Artistic differences that led to greatness

It has never been easy to categorize the relationship of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

The two undoubted giants of 20th century art might be thought complex enough as individuals. But the entanglements of their mutually influential relationship led to an even greater complexity.

The interweaving story of their shared rivalry and respect, continuing for more than four decades, is spelled out in a major exhibition, "Matisse Picasso," at Tate Modern. It illustrates how each artist was crucially disturbed by the other's work, and how both turned this disruption into a potent driving force to forward their development.

The 131 paintings, drawings, and sculptures in this show span the period from 1906 to 1961. (Picasso even continued the relationship in his work after Matisse's death in 1954). The exhibition, attracting large crowds, opened May 11. In slightly different forms, it will travel to Paris and New York.

Both Picasso and Matisse were ruthlessly persistent and unpredictable. Neither was the sort of artist who flares up brilliantly and then burns out. Nor were either of them like the artist who finds his own "voice" – and then spends the rest of his career reiterating or protecting that voice. Instead, they had an extraordinary ability to redefine their art and reinvent themselves.

Their critical reputations fluctuated. But it seems that even after 2000, their frequently recognized stature remains as considerable as ever. But how long they can be called "modern"? Haven't they already achieved old masterhood?

Often the influence of one artist on another can be a case of the uncertain or weak following the strong and positive. But the to-and-fro counterinfluence these two exerted upon each other was mutually titanic. Eventually, it was their very fame that drew them together, and their fruitful rivalry later turned into a friendship.

Not that they always got along. In 1926, Matisse wrote: "I have not seen Picasso for years. I don't care to see him again.... He is a bandit waiting in ambush."

They shocked each other. They fiercely competed with, acknowledged, and admired each other. Picasso, the (self-admitted) thief and destroyer, swallowed and disgorged Matisse's work. For example, he took the typical, lucidly colored Matisse image of a woman sinuously at ease in an armchair, and turned it into a tortured female nude whose sharp, hard color seems to refute everything Matisse stands for.

Matisse, in his turn, digested, pondered, considered, and pushed his art forward, knowing he could not ignore Picasso's ugly angst. But ultimately, as the show's cocurator John Golding puts it in the catalog, they became "fixed points in each others' lives."

Picasso concluded: "All things considered, there is only Matisse." Matisse: "Only one person has the right to criticize me.... It's Picasso."

There's no denying that their respective visions were profoundly antithetical. To start with, their ages and cultural differences were substantial. Picasso was 12 years Matisse's junior, and when he arrived in Paris from his native Spain, the very French Matisse was already regarded as a daring, often outrageous, protagonist in the avant-garde. New boy Picasso played bull to this toreador.

They exchanged pictures early (first in 1907), and were still doing so toward the end of Matisse's career. This was much more than etiquette. They needed to study each other.

After Matisse died, Picasso thought of himself as an inheritor of some aspects of Matisse's territory: his odalisques, his paintings of his studio, and even his use of color.

Matisse said they were "as different as the North Pole is from the South Pole." He (like almost everyone else) loathed Picasso's primeval "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (sadly not at this venue). But it could not be ignored. Nor could cubism. Matisse had to absorb it into his work, while not losing the essence of his own vision. Both artists were, paradoxically, modernists and traditionalists at the same time.

But one gigantic divide between them was that while Picasso's work used painting and sculpture in an autobiographical way, you learn almost nothing about Matisse's private life from his works.

Another enormous difference was that, as cocurator Kirk Varnedoe writes, Picasso pushes into "the grotesque, the horrific, the absurd," while Matisse, in love with serenity and an art he described as "devoid of troubling ... subject matter," "generally avoided" such areas of the psyche as pain or suffering. Yet Matisse's early pre-Picasso "fauve" paintings struck people as savage.

These two artists were opponents exploring and exploiting each other. But even their similarities were not simple. Both betrayed an endless fascination with the theme of "artist and model," yet only one (Matisse) actually used a model. Both found painting human faces problematic and often painted them as masks or signs as a way out. Yet how different their signs were!

In the end, they were as alike, and unalike, as apples and oranges.

• 'Matisse Picasso' is at the Tate Modern in London through Aug. 18, at the Grand Palais in Paris Sept. 25 to Jan. 6, 2003, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York Feb. 13 to May 19, 2003. (The works in the show vary somewhat among the venues.)

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