Matisse and Picasso's Gentle Rivalry

Article excerpt

No artist is an island. Even polar opposites have things in common. Take those two giant figures of 20th-century art, Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).

They even publicly encouraged the clich that they belonged to irreconcilable camps. In 1933, Picasso said: "Matisse paints beautiful and elegant pictures," while Matisse said that Picasso was "capricious and unpredictable." Picasso added that Matisse "is understanding." Matisse added that Picasso "understands things."

Their territories are, indeed, perfectly distinguishable. To mistake a Picasso for a Matisse, or vice versa, is impossible. Yet throughout their careers, Matisse's and Picasso's fascination for each other's work became almost obsessive. A remarkable exhibition at the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, focuses on the artists' relationship during the last three decades of Matisse's life. They were yoked together. But not as Picasso and Braque were said to have been yoked when inventing the structural disjunctions of cubism. Those two were like climbers on the same mountain. Matisse and Picasso were more like mountaineers scaling rival peaks and calling echoingly to each other across the valley. The overall impression from the 100 works assembled for this show and chronicled in a detailed catalog/study by Yve-Alain Bois, Harvard professor of modern art, is that each used the other's work as stimulus, challenge, and critique. The exhibition subtitle calls it "a gentle rivalry." The relationship had not always been precisely "gentle." The acolytes surrounding the 25-year-old competitively modernist Picasso, for example, made fun of Matisse, dismissing him as a bourgeois has-been. Yet the two artists were in contact, and Matisse generously helped and encouraged Picasso. It was also Matisse who sparked Picasso's crucial interest in African art and child art. Picasso is bound to have recognized, and envied, the "wild beast" notoriety of the older Matisse. By 1926, though, Matisse was writing to his daughter bitterly: "I have not seen Picasso for years ... I don't care to see him again ... he is a bandit waiting in ambush." Yet 21 years later, in the south of France, the two not only often visited each other, but kept visiting each other's art in their own. This game of chess (Bois also variously calls it a "duel" and a "tango") had become part of them. They explored each other's territory and then retreated to their own. Matisse, when almost 80, "conscientiously" noted in his sketchbook (as Bois puts it) "the features of Picasso's art . …