It’s a comment that reflects Picasso’s own struggle at that moment. Years later he would tell the French writer André Malraux of something else that shaped his Demoiselles. Matisse had shown him an African statue he’d bought. Then Picasso went to the dingy ethnographic museum in Paris, the Trocadero, with its collection of primitive artifacts. It smelled like a flea market, but it opened his eyes to the magic of masks and fetishes. “If you give spirits a shape, you break free from them,” he said. Suddenly, “I grasped why I was a painter. All alone in that museum, surrounded by masks, Red Indian dolls, dummies covered with dust. The Demoiselles’ must have come that day . . . because it was my first exorcizing picture.” When he finished painting it, Picasso had indeed changed everything. British art historian John Golding, one of the show’s curators, writes in the MoMAcatalog: “If Le Bonheur de vivre is one of the landmarks in the history of art, the Les Demoiselles . . . changed its very course. It remains the most significant single twentieth-century painting.” But in 1907, nobody knew that, not even Picasso. Matisse was horrified, along with the others who came to see it in Picasso’s studio. The painter Georges Braque almost choked, Vollard recoiled, Leo Stein laughed and Picasso, frustrated and hurt, eventually took the canvas off its stretcher and put it aside without exhibiting it.
Matisse wasted little time in painting an unflinching response—his 1908 Bathers with a Turtle. It’s a painting that truly set the two painters apart, even as they drew on the same sources. Cézanne was everywhere in Picasso’s painting, especially in its geometric fragmentations. But another aspect of Cézanne was evident in Matisse’s new work, an awkward, almost childlike drawing style. MoMAcurator and Matisse scholar John Elderfield says of the artists, “Picasso is taking Cézanne’s elements—the cone, cylinder and sphere—into Cubism. Matisse is taking Cézanne’s interest in the wholeness and the clarity of figures. They’re taking almost opposite interpretations of what they see in Cézanne: Picasso is understanding it as decomposition, and Matisse is understanding it as composition.”
Cézanne was not their only source of inspiration. Both Picasso and Matisse had viewed a collection of Gauguin woodcuts in 1906, and his South Seas primitivism showed up in woodcuts they both made soon after. As French curator Baldassari comments, both Matisse and Picasso were looking at anything that would help them break with the past. “Picasso was completely fascinated by photography,” she says. “And Matisse said he used photographs to get over his academic way of drawing. They used images from erotic cinema meant for voyeurs, not painters. The question of line, of composition, was secondary, although the distortion, the perversion of line, was very important to them. It was a game with form, with figuration. They defigured figuration! The question at the moment was how to leave the past. It was the question of ugliness . . . why not ugliness?”
In the autumn of 1907, Matisse and Picasso had agreed to swap paintings. As Gertrude Stein tells it, each painter selected what he considered the worst example of the other’s new work, as if to reassure themselves. Picasso picked a portrait of Matisse’s daughter Marguerite, and Matisse chose a still life, Pitcher, Bowl and Lemon. It was said that Picasso hung the Matisse in a room where his friends threw fake darts at it. You can find this story in the lavish, 400-page MoMAcatalog, but not all the show’s curators believe it.
“It’s wrong!” Baldassari insists. “The portrait was the most important painting for Picasso, and Matisse chose it for him because six years earlier Marguerite had had a serious throat operation. [In the portrait she wears a black band around her neck.] At the time of the operation, Matisse went to a Picasso show at Vollard’s gallery and saw a portrait [of Picasso’s friend Pere Mañach] that had the same flat structure, the same look, like a cutout. Matisse was shocked by it then, but his portrait of Marguerite was an exact mirror of it. The painting was a sort of joke, a tribute to Picasso.”