MOMA's Boys

Friendship + Rivalry = Great Radical Art

The Museum of Modern Art is in the aesthetic equivalent of pig heaven. It's got its two main guys, its Mantle and Mays, its twin peaks going head to head, painting by painting, in its temporary digs in Queens. The total is more than a blockbuster, it's a bombshell—better than seeing either of them on their own, at least at this point.

It's Matisse, the patron saint of ravishment and rapture, versus Picasso, the ravenous demon of rupture—the beneficent Frenchman who stands almost outside of art history against the Spanish monster who wrenched it off course. A face-off between the old guys of Modernism, the fragrant and the flagrant, the succulent and the truculent, the one who goes for the heart and the one who goes for the throat.

The visual firepower, desperation, and doggedness of these artists—as they push themselves and each other through times and art both good and bad—are almost scary. See Matisse in his eighties returning to the unfinished project of Fauvism and finishing it—by borrowing ideas about form and the figure hatched by Picasso, and reducing everything to shape, flatness, and pure color in his stunning paper cutouts. See Picasso restating Matisse in numerous nudes, especially the portrait of a sensuous blond extraterrestrial, Nude in a Black Armchair (1932).

Hitting the G-spot: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) and Bathers With a Turtle (1908) paired at MOMA QNS
photo: Robin Holland
Hitting the G-spot: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) and Bathers With a Turtle (1908) paired at MOMA QNS

Details

Matisse Picasso
Museum of Modern Art
45-20 33rd Street, Queens
Through May 19

I asked a number of painters who they preferred. Almost all instantly replied, "Picasso." One added, "Matisse is Paul. Picasso is John," meaning, I think, that these days Matisse is seen as the sweet, effete, bourgeois Beatle, the painter of joy, while Picasso is regarded as the rigorous, revolutionary macho bull, the one who painted close to the knives.

It's true. Picasso awes. "What Picasso does he does in blood," Matisse said. He's the great, volcanic graphic master, the painter par excellence of the erotic and the sexual ("When you feel like fucking, fuck!" he scrawled on one drawing), the self-mythologizing obliterator and re-creator of form, an artist who put his ultimate fantasy on canvas and made it make sense: We see labia, clitoris, anus, buttocks, breasts, eyes, and mouth at the same time. His spaces are contorted orgies of dark and light, angular ice-fields of organized energy. He invented and was carried along by a language with a recognizable visual syntax, one he deployed to paint whatever he wished, although what he painted was, like Matisse, fairly limited, and consisted mainly of women, more women, still lifes, and interiors.

Matisse is the consummate, deliberative maestro of color and sensuousness, an artist of colossal, nearly fearful simplicity—in his own words, as different from Picasso as "North Pole is from South." He painted real space in a totally abstract manner, made the decorative mighty, created veracity through mere hints of color or the voluptuous flick of his brush, and simplified form to resequence our vision and alter our idea of reality. All this not only makes Matisse as revolutionary and raging as Picasso, it makes him as radical as any artist who ever lived. Picasso blows you away; Matisse sweeps you off your feet.

The unspoken narrative of this show is "Look at them looking over their shoulders at each other." The story begins when the two were introduced by Leo and Gertrude Stein in 1906. Matisse, then 37, 12 years Picasso's senior and markedly taller and more polished than the stocky, cocky Catalan, was ruler of the Paris roost. He had just painted Le Bonheur de Vivre, a breathtaking Arcadian landscape with figures that synthesized Giorgione, Ingres, Gauguin, Puvis de Chavannes, Cézanne, Islamic art, Japanese prints, and Signac (who called the painting "disgusting"), and contains virtually all the motifs Matisse would render for the rest of his life: musicians, dancers, and nudes. Eighteen months later he finished the raw, super-sexual Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra (1907).

In late 1907, Picasso responded with one of the most thunderous, insurrectionary shots in art history, the epoch-altering image of five prostitutes in a Barcelona bordello on the Calle d'Avignon, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. This painting still looks dangerous and brazen. Although supposedly "appalled" by Les Demoiselles, Matisse (who was reportedly the first to use the word "Cubism" to describe it) knew his supremacy had been seized. "Picasso was the first to act," one critic wrote, "but Matisse was the first to understand what Picasso wanted to achieve." Within months Matisse responded by pushing his work into an almost Italian trecento, Paleolithic style, seen here in Bathers With a Turtle. Whatever else you do here, elbow your way to the G-spot of this show, the spine-tingling crossfire created by Demoiselles and Bathers. It will make your head spin.

A rivalry grew and sides were taken. In 1908, Gertrude Stein, who loved stirring things up, wrote, "the feeling between the Picassoites and the Matisse-ites became bitter." Although Matisse dryly noted that "our disputes were always friendly," it should be pointed out that Picasso and his cronies threw suction-cupped darts at Matisse's 1906 Portrait of Marguerite (which Picasso had obtained in a trade for his own Pitcher, Bowl and Lemon, from 1907). While the rift between the two artists eventually healed, the one between their supporters simmered. As late as 1925, Picassoite Jean Cocteau derided Matisse, writing, "The sun-drenched beast of Fauvism has turned into one of Bonnard's kittens."

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