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).
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.”
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.”)
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.