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Picasso vs. Matisse: MoMA's Subway Series

The battle of the titans of twentieth-century art is taking place in Long Island City, which brings up a new issue: Which is New York's left bank?


Modern twist: Picasso's Acrobat, 1930  

New Yorkers are a competitive sort, as competitive about culture as they are about sports. So it adds up that the idea for the museum blockbuster to end all blockbusters—scrappy Catalan vs. refined Frenchman, southern machismo vs. northern elegance, Picasso vs. Matisse—was born at the Museum of Modern Art.

One blockbuster begets another—the seed for the Matisse-Picasso pairing was planted in the last days of MoMA’s 1992 Matisse retrospective, when chief curator–at–large John Elderfield (one of six for “Matisse Picasso”) assembled a set of casual comparisons with MoMA’s superlative Picassos in a small gallery. “A lot of people looked at that and saw something really powerful,” co-curator Kirk Varnedoe says.

Powerful, yes, but how powerful? On February 13, MoMA opens “Matisse Picasso” (fresh from London and Paris) not at its midtown headquarters but in its temporary space in Long Island City. Which raises an important question: Do Mets fans like art? Or, more seriously: How big a crowd will the greatest artists of the twentieth century draw—in Queens?

The Power of Two: Matisse's Acrobats, 1952.  

“We are assuming that we will see 3,000 to 4,000 visitors a day for ‘Matisse Picasso,’ ” says MoMA director Glenn Lowry. “We’ve had many days with 3,500 to 4,000 people already, so it will simply be more consistent.”

Alanna Heiss, who has presided over Queens’s other great art attraction, P.S.1, for almost 30 years, thinks Matisse and Picasso’s appearance on her territory makes a key point. “We keep thinking location, location, location—those are the three things we New Yorkers learn at a certain point—but the nature of great art makes location itself less important.” MoMA QNS has easy subway access and clean, flexible space, which make it an ideal place to see paintings. Out there, Heiss adds, “you can really concentrate on the works, rather than the shoes you might buy at the store next door.”

Local food sellers, if not shoe stores, are hoping the crowds spill over into adjoining areas. Councilman Eric Gioia has been making sure his district puts on a good show. He contracted with the Doe Fund, which employs the formerly homeless, to clean the stations, streets, and sidewalks for a one-mile stretch; he huddled with the MTA to keep sometimes iffy weekend service on the 7 train on track; and he even pressed to get the local potholes filled. “I want to do anything and everything to make people feel like this is a hospitable and welcoming neighborhood,” he says. “Seeing fine art changes the way you look at the world. I hope that seeing the show here changes the way hundreds of thousands of people look at Queens.”

“This is like the heavyweight championship of the art world,” says Picasso scholar Robert Rosenblum, an NYU professor and Guggenheim curator. “That’s the energy of the show, like the battle of the titans, like the Montagues and Capulets. One of the exciting things about it is the friction, the rivalry, the give and take.”

The cooler heads at MoMA downplay the grudge-match aspects. “In five years of working on the show, none of the six curators ever tried to figure out who was the better painter. It is one of the great and finally unresolved issues in twentieth-century art,” says Varnedoe, now a professor at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.

“I don’t think sports metaphors are useful at all,” says Robert Lubar, a professor at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. “Picasso is a household name and Matisse isn’t, but Matisse was incredibly influential on twentieth-century painting. The American color-field painting of the forties, fifties, and sixties is unthinkable without Matisse.”

But invidious comparison creeps in nonetheless. Matisse was the lawyer turned painter, the bourgeois, the devoted husband, refined, intellectual, yet known for a mad use of color. Picasso was the aggressor, the self-promoter, a Spanish prodigy who arrived in Paris without a franc and bulled his way through the salons (and dance halls). When the two painters were shown side-by-side in London in 1945, Matisse told a friend, “Obviously, next to him, I always look like a little girl.”

“Picasso became the first celebrity artist,” says Elderfield. “Matisse wasn’t like that at all. He was profoundly reserved. Picasso was out there from the beginning. He was profoundly ambitious for his art but also for his own presence. He played to the camera.” “Matisse Picasso” argues for a relationship between the artists that’s more like fraternal competition—respect and one-upmanship, a two-way street of influence—than the boxing ring. Picasso can’t lose, but Matisse can go the distance. “In London and Paris, most people I spoke to came away feeling that Matisse showed better,” says Jack Flam, distinguished professor of art history at Brooklyn College and the cuny Graduate Center (and author of the just-published Matisse and Picasso: The Story of Their Rivalry and Friendship).

Matisse met Picasso in 1905 or 1906 at one of the weekly rue de Fleurus salons of American Über-patrons Gertrude and Leo Stein. By 1907, the two artists had exchanged works, and the show begins with a pairing of the paintings they selected: Picasso’s 1907 Pitcher, Bowl and Lemon (a very Matissean subject) and Matisse’s charming 1906 Portrait of Marguerite, his daughter.

“Of the many key moments in their relationship, perhaps the greatest is in 1907 when Picasso paints the Demoiselles d’Avignon, which is itself a profoundly anti-Matissean painting,” Elderfield says. “It is ugly, violent, confrontational. Matisse is appalled by it, then he almost uniquely realizes its power, and that it has to be taken seriously.”

Visitors to the MoMA version of the show are at an advantage. The museum refused to lend Demoiselles to other venues, so only here is it physically reunited with Matisse’s subdued response, Bathers With a Turtle (1908). Six other works from U.S. collections will only be shown in Queens.

The skeleton of the show was developed by British painter and art historian John Golding with Elizabeth Cowling, who arranged it as a series of 34 specific visual and conceptual groupings. Rather than the sometimes wearying chronological slog of the typical retrospective, this show breaks easily into bite-size pieces—self-portrait with self-portrait, challenge and response, moving into subtler comparisons. A violin in a Matisse morphs into three-dimensional Picasso guitar sculptures; one of Matisse’s bronze bas-reliefs gets translated into two dimensions by Picasso.

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