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The Kimbell explores Picasso and Matisse's (not so) gentle friendship

As the Tate and MoMA prepare their mammoth exhibition of works by the two artists in 2002 the Kimbell steps into the ring first with a similar, but smaller, show of its own

Artists are not known as the most faithful of friends. As they get older they tend to abandon the group portraits and parties of student days for more solitary pursuits. By necessity, affiliation gives way to individualism, and a competitive spirit often ousts compliments. “Picasso and Matisse: a gentle rivalry” (until 2 May) at the Kimbell Art looks at what appears to be a rare and famous exception: a friendship which persisted through the careers of both artists which also affected their respective work.

“A Gentle Rivalry”, however, does seem a disingenuous title. Rivalry is rarely gentle and Picasso and Matisse hardly treated each other with kid gloves. The two artists bartered works with each other from the early days of their friendship, but both drove a hard bargain. Picasso, speaking of Matisse’s “Portrait of Marguerite” (which he had receive in trade from his friend) later told Pierre Daix, “No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has ever looked at mine more carefully than he.”

Each knew the exact value of the other’s work. Françoise Gilot once recalled how Picasso’s appreciation of his own “Winter Landscape” of 1950 grew after Matisse, to whom he had brought it for an opinion, had put the painting on the mantelpiece and offered to trade him for it. In the end negotiations broke down because Picasso kept upping the ante. Each was constantly sizing the other one up but this intense mutual gaze was mixed with admiration and even emulation of each other’s ideas. Matisse once told Max Jacob, “If I weren’t doing what I’m doing, I’d like to paint like Picasso.” Jacob replied, “That’s funny. Do you know that Picasso made the same remark to me about you?”

In what might be seen as a preview of the larger exhibition to be mounted by the Tate Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2002, “Matisse and Picasso” reveals an unexpectedly poignant dimension of their relationship, based on new research by Yve-Alain Bois, professor of art history at Harvard University. At the same time, it lays out their work—slightly more than 100 paintings, sculptures and works on paper—in a chronological order that allows viewers to witness their ongoing game of visual chess.

“Matisse and Picasso” is not the same kind of show as “Picasso and Matisse,” the planned Tate/MoMA blockbuster. Rather than taking in the full sweep of each career, the Kimbell presentation (Fort Worth is its only venue) begins in the late 1920s and continues until Matisse’s death in 1954. As a coda to the exhibition, “A Gentle Rivalry” also features Picasso work from 1954 to 1956, elegiac odes to his deceased friend, in which the artist revisits Matisse’s work as a form of mourning.

The exhibition was conceived by Joachim Pissarro, the Kimbell’s former chief curator, together with former Kimbell director Ted Pillsbury. In discussing potential guest curators, the two men decided to approach Mr Bois, who had co-organised the large Mondrian retrospective of 1994-95. Mr Bois proposed the exhibition begin with the end of Matisse’s Nice period and Picasso’s attempts to lure his colleague back into the fray.

“It is as if Picasso had no one to talk to,” Mr Bois said. “He needed a dialogue with someone he respected. He needed Matisse back and at the top of his form. So he made Matisse jealous. He teased him. In a way he made Matisse a rival of his own, youthful self.”

The exhibition opens to show Picasso at a high point in productivity in the 1920s, but Matisse is undergoing yet another crisis of confidence and can scarcely paint. As Matisse reawakens to his former powers, Picasso discovers some of Matisse’s early sculpture and paintings, and he then experiments with sculptures of heads and a series of “sleeping beauty’’ canvases.

Matisse eventually responds to Picasso’s provocations and each artist slowly comes to terms with the other’s work. During World War II, when Picasso was in Paris and Matisse in Nice, the artists constantly engage in what Mr Bois calls “parallel play”, and, although they never meet, they continue to barter works.

After the war, it is as though each of the two aging artists—lauded as national heroes for their refusal to decamp to the United States—find validation only in the other.

“Everybody knows how important Matisse and Picasso are,” Mr Pissarro said. “What is new with the Kimbell show is the degree of intensity of their interchange during those later years. The relationship becomes so intertwined, so neurotic, so contradictory.”

The exhibition includes a number of famous paintings, including Picasso’s “Woman with yellow hair” from the Guggenheim and Matisse’s “Tiare” (1930) and “The Serpentine” (1907). But much of the most vivid evidence of their artistic exchange is seen in the works on paper, perhaps because of the informal nature of the medium. We see, for example, Matisse’s pencil studies after Picasso shown near two of the Picasso canvases from which Matisse copied.

But “Matisse and Picasso” almost did not happen. When the Kimbell learned of the Tate/MoMA project, “We had to decide whether our exhibition was a worthwhile undertaking,” Mr Pillsbury said.

With reassurances from John Golding at the Tate and others, the Kimbell moved ahead. When Mr Pissarro compared their loan requests with the Tate’s, he found, “The whole conception of one had so little to do with the other. But each is riveting.”

“First and foremost, these are beautiful works of art,” said Timothy Potts, who took over as director of the Kimbell after Mr Pillsbury retired last year. “But there is also a very interesting story here, one that addresses art history on a much more personal level, which is the way it is lived in reality.”

While looking at the lives, loves and friendships of artists has become an increasingly popular way of understanding their art, this exhibition nonetheless raises the question of how much longer the art world will continue to cast stars in blockbusters. Showing Picasso and Matisse together is pure gold in terms of attendance figures, but it seems rather like casting Travolta and De Niro in a buddy movie—there is the risk of the stars outshining the plot.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Who’s more popular than Picasso? Picasso plus Matisse'