Published: March 25, 2003
Masters of Modernism, Side by Side:
By A. L. Dunnington
NEW YORK CITY
The works of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, titans of modern art, are brought together in “Matisse Picasso,” a groundbreaking exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, Queens (MoMA QNS) that explores the complex personal and artistic relationship between two men who changed the course of art.
Assembling more than 130 works from around the world, this is the exhibit’s only American venue. The show, which has completed runs in London and Paris, is a collaborative effort between MoMA; Tate Modern, London; and the Reunion des musees nationaux/Musee Picasso, Musee national d’art moderne/Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
The exhibit’s timeline begins in 1906, the year Matisse and Picasso met through American collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein. Matisse, a Frenchman born to bourgeois parents in 1869, was already established as a major artist. Picasso, a Spaniard, born in 1891 to a painter and art teacher, was the ambitious young renegade nipping at his heels. Matisse became known as “King of the Fauves,” for his bold brushstrokes and radical use of color. Picasso was to become a founder of Cubism, a more analytical approach that explored the geometry of forms, and shattered realism to create increasingly abstract representations.
Viewing their brilliance side-by-side shows how the two artists evolved as they came to recognize each as the other’s true peer. Mounting the exhibit was a massive undertaking in itself: finding just the right Matisse to pair with just the right Picasso, to show how the two developed separately and together, exploring what seems at times like an elaborate clandestine collaboration, at other times, like out and out war.
“You’ve got to be able to picture side-by-side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time,” said Picasso, later in life, of the period starting roughly in 1907. “No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.”
The show begins with two self-portraits, each done in 1906. Viewed together, the paintings highlight the initial differences in style and image between the two.
Matisse’s “Self-Portrait,” 1906, oil on canvas, presents the artist, more than ten years Picasso’s senior, well established as a major player within the Paris art scene. His gaze challenges the viewer, provocatively portraying himself with the bold black lines and daring color schemes that helped define his art.
By contrast, Picasso’s “Self-Portrait with Palette,” 1906, oil on canvas, is muted and minimalist in color, and masklike in expression: the plain-shirted Picasso looks away from his audience. One hand holds a palette, while the other appears set to clutch a brush, but remains empty-handed — a gesture interpreted by some as homage to the death of Paul Cézanne, the iconoclastic French Impressionist who deeply influenced both Matisse and Picasso.
Two paintings completed shortly thereafter further show each artist drawing his line in the sand, tossing out a challenge to the other: Picasso’s “Boy Leading a Horse,” 1906, oil on canvas, is hung beside Matisse’s “Le Luxe I,” 1907, oil on canvas, an enigmatic work using color and simply drawn female figures. In both paintings the artists present mystical images that both compel and confuse.
Kirk Varnedoe, professor of art history at Princeton’s Institute for Advance Study, describes the paintings as “two great visions of Arcadian lyricism,” contrasting Picasso’s comparative conservatism to Matisse’s bolder use of color, and his reduction of the three mythic female figures to mere outlines. Picasso’s nude male adolescent is more traditional, sculptural, Varnedoe states, adding that: “…The feminine element in this Picasso is in the horse, this beautiful, elegant animal that the young boy seems to command to walk beside him by an act of magic.”
John Elderfield, MoMA’s chief curator at large, agrees that the absence of reins adds mystery to the Picasso work, which in turn resembles “…the strange subject of Matisse, where we think of a Venus coming from the water…but we don’t really know what’s going on.’
In both paintings, Elderfield says, the artists embrace the ancient tradition of storytelling, while subverting it by creating a story whose meaning is unclear.
Painted during roughly the same period, the two artists go mano a mano in what Elderfield refers to as “possibly the two most extraordinary paintings” in the exhibit: Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon,” 1907, oil on canvas, and Matisse’s “Bathers with a Turtle,” 1908, oil on canvas.
This pairing, on view at the MoMA exhibit only, shows the dramatically evolving contrast between the two: In 1907, Picasso saw Matisse’s “Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra,” whose shocking female proportions propelled Picasso toward greater radicalism in his own figures. The result, Picasso’s “Demoiselles,” also incorporated the masklike facial marks of African tribal art — to which Matisse had introduced Picasso — but which appalled viewers, including Matisse.
With this painting, it became clear to Matisse that Picasso was not only mocking some of Matisse’s earlier work, but was changing the course of painting. Matisse responded with “Bathers with a Turtle” the following spring.
“We know that when Matisse saw ‘Demoiselles’ he was astounded and shocked and dismayed,” Elderfield says. “It seemed so against all of the cultivated norms of Western art.”
Varnedoe calls “Demoiselles” anti-Matisse “…in its sense that sexuality is not the cause for a kind of lyric freedom, but a cause for deep anxiety.” As such, Picasso’s painting insulted Matisse’s idea of feminine beauty, of a desire to be consoling, reassuring, harmonious. In response, maintains Elderfield, was “Bathers with a Turtle,” which redefined and asserted Matisse’s own artistic identity.
“What Matisse does is to go to a different kind of so-called primitivism,” Elderfield says. Unlike the harsh assault of “Demoiselles,” “Bathers with a Turtle” is a contemplative, introverted piece.
A decade later, the creative counterpoint between the two is apparent in Picasso’s “Still Life with Pitcher and Apples,” 1919, oil on canvas, and Matisse’s “Bowl of Oranges,” 1916, oil on canvas. Where Picasso’s “Still Life” has a classical finish, suggestive of female sexuality in the curving fullness of the pitcher and the ripeness of its apples, Matisse’s “Bowl,” also composed of curves and rounds, has rougher outlines and focuses on line and color over form.
Later still, Matisse’s “Large Reclining Nude (The Pink Nude),” 1936, oil on canvas, and Picasso’s “Girl before a Mirror,” 1932, oil on canvas, both reduce nude female figures to simplified shapes against backgrounds that share uncannily common elements. But while Matisse’s figures were based on models, Picasso’s figures were based on lovers, this one being Marie-Therese Walter.
As Maria del Carmen Gonzalez and Susanna Harwood Rubin write in the exhibition catalog Looking at Matisse and Picasso:
“Both figures appear before similarly patterned backgrounds, and both are painted in areas of bold flat color. Each painting shows a woman at a moment of leisure in an abstractly represented space.” However, the writers continue: “As they often did, the artists reveal different aspects of themselves: Matisse, his life in his studio; Picasso, a personal relationship.”
Throughout, the exhibit explores such commonalities and contrasts, revealing through the works how each artist grew, reacting, responding, learning from the other.
Despite periods in their lives where they saw little of one another, toward the end, Matisse and Picasso visited more and more. They were drawn together, Varnedoe remarks, “both as complementaries, and as fellow feelers.”
Together they formed both a mutual competition and admiration society. When Picasso was once asked what he thought of Matisse’s work, he reputedly responded: “Well, Matisse paints beautiful and elegant pictures. He is understanding.” When Matisse was asked a similar question about Picasso, his response was: “He is capricious and unpredictable, but he understands things.” And ultimately, Matisse said, “Only one person has the right to criticize me…It’s Picasso.”
The exhibit’s final pairing is of two self-representational paintings made at a time when each artist was undergoing a personal crisis: Matisse’s “Violinist at the Window,” 1918, oil on canvas, was painted while Matisse had sequestered himself in Nice during Word War I. It captures the artist’s sense of loneliness and isolation as he turns to art for solace, drawing on recurrent Matissean themes of music, windows and back views. Picasso’s “The Shadow,” 1953, oil on canvas, was painted when the artist was 73: his wife had left him, and in the painting, the artist’s shadow is cast onto a bed where a female figure lays, just out of reach.
When Matisse died in 1954, in his mid-eighties, it is said the Picasso was so affected, he refused to attend the funeral. Instead, he offered this elegy: “In the end, there is only Matisse.”
“Matisse Picasso” runs through May 19 at MoMA QNS, 33 Street at Queens Boulevard, Long Island City, Queens. Admission is by timed tickets only: Tickets are $20 ($15.50 for students and seniors), and can be purchased through Ticketmaster, 212-307-5577, or toll free at 866-879-MOMA. Two publications accompany the exhibition, Matisse Picasso, a scholarly exhibition catalog that features in-depth essays by the show’s international team of curators, and Looking at Matisse and Picasso, a lively introduction to the concept of the exhibition for a general audience. For additional information, call 212-708-9400, or visit www.moma.org.
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