Art Enemies

The press release that sparked the Matisse–Picasso rivalry.

“Matisse Picasso,” which opened recently at the Museum of Modern Art in Queens, invites viewers to compare the artistic advances and retreats of the two painters as if they were fencing champions. Blue Nude’s innovative use of color? A palpable hit for Matisse. The unsettling geometries of Les Demoiselles D’Avignon? Touché, Picasso. As noted in Slate’s review, there’s something curious about organizing an exhibition this way: It suggests that competition itself is an aesthetic. But this particular competition is almost a cliché in the art world; there have been several shows comparing Matisse and Picasso, including one as recent as 1999 at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. So, where did this curatorial paradigm come from?

The Matisse–Picasso opposition was invented almost a hundred years ago by a handful of avant-garde poets and painters—including Andre Salmon and Max Jacob—who had an appetite for grand pronouncements. In 1910, Salmon wrote: “There are lovers of art capable of admiring both Picasso and Matisse. These are happy folks whom we must pity.” The rivalry was also fostered by Gertrude and Leo Stein, who, in their salon, liked to put other people’s neuroses in a pot and let them simmer till they boiled over. Early on, Leo Stein made a point of telling Matisse and Picasso, then freshly aware of one another, that an important Parisian art dealer had spent the large sum of 2,000 francs on new paintings by Picasso and the very slightly larger sum of 2,200 francs on new paintings by Matisse.

Apollinaire: sowed the seeds of controversy

Then came a press release by the poet Apollinaire, and the duel was officially on.

Wilhelm-Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky, as he was originally named, was probably born in Rome and appears to have been the illegitimate son of a rebellious Polish girl and a Roman prelate or officer. Then again, he liked to say he was a son of the pope. Or that he was a Russian prince. In the 1890s, he bounced around Italy, Paris, and Southern France, spending some of his adolescence in the casinos in Monaco and scoring a job tutoring the rich daughter of a French count before ending up in Paris, where he set out to become A Poet. He began writing about art to pay the bills. A thuggishly opinionated autodidact, he was on a mission to identify an art of a “new spirit,” driven by “the need to surpass all that was known in art.” Naturalism was for suckers.

Inevitably, his polemics drew some catcalls from the peanut gallery—Apollinaire, one critic wrote, “couldn’t tell a Rubens from a Raphael”—but his flair for promoting novelty (and recognizing what would be en vogue next) was unmistakable. In 1918, an art dealer named Paul Guillaume decided to organize a Matisse/Picasso show; the two were, after all, the pre-eminent painters in Paris, and he hoped to take advantage of an emerging art market. To promote the show, Guillaume sent out a press release (still a relatively new thing) and turned to Apollinaire for a little ghostwriterly flair, which he duly got:

M. Paul Guillaume, whose taste cannot be spoken of too highly, just had the most unusual and unexpected idea, that of bringing together in the same exhibition the two most famous representatives of the two grand opposing tendencies in great contemporary art.

Guillaume intended to get attention and make some money. Instead, through Apollinaire, he accomplished what curators hope to do but rarely manage: He helped invent how we would think of these painters—in this case, as adversaries. From the mouths of tendentious poets to the walls of MoMA.

The contest between Matisse and Picasso was not the only thing Apollinaire’s uncanny critical prescience left us. Early on, he understood that movies were going to become a dominant artistic form. He helped cement the Cubism movement when he published Les Peintres Cubistes in 1912, and he coined the term “surrealism.” He rallied fiercely around younger artists whose work he believed in (including Matisse, Braque, and Picabia). His famous poem “Zone,” in which he described himself as “the most modern European,” encouraged Allen Ginsberg to write “Howl” and had a profound influence on the New York School of poets.

Of course, being so modern, Apollinaire’s Muse was surprise, not beauty. He argued that the artist had to be radical in life as well art. When he met Picasso, it was immediately clear the two men were natural copains. They believed in the volatile possibilities of sex and emotional profligacy, were dedicated to the notion that you could turn anything (a bicycle seat or fragments of a cheap detective novel) into high art, and relished self-mythologization.

Apollinaire soon fell in with a group of writers who became known as “la bande à Picasso,” and around this time, his enthusiasm for Matisse’s work waned. Matisse was an older, retiring, bourgeois ex-law student with a family. Unlike Picasso, he didn’t do things like tell his girlfriends to read the Marquis de Sade in order to prepare for his sexual needs. Though the artistic breaks he was making with tradition were significant, they weren’t as flashy as Picasso’s. Matisse liked rational exegesis. Apollinaire was an enthusiast, not given to sustaining reasoned admiration or critical rigor—the kind of man who went around saying war was beautiful (until he was fighting in one).

And so, although Apollinaire set up Matisse and Picasso as the two contenders for Best in Show, for him the fix was in. Picasso’s enumerations of the urban exemplified modernity. And modernity was everything. For the 1918 show, Apollinaire followed his press release with wildly uneven catalog essays: “If one were to compare Henri Matisse’s work to something, it would have to be an orange,” he wrote, adding that Matisse had “a certain virtue one cannot always define.” About Picasso, he openly raved, calling him “the heir of all the great artists in the past.”

Luckily for us, this was one thing that Apollinaire didn’t have the last word on; with his press release, the MoMA grudge match was born, but there’s still no winner in sight.