Modern art was born ugly. “It was Matisse who took the first step into the undiscovered
land of the ugly,” an American critic wrote, describing the 1910 Salon des Indépendents in Paris. “The drawing was crude past all belief, the color was as atrocious as the subject. Had a new era of art begun?” Even Matisse himself was sometimes shocked by his creations. According to his biographer Hilary Spurling, “His own paintings filled him with perturbation. At some point in 1901 or 1902 he slashed one of them with a palette knife.”
If Henri Matisse was regarded as the father of modern art at the dawn of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso was sleeping with the same muse. When Picasso finished his form shattering masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, portraying five prostitutes with primal masklike faces, their nudity more geometric than erotic, even his early dealer Ambroise Vollard blurted out, “It’s the work of a madman.” Matisse and Picasso didn’t like each other’s paintings at first, but they seemed to sense at once the power each had to challenge and stimulate the other. For the rest of their lives each would keep a keen eye on the other’s new work, provoking each other to paint the same subjects, sometimes even with the same title. There are many ways to describe their relationship. It could be called a rivalry, a dialogue, a chess game—Matisse himself once compared it to a boxing match. But it also became the abiding friendship of two titans who, daring to paint the ugly, transformed our sense of beauty in art.
Their relationship and their art take on new significance in a remarkable exhibition, “Matisse Picasso,” opening February 13 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in its temporary location in Queens. This is a show inspired by Picasso’s remark in old age, “You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.” The exhibition, sponsored by Merrill Lynch, is the result of a collaboration among six curators in three countries, two working with London’s Tate Gallery, where the show first opened last year, two from the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Musée Picasso in Paris, and two working with New York’s MoMA, where it will run through May 19.
The curators themselves express a rare sense of passion about this exhibition. “The relationship of Matisse and Picasso,” says Anne Baldassari, curator of the Musée Picasso, “reflects on the whole history of modern art.” Seeing Matisse and Picasso through each other’s eyes allows the viewer to look at modern art in a fresh way, with the same sense of discovery that electrified the artists and their friends, and shocked their critics, nearly a century ago. We’ve come to look at Matisse as a more traditional, figurative painter, with all those lovely landscapes and odalisques (Turkish harem girls), while Picasso, with his Cubist and violent abstractions, was shattering traditions like a Minotaur in a china shop. In Matisse we see the decorative, in Picasso the destructive. But this is what we’ve learned to see. The show at MoMA makes it clear that such categories can’t contain these artists and may only obscure what modernism is all about.
Baldassari points out that Picasso once said, “If I were not making the paintings I make, I would paint like Matisse,” and Matisse said much the same about Picasso. One begins to see, when their paintings are set side by side, that their choices depended as much on their personalities, their temperaments and emotions, as on their skills and styles as painters. They were both figurative, and both abstract.