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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And Picasso’s painting held a joke for Matisse as well. A short time before the exchange, Baldassari explains, Matisse had been attacked in the press for a still life of his own. “Lemons are not flat, Monsieur Matisse,” a critic had written. Picasso’s lemon was even flatter than Matisse’s. Moreover, Picasso’s still life, made at the same time as the Demoiselles, is a clear leap into Cubism. “It’s a very important exchange,” says Baldassari, “a beautiful exchange. It’s like an emblem, showing each other that they understand each other’s program. It’s like the first key to understanding them.” It’s as if they were saying to each other: “Here’s how to be modern.”


Neither was convinced. When Picasso’s friend Braque sent a group of his own new paintings to the Salon d’Automne in 1908, Matisse was one of the jurors. “They’re made of little cubes!” he protested as he voted to reject them. A critic heard this and baptized “Cubism” in the press. At the same time, though, Matisse took his most important collector,a Russian textile czar named Shchukin, to see the Demoiselles in Picasso’s studio. Shchukin, whose Moscow home already boasted walls of Monets, Renoirs, van Goghs, Gauguins and Cézannes along with his Matisses, was at first shocked, but soon began buying Picassos too. It was an act of great generosity on Matisse’s part.


Picasso plunged into Cubism with both feet, collaborating in the beginning with Braque. Matisse’s response can best be seen in one of his most beautiful paintings, a portrait of Madame Matisse made in 1913, in which her face appears masklike (p. 65). Baldassari says that Picasso was sick that summer and Matisse visited him often. In Picasso’s studio, he saw a white African mask hanging near the portrait of Marguerite he had given Picasso. “When he painted the white mask for Madame Matisse’s face,” she continues, “Matisse was playing a sort of trick with Picasso. And right after this, he became involved in exploring Cubism in his own painting.” Of Madame Matisse’s portrait, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire said Matisse had reinvented voluptuousness in painting. Abstract as it is, with its masklike face and flattened sense of space, the serene portrait contrasts strikingly, despite certain similarities in format and subject, with Picasso’s Portrait of a Young Girl, done the following year. In this painting, Picasso’s Cubist approach undermines the serenity of the pose. But even in opposition, as in these two portraits, the dialogue between the two artists was clear.


Sometimes, however, it was more subtle. One painter might look far into the other’s past, taking up where he had long ago left off. There are many examples of such cross-pollination in the show, but one of the most striking is Picasso’s monumental The Three Dancers. It was done in 1925 when he was working on the sets for the great Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Matisse had done the sets and costumes for a Diaghilev ballet a few years before, which irked Picasso when he heard about it. “Matisse!” he snapped. “What is a Matisse? A balcony with a big red flowerpot falling all over it!”


But when Picasso set to work on The Three Dancers, he was likely looking over his shoulder at a painting Matisse had made in 1912, Nasturtiums with ‘Dance’II. The visual analogies are obvious: they both distort the classic theme of the Three Graces, that trio of Greek goddesses who dispense charm and beauty. Picasso’s painting, however, was utterly savage, while Matisse’s retained some sense of grace. At the time, Picasso’s marriage to Olga, an ex-ballerina, was failing, and he’d just gotten news of an old friend’s death. The Three Dancers, like the Demoiselles, was a kind of exorcism.


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