In London and Paris, Matisse Picasso aroused a “must-see” fervor, and the same intensity is obviously developing in New York. This response is rare in the sip-and-taste world of museums, especially when the art on display is not new. It suggests that “Matisse Picasso,” in addition to being a sparkling work of scholarship, reflects something important about the tenor of our time. And yet this beautiful show also challenges our moment in a subtly subversive way.
Organized for MoMA by Kirk Varnedoe and John Elderfield, who were part of the international team of curators who assembled the show, “Matisse Picasso” brings together 132 works by the artists. Images are juxtaposed—sometimes dramatically—to demonstrate the ways in which the two masters influenced, stimulated, and challenged each other. At the most prominent spot in the galleries, the curators match Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon (1907)—arguably the most influential painting of the twentieth century—with Matisse’s great melancholic reverie Bathers With a Turtle (1908). The isolated masterpieces, an unlikely bride and groom, stand side by side. Each holds its own.
Of course, neither Matisse nor Picasso had a truly collaborative spirit. We think of them as solitary masters of their own worlds. In their early years, they might have worked with others—Matisse was a Fauve, Picasso briefly teamed up with Braque—but they are not today defined by such associations. The word influence implies too much passivity on their parts. Where other art is concerned, Matisse and Picasso take what they need, making it their own and embodying Eliot’s dictum that a mature artist does not imitate—he steals. When compared, moreover, they are typically contrasted, like a twentieth-century version of Ingres and Delacroix. Picasso is a master of line, Matisse of color. Matisse creates the arabesque of paradise; Picasso, in the splintered planes of Guernica, conveys the shattering nightmare of modernity. And so on. The show disrupts such clichés, allowing each artist to reflect some of the passions of the other. For each, there was indeed another living eye that mattered, if only one. “All things considered,” said Picasso, “there’s only Matisse.” Matisse would probably have said the same of Picasso.
Their relationship was not one of mere resemblances. It cut deeper than that. Without the stimulating challenge of the other, each might well have grown too comfortable in his genius. Each consistently made the other stretch and reach. In the early years of the century, for example, the scale of Picasso’s ambition—his drive to create definitive images of Western culture—may have inspired Matisse to elevate his own perspective. Although Matisse could not bring himself to join the Cubist club, he absorbed the lessons of the style—and saw more clearly than its practitioners its implications. Indeed, in such works as View of Notre-Dame and Goldfish and Palette, he pushed Cubism out of its café, expanding and refashioning Picasso’s ideas in such a startling manner that Picasso himself moved in the more ambitious direction represented by Harlequin. In this instance, Matisse helped Picasso become Picasso.
In fact, the degree to which Matisse affected Picasso is surprising. With his devouring eye, Picasso sought to possess everything around him. And in this show, it often seems that Matisse had something that Picasso wanted—especially a kind of joyful hedonism around the body. Picasso could address the female form with both classical reserve and savage ferocity. But he was not one who could yield easily to the fruit and flesh of life. He could not get inside the paint, as Matisse effortlessly could. (Matisse always seems to discover his painting in the doing.) In the picture Nude in a Black Armchair, however, Picasso successfully seduced one of Matisse’s nudes. There was also a certain free-form openness about Matisse that attracted the boxier eye of Picasso. An airy sculpture from 1961 called The Chair is a beautiful homage to the earlier cutouts of Matisse. However, it was also Picasso’s astonishing Acrobat from 1930 that helped stimulate Matisse’s passion for the endless, kaleidoscopic transformations of the body found in the cutouts. In this instance, Picasso helped Matisse become Matisse.
Not long ago, in the waning years of the twentieth century, MoMA organized enormous, hagiographic retrospectives of Matisse and Picasso. Many contemporary viewers will come to this show with the implicit idea that “Matisse Picasso” must therefore be even grander. In America, big can always be bigger, and “Matisse Picasso” places in one arena the two biggest stars of modern art. Here, at last, it will be thought, twentieth-century art can be laid out in some encompassing synthesis. (The century can now retire.) At the same time, many contemporary viewers will bring to “Matisse Picasso” the exciting idea of a competition. The name sounds like a heavyweight-title fight—Ali-Frazier. The question on everyone’s lips will be, “Who wins?” Is Picasso still the champ, or did Matisse knock him out in the last round with that brilliant uppercut?
Both contemporary desires—to build grandiose monuments and to stage title fights—are characteristic of our time. And of most times. What’s subversive about this exhibit is that while it may stimulate such desires, it does not satisfy them. It does better. In contrast to the romantic cult of the retrospective, which raises the solitary ego to ludicrous heights, “Matisse Picasso” emphasizes the play of relationships. Picasso and Matisse therefore become less lofty and more human, more like working artists looking around—artists of great genius, to be sure, but not artists who bestride the world. In particular, Picasso does not appear, as rumored, to own everything. As a result, “Matisse Picasso” is not a dead monument. It is not even that large. As for who wins, the question seems increasingly stupid the more you examine the art. No one wins. No one loses. And it’s not a draw. You may prefer one artist to the other, but that is all your choice is—a preference. The show invites you to deepen your sensibility, not vote your prejudices.