Matisse & Picasso

As a new exhibition makes clear, these friends and rivals spurred each other to change the course of 20th-century art

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Matisse had nearly a decade of radical painting under his belt in 1906, while Picasso was just emerging from his blue and rose reveries, and about to explode into Cubism. Matisse was the leader of the “fauves,” or “wild beasts,” as they were known, for their use of “brutal” colors. “All they give us in the way of sunlight,” a critic carped of Matisse’s paintings in 1906, “is trouble with the retina.” Matisse’s companion in creating fauve landscapes, André Derain, later recalled their sense of artistic violence. “Colors became sticks of dynamite,” he said. “They were primed to discharge light.” Matisse, more gently, said that he was finding out “how to make my colors sing.”


One of the paintings Picasso saw in 1906 was Matisse’s extraordinary synthesis of his fauve experiments—Le Bonheur de vivre, or The Joy of Life (p. 63). It is an idyllic scene of reclining nudes, embracing lovers and carefree dancers. The colors are flat, the figures sketched in, some drawn as sensuously as Ingres’ nudes, others as boldly as Cézanne’s bathers. Nothing like it had ever been painted, even by Matisse. Picasso understood this at once and took it as a challenge.


First shown at the Salon des Indépendents in 1906, Le Bonheur de vivre seemed incomprehensible. It was greeted, recalled Matisse’s first dealer Berthe Weill, with “an uproar of jeers, angry babble and screaming laughter. . . . ” Yet in this painting Matisse had achieved a new kind of serenity, a harmony of unexpected elements, that he would draw on throughout his career. Picasso might well have had this canvas in mind when he said, years later, “In the end, everything depends on one’s self, on a fire in the belly with a thousand rays. Nothing else counts. That is why, for example, Matisse is Matisse. . . . He’s got the sun in his gut.”


And in a sense, Picasso became Picasso because he would not let Matisse outshine him. Soon after seeing Le Bonheur de vivre, he set to work on his most ambitious and startling painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. He repainted it over and over, using primitive masks and postcards of African women for models, drawing on Cézanne and Gauguin as guides, summoning all his will to undo the past and invent the future. It began as a tableau with a sailor surrounded by five prostitutes, all surprised by a student holding a skull entering stage right. It ended with just the women, their stares directed straight out at the viewer. As Picasso worked, he simplified, reducing the faces to crude masks, the bodies to fragmented fetishes, imbuing the canvas with a power both primitive and unimaginably new. None of this came easily or quickly.


As Picasso was struggling with his Demoiselles, he was jolted again by Matisse, who exhibited his shocking Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra (below) in 1907. Matisse had also used a postcard (of a nude figure) as the model, and was looking hard at Cézanne and Gauguin. With this new painting Matisse was stepping on Picasso’s toes before Picasso could even put his foot down. The Steins grabbed up the Blue Nude, with its misshapen (some critics said “reptilian”) figure reclining against a decorative background of palms. At the Steins, Picasso saw a young visitor from New York, writer Walter Pach, staring at the work. Pach later gave this account: “ ‘Does that interest you?’ asked Picasso. ‘In a way, yes . . . it interests me like a blow between the eyes. I don’t understand what he is thinking.’ ‘Neither do I,’ said Picasso. ‘If he wants to make a woman, let him make a woman. If he wants to make a design, let him make a design. This is between the two.’ ”


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