Introduction’, p.15.
11. Ibid, p.15
12. Ibid, p.15
13. Ibid, p.19
14. Ibid, p.20
15. Ibid, p.21
16. Ibid, p.24
17. Golding, Catalogue, p.301.

Janet McKenzie