Matisse Picasso

Art Review by Donald Goddard

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In the twentieth century it was taught that the history of European modern art began basically with David and Goya--the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath. As Turner and Constable watched from England and Friedrich from Germany, the Romanticism of Delacroix and Géricault and the Neoclassicism of Ingres then asserted themselves, followed by the Realism of Courbet, augmented by Corot, Daumier, Millet, and the Barbizon School. Manet and Degas announced the arrival of modern life and the Impressionists--Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pisarro, and others--transformed conventional space with their sallies into nature and dazzling fragmentations of color and light. Then Gauguin introduced a new kind of old spiritualism, Van Gogh a new kind of expressionism, Seurat a new kind of formalism, and Cézanne a profoundly analytic approach to nature and the space of the picture. Except for Cézanne, Monet, Renoir, and Gauguin, the 1890s were a special case, with Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, and Bonnard celebrating Bohemian and bourgeois life in Paris, while Munch, Hodler, and a host of Symbolists brought the century to a turgid close.

Thus the stage was set for the grand entrance of modernism itself, which swept away the old-fashioned idea of objective reality and replaced it with a more complicated, liberated, and far-reaching vision of pictorial space. First came the Fauves in 1905--Derain, Vlaminck, Braque, Camoin, Marquet, Dufy, and especially Matisse--who freed color to act on its own, without strict reference to nature. Then came Cubism, which opened up space and form with a vengeance, previewing with Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907 and continuing through various phases for years afterwards in the work of Picasso, Braque, Gris, Léger, Delaunay, Duchamp, and many others. Fauvism was associated with various movements, including Expressionism in Germany, and Cubism spread throughout Europe with alarming speed, to Italy, England, Czechoslovakia, the Balkans, Russia, and even the United States.

There followed a bewildering array of movements in Europe and the United States--Futurism, Orphism, Synchromism, Vorticism, Rayonism, Suprematism, Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism, Neo-Plasticism, the New Objectivity, Concrete Art, Regionalism, Social Realism, Abstract Expressionism, Tachism, the New Realism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Neo-Expressionism, even Pluralism--some labeled by hostile critics but most of them proclaimed by the artists themselves. The century began with an incredible outburst of new ideas and overturning of old ones, paralleling the revolutions in physics, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, and technology. Fairly soon, aesthetic changes were accompanied by manifestos, performances, statements of purpose, and poetic challenges, ranging from trenchant to gleeful. Absurdist as it often was, especially after the first world war, art was driven by political hopefulness for humankind, and by programs for change. Yet hopefulness and despair were never far apart.

In this history, Matisse and Picasso have represented a kind of transcendence, out in front of or above and beyond the struggles of art. In the beginning, from different, sometimes opposing, or at least competitive places, they were understood by fellow artists, poets, and others to be the leaders of liberation from conventions of the past. Eventually, and until recently especially among American artists and scholars, they became the avatars of modern art, the artists whose work was the measure of all things, even in the public mind. They were number one and number two--Picasso ("All things considered, there is only Matisse") and Matisse ("Only one person has the right to criticize me . . . It's Picasso"), Matisse and Picasso, depending on who you consulted. Thus was established the ranking system of modern art, through which major and important minor figures were settled upon, with Matisse and Picasso at the top, and which continues to operate as a marketing mechanism, even without Picasso and Matisse. Keeping an eye on each other, and often influenced by each other, the two artists were in contact, sometimes closely, from 1906 when they met until Matisse's death in 1954. Their work was shown together, notably in 1918 in Paris and 1945 in London, interestingly the last years of the two world wars. But this is the first exhibition about the dialogue between them and how it affected their work. In the catalogue, John Golding cites a quote that has been attributed to both of them (which perhaps indicates that neither of them said it): "We must talk to each other as much as we can. When one of us dies, there will be some things that the other will never be able to talk of with anyone else."

(In lieu of illustrations, I will refer to plate numbers and pages in the catalogue for the exhibition, published in 2002 by Tate Publishing, a division of Tate Enterprises, Ltd.)

On September 1, 1940, two and a half months after the German army had taken Paris, Matisse wrote from Nice in a long letter to his son Pierre in New York about ". . . the uncertainty in which we're living, and the shame--the shame of suffering a catastrophe which we're not responsible for. As Pablo said to me: 'It's the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.' If everyone had minded his own business as Picasso and I did ours, this would not have happened." In fact, Matisse did mind his own business, after as well as before the letter. Now he was getting old; he was sick and would undergo surgery four months later; he had recently divorced his wife of 42 years. He continued to heroically pursue pure shape and color, equivalency with nature, in drawings and paintings of still lifes and models in his Hôtel Régina room in Nice and then his Villa Le Rêve in Vence. In Paris, Picasso also continued, in darker tones and often under attack from unsympathetic artists and regimes, less removed from the anguish of occupation.

Both were determined to pursue the logic of their aesthetic ambitions--Matisse to consume the world and reconfigure it in essentialist color-forms, Picasso to subdue a world in almost apocalyptic turmoil--and it is to their credit that the war did not hold them back from their absolute determination to define everything in terms of line, shape, and color. But it is also an indication of their limitations. The world itself is enclosed in their world of art. The Ecole des Beaux-Arts is the enemy.

The process began in the years before the first world war, in Fauvism and Cubism, through which Matisse and Picasso really did break beyond the strictures of the academy concerning space, color, line, form, and objective reality. It is not that there were no precedents in the work of the Impressionists, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, Vuillard, and others, but that Matisse and Picasso made a quantum leap, not on their own, to be sure, but with unusual certainty. Each of them made a grand statement about what they expected painting to be, Matisse in The Joy of Life of 1905-06 (not in this show but still in the Barnes Collection in Merion Station, Pennsylvania), and Picasso in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907 (no. 7, p. 47, Museum of Modern Art, New York). Matisse's scene is curvilinear and lyrical, full of brilliantly juxtaposed colors, and suggestive of a faraway arcadian set piece from the mythological past. Picasso's is jagged and aggressive, full of blatant flesh colors, and suggestive of a closeup ritualistic scene from the mythological present--almost a parody of the Matisse.

From this point on, both artists operated on the level of art--art as ultimate reality. Their methods are radical but in the service of traditional subjects--still lifes, female nudes, interiors with figures--as though they were detained in an academic time warp. It is ironic that in deliberately moving away from the details of visual reality, both Picasso and Matisse emphasize visual reality rather than its associative meanings. In most of their work, the settings are claustrophobic; one senses a single room with figures and/or still life in which there is no space for movement, except in the mind or hand of the artist. Some have windows revealing very little outside, as in Matisse's Interior with a Violin of 1917-18 (no. 77, p. 162), with its half-closed shutters, or a schematic bit of sky, as in Picasso's Mandolin and Guitar of 1924 (no. 76, p. 157). When they do venture outside, the space is flat and abstracted though still based on land, sea, and sky--Matisse's Bathers with a Turtle of 1908 (no. 8, p. 47), Picasso's Figures on the Seashore of 1931 (no. 111, p. 219).

To some mostly younger contemporaries--Boccioni, Kirchner, Duchamp, Gris, Schwitters, Hoch, Malevich, Rozanova, for example--the transformation of pictorial space suggested an extraordinary depth of connectedness with the social, political, technological, cultural, intellectual, and natural worlds in which they lived. Older contemporaries, like Vuillard and Munch, precursors but not practitioners of the new breakthroughs, nonetheless advanced in the present with their own aesthetics of connectedness. But Picasso and Matisse, in the confines of their own studios--their workplaces and mind-places--prepared for grand themes, populated by dancers, musicians, lovers, acrobats, mythical beasts (in Picasso), and artists (themselves), or for the idea of them, and became acutely attuned to their own places within the grand history of art, which included African sculpture, Oceanic art (for Matisse), ancient Iberian sculpture (for Picasso), Japanese prints, Persian miniatures (for Matisse), ancient Greek sculpture, Michelangelo, Velázquez (for Picasso), Delacroix, Ingres, and Cézanne.

It was the ambition of both Picasso and Matisse, and usually the result that they achieved, to bring everything to the fore, to lock themselves and the viewer into what is there on the surface of the painting, that is, line and plane. In a sense, the earlier, analytic phase of Cubism, practiced by Picasso, was too illusionistic--all those mysterious shaded planes seeming to signify depth and various dimensions but without any real indication of what they referred to (Picasso, The Guitar Player, 1910, no. 62, p. 127). The later, synthetic phase solved the problem by introducing collage and other flat shapes to hold the surface, though leaving the question of meaning moot (Picasso, Still Life with Compotier, 1914-15, no. 74, p. 155). Of course, Matisse always tended in that direction anyway. For both artists, painting was like a mathematical equation written on a board, which allows no escape into space. It is simply there, summing everything up, the fully evolved aspect of reality, of what could be before us. The ultimate goal and justification is the simple existence of the picture. It is neither necessary nor possible to derive levels of meaning, only rather mundane or non-reflexive associations.

At this point, it is possible to say that Picasso and Matisse are concerned with the deepest meaning of painting and with where the artist stands between reality and representation. In what ways are volumes or shapes and space continuous or discontinuous? They are, of course, both at the same time. The interest is in the phenomenology of painting and therefore in perception, in such a way that it is not possible to move beyond the conjunction of disjunction. Cubism is all about joining. And later, the joining of curved line, straight lines, and color planes in Picasso's Large Still Life on a Pedestal Table of 1931 (no. 162, p. 314) is final. There is no way into it or out of it. Likewise, Matisse's cutouts, like Flowing Hair of 1952 (no. 164, p. 321) are final--no way in, no way out. As much as the viewer, both artists get stuck in the phenomenological trap, Picasso's trompe-l'esprit, "trap for the mind," and, in Anne Baldassari's works in the catalogue, "a neverending attempt to undermine visual habits, to delude the deluded eye."

Picasso (and Matisse in another way) makes it impossible not to engage the world's being drastically out of kilter, but there is something so self-referential about this that one is forced to be heroically combative all the time. It is not possible to accept what is there. It must be reshaped, subdued, or at least confronted in its grotesqueness, or its inadequacy. Picasso's forms transmogrify, and his figures assume identities beyond them somewhere. People become acrobats, tables, clowns; Gertrude Stein acquires an ancient Iberian head; Picasso himself becomes a bull. Matisse, on the other hand, refuses to credit the person modeling, saying "The reaction comes from me and not from the subject." And there he appears in some drawings (nos. 135, 137, 138, p. 263), in his suit and tie, rendering the outstretched figure of a nude model at very close range.

Both Matisse and Picasso are self-involved. Considered together, as they often considered each other one and two, the circle of self-involvement is closed. And as an ingenious and self-fulfilling system of art language it becomes palatable to us, shaping our idea of what art should be. It simply lacks the mystery and humility of crediting complexity and not really knowing everything.

The pictures in the catalogue are arranged pretty much in the comparative way they were in the show, often diminishing both artists. While most of the catalogue's texts pay homage to the two artists and tautologically concern whatever links existed between them, Anne Baldassari does manage to capture something of the significance of Picasso's voracious appetites and the awkward hauteur of Matisse's elysian vision. Kirk Varnedoe's contributions at beginning and end are moving tributes.

Donald Goddard © 2003


The exhibition was organized by and appeared at the Tate Modern, London; Les Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris; and The Museum of Modern Art MOMA.

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