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Putting Matisse and Picasso back in the ring at Tate Modern

Matisse wanted his art to be like a comfortable easy chair, while Picasso preferred to think of art as a weapon. But did these statements correspond with reality?

On the fascinating matter of his subject’s relationship with Matisse, one of Picasso’s biographers, Patrick O’Brian, wrote: “Nothing could be more pointless than discussing who was the better painter.” Simlarly, before he died, the critic David Sylvester admitted that one of his biggest regrets was having spent so much time and energy trying to show that Matisse was a better painter than Picasso. Meanwhile, one of the six curators of the “Matisse Picasso” show opening at Tate Modern in London later this month, John Golding, told The Art Newspaper: “In terms of their stature, if we haven’t brought them out neck and neck, the exhibition is a failure.”

But underlying all these protestations of equality and admissions of the futility of comparisons is the simple fact that, in the annals of twentieth-century art, Picasso’s supremacy is still taken for granted. Matisse’s importance, meanwhile, tends to need defending against pejoratives which Picasso’s more militant career has largely defined.

Patrick O’Brian’s point, for instance, may have been well made, but it was immediately followed by two quotes—one from each artist—that effortlessly consign Matisse to second-best status: first, Matisse’s infamous statement that he wanted his art to be like an easy chair for the “tired brain worker”; then, Picasso’s rather more rousing: “I am proud to say that I have never looked upon painting as an art intended for mere pleasure and amusement... [It] is a means of waging offensive and defensive war against the enemy.”

Thanks to a recent surge in exhibitions devoted to Picasso and the runaway success of John Richardson’s brilliant Life of Picasso, the Spaniard’s “supremacy” is more entrenched now than ever. It is reflected in everything from auction prices to the sheer volume of scholarly research devoted to him.

Mr Golding’s friend and fellow curator, the Museum of Modern Art’s John Elderfield, has spent more time than anyone trying to break down the oppositions that have characterised perceptions of the relationship between these two great artists. The new show, Mr Elderfield told The Art Newspaper, makes “no argument about one being greater than the other. But it does, I suppose, make an argument about the difficulty or perniciousness of making judgments like this. Artists who have been considered ‘opposites’ turn out to be closer than previously thought. And at a time when the world is in trouble from seeing things always in oppositional terms, it makes me think this is a very timely message.”

Undoubtedly true. But the impulse to set Matisse and Picasso against each other is, unfortunately, second nature by now, if only because an elaborate set of oppositions has been in place from the days of their earliest successes. Leo Stein, who with his sister Gertrude bought his first Matisses and his first Picassos around the same time, encouraged competition between them from the outset. “Stein can see at the moment only through the eyes of two painters,” wrote Apollinaire, “Matisse and Picasso.”

Various people—most famously Picasso’s lover Françoise Gilot—have likened the two men to “the North and South poles”, and since those early days almost every circumstance has favoured this polarisation, from intrinsic qualities (Matisse and Picasso had markedly different temperaments) to sheer fortuities (the timing of exhibitions, their domestic circumstances, their relationships with collectors and dealers, and so on).

A “gentle rivalry” was how the art historian Yve-Alain Bois described the relationship for his acclaimed “Matisse and Picasso” show at the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas three years ago. But there is little doubt that early on in their careers, the aesthetic infractions and innovations of both men led to a relationship that struck almost no-one nearby as “gentle”.

More than a decade younger than his rival, Picasso was given to publicly mocking Matisse, describing him, for instance, as “a coloured cravatte.” After one of their occasional exchanges of paintings, members of Picasso’s bande—surely trying to ingratiate themselves with their leader—threw suction-tipped darts at Picasso’s choice, a child-like painting by Matisse of his beloved daughter Marguerite, crying out, “One in the eye for Matisse,” and other such taunts. Matisse, meanwhile, when he saw “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in Picasso’s studio, is supposed to have been so incensed at what he saw as a mockery of his own hard won innovations that he vowed to get revenge.

Asked whether either one of the two artists was more conscious of the rivalry than the other, John Elderfield said: “The only comparison I can think of is an older and a younger brother.”

Most people who have watched young brothers at work will acknowledge the potential for steaming resentments, jealousies and even violence implicit in the comparison. “Later on it was different, of course,” added Mr Elderfield. “It was more like, ‘We’re the two kings on top of the hill.’”

Yve-Alain Bois’s exhibition at the Kimbell Museum concentrated on these later years of the relationship, from about 1930 on. But the exhibition opening at Tate Modern covers the entire span of the relationship, grouping together works by both artists in discrete sections, in ways the curators hope will illuminate the connections between the two artists. (Despite the taunts and tension, they clearly admired each other: “In the end there is only Matisse,” said Picasso after Matisse died in 1954).

However, the absence of two crucial works from the pre-Cubist period—Matisse’s “Le Bonheur de vivre,” which is stuck in the Barnes Foundation, and Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which has not been allowed to travel from MoMA (it will join the exhibition on its New York leg)—will make it difficult to drive home the tense reality of this early, competitive period, which was in may ways dominated by MatissThere is no doubt that Matisse was the first out of the gates. His explosive “Fauvist” contributions to the 1905 Salon d’Automne—especially “Woman in a Hat” and “The Green Line”—left the ambitious Picasso feeling resentful and outmanoeuvred. A series of radical new Matisse works over successive Salons—“Luxe, Calme et Volupté,” “Le Bonheur de vivre,” “The Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra),” and so on drove home the point.Cubism, of course, changed everything. But who knows if the cleaving of the Avant-garde into separate camps—the Cubists, led by Picasso and the others, led less and less willingly by Matisse—would have been quite so dramatic if, for instance, Picasso had not been surrounded by the most influential poets and critics of his time, writers who not only championed their friend, but thrived on avowals of modernity which consigned anything linked with Impressionism, anything openly figurative and anything curvaceous and colourful to the dustbin.

Matisse, it is often forgotten, was the first to pick up and absorb the lessons of so-called primitive art from Africa, and he digested and transformed the lessons of the god-like Cézanne earlier and more convincingly than any of his peers, including Picasso. But since both primitive art and Cézanne are considered two of the most important tributaries leading into Modernism, and because Picasso occupies a position at the apex of Modern art, it is he who is more commonly identified with both.

There were so many factors in the consolidation of the myth of Picasso’s superiority: his more charismatic personality; his eclecticism; his enormous facility and inventiveness as a draughtsman; his preparedness to respond openly in his art to the major events of his time; and of course the endless fascination provided by his love life.

But, as the new “Matisse Picasso” exhibition aims to show, Matisse’s daunting presence continued to act as a creative foil to his younger rival, goading him, inspiring him and pushing him to further extremes.

o John Golding and John Elderfield are two among a team of six (the others being Elizabeth Cowling, Anne Baldassari, Isabelle Monod-Fontaine and Kirk Varnedoe) who have put together the Matisse Picasso show opening at Tate Modern this month (11 May-18 August), before moving on to the Grand Palais in Paris (24 September-6 January) and, finally, the New York’s Museum of Modern Art in Queens (12 February 2003-20 May 2003).

o The most important individual works for the crucial early period of Matisse and Picasso’s relationship, Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and Matisse’s “Le Bonheur de vivre,” will not be showing at Tate Modern. “Le Bonheur de vivre” is not allowed to leave the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. The “Demoiselles,” which will join the show when it comes to MoMA, “simply isn’t allowed to travel,” said Mr Golding. “We all talked about it [for this show],” said Mr Elderfield, “both as a curatorial group and back at MoMA. If there was ever a non-monographic exhibition that merited making an exception to the ban, this was it... But there are certain works so associated with an institution that people go there just to see it.

o Mr Golding and Ms Cowling insisted on drastic changes to Tate Modern’s upper level galleries where the show is hung. “We had to get in John Miller, a marvellous architect for works of art, because he always puts them first” said Mr Golding, leaving unspoken the implication that the architects of Tate Modern, Herzog and de Meuron, failed on this count. Mr Miller, who worked on the Whitechapel and Serpentine galleries in London and the just completed renovations at Tate Britain, has “a wonderful sense of proportion,” said Dr Golding. “We worked it out, always with the works in front of us. “The show will look very austere,” he said, “but there should be a good flow”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Matisse and Picasso back in the ring'