When old rivals unite to make a saleable brand

Interpreting Matisse Picasso - Matisse Picasso
September 6, 2002

The Matisse Picasso show drew 500,000. Henry Meyric Hughes ponders a powerful creative relationship.

The Matisse Picasso exhibition, which has just closed at Tate Modern, has attracted more than 500,000 visitors and been acclaimed as the most successful ever in the Tate Gallery's 100-odd years of existence. This surpasses even the record held, fittingly enough, by Cezanne, whom Matisse once described as "the father of us all".

It also leaves in the shadows the back-to-back exhibition of the same two artists, organised by the British Council at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the winter of 1945-46, which attracted a record attendance for the time of some 360,000 visitors and served to prolong by a further ten years the situation that had prevailed for most of the century, whereby, as Harold Acton put it in his 1948 Memoirs of an Aesthete : "Intellectually Paris was the capital of the world and the judgment of Paris was final." The impact of the Victoria and Albert exhibition on a public starved of colour, light and novelty was sensational, and the exhibition had a profound influence on artists as different from each other as Eduardo Paolozzi and Victor Pasmore, giving the latter the sense of purpose that he needed for his radical break with figuration only a couple of years later. It also unleashed an intense controversy over the future of contemporary art, which culminated in the celebrated public attack in 1949 by the president of the Royal Academy, Sir Alfred Munnings, on both Picasso and (a fact that is often forgotten) Matisse, with Henry Moore thrown in too.

Yet what are we to make today of the continuing popularity of these two artists, when people of all ages - many of them young - flocked to see the exhibition and paid a substantial price for the privilege of doing so? What can we say now about the role that they played in the evolution of "independent" art in the 20th century (ie art that emerged from the academic tradition, but self-consciously set itself up in opposition to it)? And what might they have to say to us, now that their supremacy has been successfully challenged, first by their near-contemporary Marcel Duchamp and then by a second wave of modern artists from the mid-1950s onwards, starting with Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage, as well as Richard Hamilton in this country? These artists of "second wave" modernism took Dadaism and Surrealism as their starting point, rather than the 19th-century dialectics of avant-garde versus academy, and moved decisively away from perceptual issues in the direction first of psychological and conceptual concerns, and then into still wider areas of social, anthropological or linguistic inquiry.

It would be hard to see these two revolutionaries of their day turned into items of cultural heritage, and it is to the credit of the organisers that they resisted the temptation to do so. For what remained, after the usual marketing and promotional ploys to get us in (witness the "Matisse Picasso" branding), was an exhibition of rare acuity and fixity of purpose - or, rather, fixity of gaze. What it may have sacrificed by way of contextualisation, it gained by its unerring focus on great works of art in an ideal mental and physical space. We saw nothing of Matisse as fauvist chef d'école , alongside Derain and Vlaminck, or of Picasso scaling the height of cubism in a cordée with Braque; nothing of the later Picasso in the company of the surrealist painters and poets; nor were we given any hint of the fruitful misunderstandings of their investigations into the subjective properties of colour and space that led others out of painting itself into speculation about anything from the fourth dimension to productivist utopianism. In compensation, we were richly rewarded with a string of major masterpieces by each of these artists, in carefully considered relation to each other and to the pictorial narrative of western art, which they subsumed in their work. Here, a fortuitous contrast might be suggested between the Tate's show and the Royal Academy's recent intelligent, but infinitely less seductive, "Paris Capital of the Arts 1900-1968", where Matisse and Picasso put in an almost perfunctory appearance in a setting that appeared to suck in the entire art world of the day, instead of radiating outwards, as they have done ever since, to all the principal centres of artistic production.

The exhibition and the closely related catalogue, with extensive cameos on all the individual works concerned, were divided into 34 sections, or chapters, covering the direct and indirect relationship between Matisse's and Picasso's work, from the time of their first meeting through Gertrude Stein in 1906 up to the time of Matisse's death in 1954, and beyond. Effectively, this spans the entire period from the birth of modern art to the end of its first, heroic phase, when the leadership passed from Paris to New York - the period during which any artist endeavouring to climb on to the shoulders of these giants had first to contend with the magnitude of their achievement.

The key periods of Picasso's and Matisse's most intensive engagement with each other's works were four. Around 1906-08, they were both grappling, in a highly competitive manner, with the same sources (post-impressionism and primitivism) as a means of breaking away from pictorial narrative and the constrictions of local colour and perspective. Then there was 1912-16, during which Matisse absorbed the lessons of his two journeys to Morocco in 1912-13, and of synthetic cubism (Gris, as well as Picasso), culminating in Les Marocains (1916). Then in the 1930s, both artists, in the words of one of the curators, John Elderfield, "confront the memory of their recent conservative past and push through it to the future". Finally, in the the 1950s, Matisse's art reached its apogee, with the Blue Nude paper cut-outs (1952), and Picasso embarked on his white bent and folded metal figures and the extraordinary Chair (1961), which looks back, for a last time, at the technique of découpage he had invented before the first world war.

Inevitably, given his protean output, Picasso was matched up to Matisse by the curators of the exhibition, rather than the other way round - explicitly, in the case of the drawings, but implicitly, too, with the paintings and sculpture, where there was such an abundance of material to draw on, provided the right choices were made (which they invariably were). Matisse's artistic evolution, ever hesitant, took him more or less undeviatingly in the same direction, towards the liberation of colour and constant refinement of decorative elements, whereas Picasso was forever doubling back, changing direction and starting afresh, in keeping with his restless nature and the vagaries of his emotional life. The Apollonian Matisse felt the need to justify each step that he took, with reference to precedent or precept, in contrast to the Dionysian Picasso, for whom "painting is a sum of destructions". Yet there was little in Matisse's earlier artistic history to prepare us for the extraordinarily tough and savage Nu Bleu . Souvenir de Biskra (1907), which preceded Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (on show in New York only), or to prepare us for Picasso's hedonistic, Matissean phase of the 1930s, which was ushered in by his relationship with the young Marie-Thérèse Walter.

Neither artist sought to sever his links with the world of his perceptions and with a certain idea of reality, though Picasso was the more conceptual of the two and usually worked at one remove from direct visual and sensory experience. Neither of them ventured into pure abstraction, though Picasso came very close to it in his analytical cubist phase as did Matisse, in some of his most powerful colour compositions, such as the glorious blue Vue de Notre-Dame (1914). Put simply, Matisse was the master of colour and light, and Picasso the master of structure and line - but also, and this is why the surrealists admired him so much, the alchemist of the everyday and the herald of a new aesthetic, which corresponded to André Breton's notion of "convulsive beauty".

Matisse never lost sight of his indebtedness to a tradition of European painting, which stretched back, beyond the impressionists and Delacroix to the Italian "primitives" and Giotto; and he bent all his efforts to building on that tradition and enriching it with elements from other cultures to which he felt an affinity. Picasso, on the other hand, was more often than not, in Matisse's own words, the "bandit waiting in ambush", forever switching direction. Matisse was the reluctant revolutionary, Picasso the outsider and interloper, an artist with a flawless memory and unforgiving eye who tackled tradition head-on as the most effective way of subverting it and breaking through to a fresh start.

The differences in temperament between the two men were immediately apparent from two self-portraits in the first room, belonging to the year 1906, in which the artists first became personally acquainted and provided an accurate reflection of the point they had reached in their burgeoning careers. The 37-year-old Matisse's Portrait de l'Artiste shows the acclaimed fauve, in complete mastery of his newly invented pictorial language but clearly aware of the burden of individual responsibility that lay upon his shoulders for the renewal of his art. The 25-year-old Picasso of Autoportrait àla Palette betrays no such doubt about his own powers and shows with clarity how he had become invigorated by his exposure that summer in Catalonia to the influences of ancient Iberian sculpture and Romanesque painting. Both works are masterpieces, and each offered a characteristic view of its progenitor.

From this point on, the exhibition proceeded, in a roughly chronological sequence, to chart the interaction between the two artists to each other's work on a number of different levels, by methods of contrast, comparison and analogy, relating to subject, style, technique and biographical incident - sometimes, a combination of all four. An early example was the juxtaposition of two paintings that were the subject of an exchange between Matisse and Picasso, in the heightened atmosphere of rivalry that characterised the first period of their acquaintance. Matisse's was a portrait of his young daughter, Marguerite (1906), in a style whose simplifications of contour and colour owe something to the portraits of Gauguin and Van Gogh. Picasso's fractured still life, Pitcher, Bowl and Lemon (1907) showed him already coming to grips with the spatial problems of Cezanne. In this exchange, Stein wrote maliciously, and almost certainly inaccurately, that each artist had sought to show up the weaknesses of his rival.

Farther on, Matisse's gloriously radiant Bowl of Oranges (1916), which elicited from Apollinaire the observation that "like the orange, (Matisse's) work is the fruit of dazzling light", was hung in close proximity to Picasso's sombre grey, neoclassical Still Life with Pitcher and Apples , with its inevitable allusions to the rounded forms of the female anatomy. Farther on still in the exhibition, fascinating comparisons were suggested, across both space and time, between the soft forms of Matisse's modelled heads of Jeanne from the early 1910s and Picasso's extraordinarily sensuous bronze heads of Marie-Ther se Walter in the early 1930s; or, in a particularly revealing juxtaposition, one of Picasso's most radical distortions of the human form, Acrobat (1930), with Matisse's cut-out acrobats of 20 years later or the lines in space of one of Picasso's welded bronze sculptures such as Woman in the Garden (1931-32) with other of Matisse's papiers découpés from the same period as the acrobats and blue nudes. Matisse is said to have been particularly touched by Picasso's purchase of a fine early Still Life with Basket of Oranges (1912) - once again, the famous oranges - in the middle of the second world war, and this led to further exchanges of paintings between the two artists, who now drew closer as their isolation from the younger generation and from the art movements of the day grew more complete. It was now that Matisse and Picasso began to show each other the highest marks of esteem in public and are reported to have said of each other: "All things considered, there is only Matisse" and "Only one person has the right to criticise me - it's Picasso" - a warmth and an acceptance of criticism that came over the old rivals only in their declining years.

In a touching coda to a close, though intermittent artistic relationship, that lasted for the best past of half a century, within two months of Matisse's death in 1954, Picasso embarked on the first of his cycles of variations on Old Master paintings, Les Femmes d'Alger , after Delacroix's celebrated Orientalist painting of 1834. In this last phase, he seems to have sought not only to come to terms with Matisse's achievements ("he left me his odalisques as a legacy"), but also to reinsert himself into the mainstream of European art, which he had spent a lifetime trying to divert.

"Matisse Picasso" was one of the most beautiful exhibitions to have been held in London in recent years, for which the credit is due to the staff of Tate Modern and the two British initiators of the project, John Golding and Elizabeth Cowling, as well as to their colleagues at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. One of the reasons why it worked so well is that it represented a perfect unity of conception and execution.

Any misgivings about the suitability of the spaces for temporary exhibitions at Tate Modern were dispelled by John Miller's designs for a sequence of variable spaces, alternating openness with enclosure, natural with artificial light (and a combination of the two) and grand sweeps and perspectives, with pauses for intimacy and reflection.

Henry Meyric Hughes was formerly director of exhibitions, South Bank Centre, and is now an independent curator and writer on art.

Interpreting Matisse Picasso

Author - Elizabeth Cowling
ISBN - 1 85437 393 5
Publisher - Tate
Price - £8.99
Pages - 80

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