I have been thinking that this blog would be a good place to share my art historical knowledge with the world since I am now finished my BA. Over these past four years I have learned a lot, but I want to start with two intriguing humans who are fresh in my mind: Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Both of them had close connections with one of the coolest and most fab collectors out there named Gertrude Stein.
Picasso and Matisse were not fond of each other’s paintings at first, but they seemed to sense the power each had to challenge and stimulate the other. For the rest of their lives each would keep a keen eye on the other’s new work, provoking each other to paint the same subjects, sometimes even with the same title. Picasso once remarked that, “you have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.”
It was in the Steins’ Saturday Salon in Paris that Picasso and Matisse met in 1906. Picasso saw Matisse’s Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra, 1907, inspired by Manet’s controversial Olympia, 1863, hanging on Gertrude’s wall. He immediately used this work as inspiration for his drawings leading up to his famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, as well as Nude with a Towel, 1907, and Three Women, 1908, both of which Gertrude bought. These acquisitions of Picasso’s recent works were bold, especially when viewed in the light of the negative reception of his art during this period — poorly understood, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon would be left in his studio for several years and not exhibited until 1916.
At the time Matisse and Picasso met, they seemed to have little in common. They were as different, said Matisse, as the North and South Poles. Matisse was born in a northern district of French Flanders in 1869, into a family and region who made their living weaving brightly colored textiles. He had gone to Paris to study law, later taking up painting on the sly, attending art classes before and after a day’s work as a law clerk. He was 22 years old when he decided to become an artist, ready to copy the old masters in the Louvre and keener still to capture Parisian life on paper and canvas.
Picasso was born 12 years later, in 1881, in the Spanish town of Málaga. His father was a painter, and Picasso’s first word was said to be “pencil.” A child prodigy, he soaked up his father’s lessons. In 1900 Picasso was nearly 19 and ready for Paris. By then he could draw like Raphael and Ingres, but the ever-changing artist inside him demanded something else.
Matisse had nearly a decade of radical painting under his belt by the time they met in 1906, while Picasso was just emerging from his blue and rose periods and about to explode into Cubism. Matisse was the leader of the “fauves,” or “wild beasts,” as they were known, for their use of “brutal” colours. One of the paintings Picasso saw in 1906 was one of Matisse’s fauve experiments — Le Bonheur de vivre, or The Joy of Life. It is a scene of reclining nudes, embracing lovers, and carefree dancers. The colors are flat, the figures sketched in, some drawn as sensuously as Ingres’ nudes, others as boldly as Cézanne’s bathers. Nothing like it had ever been painted, even by Matisse. Picasso understood this at once and took it as a challenge.
First shown at the Salon des Indépendents in 1906, Le Bonheur de vivre seemed incomprehensible. It was greeted, recalled Matisse’s first dealer Berthe Weill, with “an uproar of jeers, angry babble and screaming laughter.” Yet in this painting Matisse had created a harmony of unexpected elements that he would draw on throughout his career. Picasso might well have had this canvas in mind when he said, years later, “In the end, everything depends on one’s self, on a fire in the belly with a thousand rays. Nothing else counts. That is why, for example, Matisse is Matisse. . . He’s got the sun in his gut.”
And in a sense, Picasso became Picasso because he would not let Matisse outshine him. Soon after seeing Le Bonheur de vivre, he set to work on his most ambitious painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. He repainted it over and over, using primitive masks and postcards of African women for models, drawing on Cézanne and Gauguin as guides. As Picasso was struggling with his Demoiselles, he was jolted again by Matisse, who exhibited his shocking Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra in 1907. Matisse had also used a postcard of a nude figure as the model, and was looking hard at Cézanne and Gauguin. With this new painting Matisse was stepping on Picasso’s toes before Picasso could even put his foot down. The Steins bought the Blue Nude, with its misshapen figure reclining against a decorative background of palms. Today we know of the legacy left by Les Demoiselles, but in 1907 no one could guess its future popularity, not even Picasso.
And so their rivalry, competition, and friendship continued for the rest of their lives. Although 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. 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 Albert Museum 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.”
The 19th-century painter Eugène Delacroix, who inspired Matisse’s odalisques and, after Matisse died, Picasso’s, once wrote of his own struggle to be modern. The problem, as he saw it, was how to keep the freshness of a first sketch when making a final, finished painting. That’s what putting hidden tricks up front was all about. It’s why Matisse and Picasso chose to draw crudely when each could draw like Ingres, why Matisse liked his paintings to look unfinished and Picasso was bent on tearing everything apart. They took different approaches, but between them they made art modern.
“Only one person has the right to criticize me,” said Matisse, “and it’s Picasso.” After Matisse died in 1954, Picasso was alone, but not quite. “When Matisse died, he left me his odalisques as a legacy,” he proclaimed, and proceeded to dissect them in a series of his own paintings. Picasso died in 1973, believing to the end, as he said, “All things considered, there is only Matisse.”
Matisse: In Search of True Painting. Edited by Dorthe Aagesen and Rebecca Rabinow. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012; Picasso: The Monograph 1881-1973. Brigitte Léal, Christine Piot, Marie-Laure Bernadac. Barcelona: Polı́grafa, 2009; Matisse Picasso. Elizabeth Cowling et al. London: Tate Publishing, 2002; The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde. Edited by Janet Bishop, Cécile Debray, and Rebecca Rabinow. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2011.
Cordially, etc. etc.