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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By the 1920s, the two painters had drifted apart. Matisse was ensconced in a hotel in Nice painting luxurious odalisques and drawing portraits of women in plumed hats. “The sun-drenched fauve,” wrote filmmaker and poet Jean Cocteau of Matisse, “has become a Bonnard kitten.” In contrast, Picasso was drawing Minotaurs and Satyrs and painting stony neoclassical figures. But even then they kept an eye on each other.


In the late 1920s Picasso fell in love with Marie-Therese Walter, a young woman almost Grecian in her grace. To paint her, Picasso found himself borrowing the more flowing lines, rounded figures and vivid colors of Matisse. For his part, Matisse continued to distill the luminosity of Nice in his paintings. “A little while ago I took a nap under an olive tree,” he had written in 1918 to a friend, “and the color harmonies I saw were so touching. It’s like a paradise you have no right to analyze, but you are a painter, for God’s sake! Nice is so beautiful! Alight so soft and tender, despite its brilliance.”


Bathed in that light, Matisse was more or less abandoning the god Cézanne. In earlier years he had taken courage by telling himself, “If Cézanne is right, I am right.” But talking to a visitor in 1920, he took a painting by Courbet from his wall and said, “This is what I call painting! Whereas this [he pointed to a Cézanne] . . . has less of an effect on me.” And Picasso, drawing on Matisse and even Renoir as he painted his new paramour, was mellowing as well. There were moments when Picasso’s portraits and Matisse’s seemed painted with the same brush, if not the same hand.


Though Picasso stayed in Paris and Matisse remained in the south during World War II, their respect and friendship deepened. Picasso looked after Matisse’s paintings, stored in a bank vault. Matisse, in ill health, defended Picasso against his critics. “This poor man,” Matisse wrote to his son Pierre, “is paying a hard price for his uniqueness. He is living in Paris quietly, has no wish to sell, asks for nothing.”


Yet both men were far too prickly to keep their peace. At the war’s end in 1945, a major show of their work was held at the Victoria and AlbertMuseum in London. As he prepared for this exhibition, Matisse wrote in a notebook: “Tomorrow, Sunday, at 4 o’clock, visit from Picasso. As I’m expecting to see him tomorrow, my mind is at work. I’m doing this propaganda show in London with him. I can imagine the room with my pictures on one side, and his on the other. It’s as if I were going to cohabit with an epileptic.”


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