Matisse and Picasso's gentle rivalry

No artist is an island. Even polar opposites have things in common. Take those two giant figures of 20th-century art, Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).

They even publicly encouraged the clich that they belonged to irreconcilable camps. In 1933, Picasso said: "Matisse paints beautiful and elegant pictures," while Matisse said that Picasso was "capricious and unpredictable." Picasso added that Matisse "is understanding." Matisse added that Picasso "understands things."

Their territories are, indeed, perfectly distinguishable. To mistake a Picasso for a Matisse, or vice versa, is impossible.

Yet throughout their careers, Matisse's and Picasso's fascination for each other's work became almost obsessive. A remarkable exhibition at the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, focuses on the artists' relationship during the last three decades of Matisse's life. They were yoked together. But not as Picasso and Braque were said to have been yoked when inventing the structural disjunctions of cubism. Those two were like climbers on the same mountain. Matisse and Picasso were more like mountaineers scaling rival peaks and calling echoingly to each other across the valley.

The overall impression from the 100 works assembled for this show and chronicled in a detailed catalog/study by Yve-Alain Bois, Harvard professor of modern art, is that each used the other's work as stimulus, challenge, and critique. The exhibition subtitle calls it "a gentle rivalry." The relationship had not always been precisely "gentle."

The acolytes surrounding the 25-year-old competitively modernist Picasso, for example, made fun of Matisse, dismissing him as a bourgeois has-been. Yet the two artists were in contact, and Matisse generously helped and encouraged Picasso. It was also Matisse who sparked Picasso's crucial interest in African art and child art. Picasso is bound to have recognized, and envied, the "wild beast" notoriety of the older Matisse.

By 1926, though, Matisse was writing to his daughter bitterly: "I have not seen Picasso for years ... I don't care to see him again ... he is a bandit waiting in ambush."

Yet 21 years later, in the south of France, the two not only often visited each other, but kept visiting each other's art in their own. This game of chess (Bois also variously calls it a "duel" and a "tango") had become part of them. They explored each other's territory and then retreated to their own. Matisse, when almost 80, "conscientiously" noted in his sketchbook (as Bois puts it) "the features of Picasso's art ... most foreign to his own...."

They raided each other differently. If Picasso consumed aspects of Matisse to make them his own - radiant color, sensuous arabesque, a decorative continuum, dispersed composition - Matisse's forays into Picasso's grotesque, fragmented world seem more a matter of clarifying his own vision. In the final analysis, Matissean Picassos and Picassoesque Matisses tend to look experimental and transitional. They stick in each other's gullet. They "understood" but did not really understand at all.

'THE Pineapple" was painted by Matisse in 1948, and while it is instantly recognizable as a Matisse, it subsumes Picasso-ish traits. Bois identifies these as "elements of the cubist syntax (dissociation of color and contour; overlapping of planes and its attendant effect of transparency; ambiguous sculptural corporeality of the wrapping paper unfolding around the fruit)."

"Still Life on a Pedestal Table" was painted by Picasso in 1931. Of this, Bois writes that Picasso is "pursuing his tease" of Matisse's "cushy world of odalisques ... and at the same time annexing part of his rival's territory, making sure that this new colony obeys his own rule." Picasso "appropriates [Matisse's] decorative excess ... but flatly refuses to disperse his composition."

This exhibition and thesis, because it concentrates on what Matisse biographer Hilary Spurling calls the "competition and one-upmanship" of Matisse and Picasso, is inevitably partial. The close analysis of their rivalry is revealing (if at times speculative). But the full story includes vast amounts of work in which the two artists are not thinking about each other at all.

One of the persistent themes involves figures in armchairs. Matisse famously said that the pleasure his art gave was "like a good armchair." Hardly the words of the fauve subversive of the early century. The restfulness, serenity, and apparent ease of his art, even at its most revolutionary, is basically foreign to Picasso, the great discomforter. Suffering and disruption are never far from the surface in his work. Only in some of his late, almost throwaway works, when he assumed the role of child artist, is there something of the relaxation and insouciance of Matisse.

* 'Matisse and Picasso: a Gentle Rivalry' is at the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, through May 2.

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