Magazine article The New Yorker

Twin Peaks

Magazine article The New Yorker

Twin Peaks

Article excerpt

"Matisse Picasso," which has come to the Museum of Modern Art's temporary home, in Queens, after triumphant appearances in Paris and London, is a marvellous exhibition with a frail hook. With sixty-seven mostly top-drawer paintings, drawings, and sculptures by Picasso and sixty-six by Matisse, the show hardly needs a pretext, but it has one: a running dialogue of mutual attractions and abrasions between the twin godheads of modern painting. "This exhibition tells one of the most compelling and rewarding stories in the entire history of art," the catalogue introduction by the art historian John Golding begins. I'll buy that. But to extract the story--an elliptical tale, full of hints, puzzles, and fine discriminations--while looking at so much stupendous art is like trying to check the oil in a speeding truck. The show's insiderish self-regard, radiant with the leisurely delectations of an eminent curatorial team, including the museum's former chief curator of painting and sculpture Kirk Varnedoe, is unlikely to charm ordinary viewers, who, clutching their twenty-dollar, timed tickets, must elbow through packed rooms for disjointed encounters with the works. But the installation, by Varnedoe and the museum's curator-at-large John Elderfield, is crisp and considerately spacious, and to miss this event would be a shame. It will be a permanent reference point in the challenge of deciding what survives of the rich, estranged legacy of twentieth-century art in our drastically altered times.

At the heart of the show's appeal is a cultural come-on that has not changed: stardust. To have been the best at something in a sufficiently consequential way still earns historical figures--Albert Einstein, T. S. Eliot, Muhammad Ali--near-religious prestige. In the case of Picasso and Matisse, there's the added fascination of two giants whose respective claims to the Best Painter award involve sharply disparate talents, temperaments, and philosophies. Both of them had the same ambition at the same time and in the same place: to make art that would exploit the novelty and uncover the continuity of a world under convulsive stress. Neither artist, while rolling over lesser rivals, could eclipse the other, as each freely admitted. Plainly, they made each other better, but in ways that are far more difficult to evaluate than the show's confident, side-by-side presentation of their works suggests. In fact, their give-and-take is hardly unusual among artistic contemporaries. (It yielded nothing as significant as the Cubism that developed out of Picasso's symbiotic relationship with Braque.) Art history is Hobbesian; all ambitious artists compete with all other artists, living and dead. This showdown of a show is an occasionally bristling, more often absent-minded standoff--no Ali vs. Frazier, though similar in its even match of antithetical styles.

Matisse was a thirty-one-year-old paterfamilias and a presence in the Parisian art world when he began showing in 1901, the year that Picasso, a twenty-year-old tyro from Barcelona, arrived in town. Although they were immediately aware of each other, they did not meet until 1905 or early 1906, when they were brought together by the champion salonistes Gertrude and Leo Stein. (These events are laid out in a finely detailed chronology in this show's catalogue.) Alfred H. Barr, the founding director of moma, once decided, on the basis of Matisse's early "Blue Nude," of 1901, that the older artist inspired the younger's Blue Period. Evidently, this wasn't so. The use of a dominant, pure color--especially blue--was in the air then. A magical colorist, Matisse rose to fame as the chef d'ecole of the new century's first major art movement, Fauvism. At the same time, he was adapting structural principles from Cezanne, notably the strategy of arranging all the parts of a subject frontally, in splayed, shallow pictorial spaces. Violent color and crackling composition fused in Matisse's revolutionary masterpiece "Joy of Life" (1905-06). …

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