Friendship and Rivalry: Matisse and Picasso Were the Two Greatest Artists of the 20th Century. They've Been Shown Together Before-But Never as Stunningly as in This Grand Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art

By Plagens, Peter | Newsweek, February 17, 2003 | Go to article overview

Friendship and Rivalry: Matisse and Picasso Were the Two Greatest Artists of the 20th Century. They've Been Shown Together Before-But Never as Stunningly as in This Grand Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art


Plagens, Peter, Newsweek


Byline: Peter Plagens

Squeezed into its MOMA-in-exile headquarters in a rehabilitated Queens, N.Y, factory, the Museum of Modern Art will permit fewer than 4,000 people a day to get a look at its blockbuster exhibition "Matisse Picasso." That'll mean a total audience of about 330,000 people--a lot, to be sure, but a whole lot fewer than the half million who saw it late last year in London and the 580,000 who saw it in Paris before it closed there just six weeks ago. That's a pity because this show is one for the ages. Yes, "Matisse Picasso" is unrelentingly didactic from the moment you check your coat, and you can get so caught up in the painting vs. painting matchups that the exhibition starts to feel like "Survivor: The South of France." But the art is so good that it doesn't matter. Right away you're hit with Picasso's eight-foot-high "Desmoiselles d'Avignon" (1907), arguably the single most important painting of the 20th century, right next to Matisse's huge "Bathers With a Turtle" (1908), arguably the most beautifully enigmatic. It's almost too much--like a surf-and-turf dinner with chateaubriand and a seared ahi-tuna steak on the same giant plate. This isn't the first dual exhibition of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso--the first was in 1918. It's just the best. These men were the twin peaks of modern art: they lived to 84 and 91, respectively, they were unflaggingly productive, even during two world wars, and they continually uttered profoundly quotable quotes. Matisse remarked that a painting ought to be like an armchair for the tired businessman, to which Picasso replied, "A good painting ought to bristle with razor blades." In the end, they shook hands like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and admitted that neither would be what he was without the other. "No one has ever looked at Matisses's paintings more carefully than I," Picasso said. "And no one has looked at mine more carefully than he."

Matisse was born in flat, gray Picardy in 1869. His father pushed him to be a lawyer and Matisse didn't dabble with paints until he was 20 and recuperating from appendicitis. He barely got into art school at the ripe old age of 26. At the same age Picasso had already whizzed through the blue and rose periods and was busy inventing cubism. But Matisse had a 12-year head start; when he and Picasso first met at Gertrude Stein's apartment in 1906, Matisse was the leader of the most avant-garde artists in Paris, the fauves, or "wild beasts." Wild as he was on canvas, Matisse in person was poised, well dressed and as punctual (as his son later said) "as a Swiss express."

Picasso was born in Malaga, in sunny southern Spain. He was dirt poor, scruffy and at first knew only enough French to interject a "oui, oui" into Paris's soiree chatter. But Picasso instantly realized who'd have to be deposed in order for him to become avant-gardiste No. 1, and Matisse knew a dangerous up-and-comer when he saw one. So they exchanged paintings. Each cagily selected a weak work by the other (Picasso picked a portrait of Matisse's daughter; Matisse chose a clumsy still life), so that when artist friends came to their studios to talk about the current scene they could say, "Oh, yeah, that guy."

Two 1906 self-portraits tell the story better than words can. The bearded, mature Matisse, trying for a little dash by wearing a brightly striped sailor shirt, looks quizzically out of the frame with an eye cocked warily at... Picasso? Pablo is all business with palette in hand and the quiet confidence of a young contender heading toward the center of the ring. The first round went to Picasso. He was championed by such poet-critic heavyweights as Andre Breton, Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau. A host of artists, including Georges Braque and Andre Derain, defected from the fauves to the cubists. Matisse felt toppled. …

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Friendship and Rivalry: Matisse and Picasso Were the Two Greatest Artists of the 20th Century. They've Been Shown Together Before-But Never as Stunningly as in This Grand Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art
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