Until June 2020, the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra will host the exhibition dedicated to these two 20th century giants, connected by a complicated relationship that walked the line between mutual esteem and jealousy – a story told through a selection of about 60 works from 40 collections
Henri Matisse “Joie de vivre”, oil on canvas 1905-1906
In 1906, Matisse exhibited a rather shocking painting: “Joie de vivre”. The work’s brilliant and dissonant colours were paired with a forcing of the forms, a punch in the stomach for the general public as well as experts. The painting represents the primeval world where naked bodies, with fluid and sinuous shapes, float in a garden devoid of depth and populated by pink trees. The violence and anti-naturalism of the colours earned him and his followers the name “Fauves”, meaning beasts. The work was bought by the Stein family, wealthy American collectors. It was in their Parisian “living room” that Picasso met Matisse for the first time that autumn.
The Spaniard was fascinated by that colleague – 12 years older than Picasso – who expressed himself in the artistic field with such a powerful voice. His companion at the time, Fernande, puts that encounter into perspective: Matisse is brilliant, likeable, and a master of himself, [while] Picasso surly and almost intimidated. From that moment on they would meet regularly. At the beginning, their relationship was not that of equals. Matisse was already in the midst of his career, while the other was a talented provincial man looking for his original voice. However, in 1907 Picasso created, almost in response to Matisse, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, a parade of naked women with sharp and broken profiles. There are no men. There is no Eden. There is, however, a prismatic bottom in cold blue. Cubism was born, where the object represented is literally cut into slices and presented simultaneously in profile, in front, from behind, from above – the sum of different points of view. These two works disrupted Western painting – the scandal of colour and the scandal of form.
Pablo Picasso “Les demoiselles d’Avignon”, oil on canvas 1907
Where Matisse was emotional and focused on color, Picasso was rational and focused on form. The two knew they had to share the limelight, and looked at each other with esteem. There was also suspect between them. The first time Matisse saw this new style, he spoke of “cubes”, terminology that was then relaunched by critics of the time who accentuated the polemic and negative nuance. Even Picasso was not tender with his colleague. La Gilot, Picasso’s companion, said that Pablo criticized the exercise of beauty that Matisse used in his painting. For the Picasso, painting was not an aesthetic operation, but rather a form of magic that unites the individual to a foreign and hostile world. However, they thought highly of each other. They traded works, and Picasso had a quite copious selection of his rival’s works.
Pablo Picasso “Femme en Chemise assise”, oil on canvas 1923
Pablo Picasso “L’Arlésienne: Lee Miller” oil on canvas 1937
Pablo Picasso “Rocking Chair” oil on canvas 1943
Henri Matisse, “Young woman in white, red background ” oil on canvas 1946
They had helped each other when in trouble. In the 1910s, Matisse had introduced Picasso – in financial straits at the time – to the wealthy Russian merchant Sergej Ščukin, a contemporary art buyer. Several years later, it was Picasso who intervened in favour of Matisse. In 1940, the Germans occupied Paris and arranged the inventory of assets deposited in the banks. Picasso, who attended the operation to avoid arbitrary “seizures,” also took care of the Matisse paintings kept in one of the credit institutions. The artist, showing off a certain authoritarianism to which the Germans were sensitive, confused the inspectors by taking advantage of their total unpreparedness on the subject of art. He offered them to useless information, while he moved frantically between the groups of works. In the end, only a third of his works were inventoried while Matisse’s were not even seen by the military, taken aback and stunned by Picasso’ss continuous talk.
Henri Matisse “Nature morte aux oranges ou La corbeille d’orange” oil on canvas 1912
Henri Mattisse, “Odalisque with black armchair” oil on canvas 1941
They exhibited together for the first time in 1918 in the Paul Guillame gallery in Paris, however the 1945-46 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London defined this era. The event caused a sensation, as well as a great deal of criticism towards Picasso. The artist exhibited the works from the 1940s, those of the war, harsh and violent condemnation works, even more distressing when compared to the brightness of Matisse’s serene paintings. In these years, their competitiveness grew. Many of their works from this period are free variations of their respective words. When Matisse died in 1954, Picasso was left troubled, consequently creating canvases that recall the series of Matisse’s odalisques that his friend had left him as a legacy. Matisse and Picasso – these two parallel careers – created a relationship of emulation and challenge, a form of mutual enrichment. And 20th-century art was no longer the same.
Anna Maria Calabretta