MOMA's Boys

Friendship + Rivalry = Great Radical Art

Throughout it all, Matisse and Picasso kept tabs on one another's work. In the teens, Matisse came up with his own brand of Cubism with mixed results. While The Moroccans (1915-16) has always looked muddled to me, and the landscape Shaft of Sunlight, the Woods of Trivaux (1917) unconvincing, The Piano Lesson (1916) and Goldfish and Palette (1914) are magnificent and radiate some of the grandeur and mystery of Velázquez's Las Meninas. The artists exchanged paintings throughout their lives and saw one another frequently for years at a time. Beginning in the 1940s, Matisse sent an annual box of oranges to Picasso, who, ever the competitor, displayed rather than ate them. In the years immediately preceding Matisse's death in 1954, the two visited each other in the south of France as often as twice a month. After one of these late visits, Matisse, who once called Picasso "a bandit," wearily wrote to his son, "He saw what he wanted to see. Now he will put it all to good use."

Picasso, according to his wife Françoise Gilot, was "driven crazy" by Matisse's later work, snarled that there were "no vertical lines in Matisse's paintings," and hated the way things were cropped. In one funny pairing, Picasso recapitulates a Matisse still life of oysters, lining all the objects up with the edge of the painting and not cutting anything off. Funnier yet, and typically, he substitutes a big sausage for the oysters. Even so, Picasso knew what was going on in these late studio visits, too. While he mocked his early Cubist collaborator, Georges Braque, as "ma femme," saying, "Braque is the woman who loved me most," about Matisse he said, "No one has ever looked at Matisse's paintings more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he."

At MOMA you can see them doing just that. A couple of quibbles: It's too bad Matisse's The Red Studio (1911) wasn't included. It might have stood out like a sore thumb, but at least then there would be a Matisse on hand that has arguably influenced subsequent art almost as much as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Also, it's unfortunate that there are three times as many Picasso paintings from the '20s and '30s as there are Matisses. Still, it's great that one of Picasso's Women of Algiers paintings from 1955 is included to make clear how quickly he moved into Matisse's territory once he died. (As Picasso drolly put it, "When Matisse died, he left his odalisques to me.")

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


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

After this show the cliché that Matisse was the sweet, sappy one should wither. As with Lennon and McCartney, Matisse and Picasso didn't make each other possible, they made each other better.

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