The Armchair Painter Strikes Back

For many, Matisse’s genius took second place to Picasso’s. Should it have?

Click hereto view the slide show discussion of Matisse and Picasso.

Picasso and Matisse ended up as friends, but they didn’t start out that way. At the turn of the century, the young Picasso stole a pair of important collectors, Leo and Gertrude Stein, away from Matisse, and his followers scrawled anti-Matisse slogans on the sides of buildings in Paris. Picasso’s aggression would probably have been dismissed as the usual competitiveness of the upstart with the more established rival—Picasso was 25, Matisse 37 when they met—but it flared up just as a generation of brash young modernists went looking for a leader to help them do away with the past. Although Matisse’s stylized nudes and strange, bold colors had already earned him the title of the “Fauve” or wild beast, of the Parisian art scene, he was too reserved to play the revolutionary. So, the charismatic Picasso became known as the avatar of modernism, while the more retiring Matisse was forced into the role of the bourgeois overly committed to outdated modes of representation.

One of the many virtues of “Matisse Picasso” at the Museum of Modern Art in Queens is that it exposes the wrong-headedness of this story line. If you took this show at face value (and you shouldn’t, at least not entirely, because the show by necessity downplays just how broadly each artist borrowed from other painters and other traditions, and because many of Picasso’s greatest canvases are not shown), you would, in fact, conclude the opposite: that Picasso’s entire career was actually a struggle to master the lessons of Matisse’s difficult art, while Matisse forged inexorably ahead, absorbing Picasso’s innovations as he went.

There’s a poetic justice to this reversal, although it too may be overly schematic. Everything came harder to Matisse than to Picasso. Matisse studied law before he became an art student; he was poor and married with children and had to struggle for years to find his own style. Picasso, by contrast, was a celebrity before he was out of his teens and was able to master a wider range of styles. Both men moved at the same time toward abstraction. Picasso’s example may have pushed Matisse further in that direction than he would otherwise have gone, but Matisse proceeded slowly because he understood the value of what was being left behind.

What handicapped Matisse, in part, was his insistence, as he streamlined his forms and sought a vocabulary more appropriate to an increasingly industrialized society, that he not lose touch with the physical world. His sense of form and color, his locatedness in the space through which he moved, was such that he could draw a goldfish as a flat orange oval with a black contour and still make us feel the goldfish acutely, make us aware of it as a thing in itself.

Picasso, on the other hand, transmogrified at will. His ambition was to dissociate art from the world, to free it from the bonds of representation. He was less interested in form itself than in how to reduce it to a series of signs. Matisse took things in; Picasso turned his hostility on them, reinventing them as a disembodied language. His paintings fascinate in the way that disfiguring accidents do.

There is something daring about organizing an exhibition around a rivalry—as if it were an aesthetic idea as important as any other. In Matisse and Picasso’s case, at least, it was. Picasso has long been considered the more important artist—the one who pointed modern art toward its Conceptualist future. And yet, at a time when Conceptualism seems exhausted, when it seems to spin itself out in increasingly self-referential banalities, it is Matisse’s more grounded paintings that seem to suggest a way out. Matisse’s nudes, no matter how flattened or abstract, tell us a great deal about the women who modeled for him. Picasso’s nudes tell you what he felt about them. Both men painted autobiographically, but Matisse’s paintings record his passage through a world experienced with great intensity. Picasso’s record his own almost unmanageable emotions.

In the following slide show, made up of nine pairs of paintings from the MoMA exhibition, we look at how the two artists irked, prodded, taught, and stole from each other. In almost every case, Matisse leads; Picasso follows.

Click here to view the slide show.