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'There are lovers of art capable of admiring both Picasso and Matisse. These are happy folks whom we must pity' (André Salmon, Paris - Journal, December 1910).
Even as early as 1910, the works of Matisse and Picasso were considered in opposition to each other, although thankfully appreciation of both artists no longer remains a matter of stigma and the two camps are not so opposed. In the early part of the century, the two artists appeared to be the pioneers of two distinct and opposing styles of contemporary art, each blazing his unique trail through the firmament of the art world. While the recent exhibition of their works, Matisse Picasso (London, Tate Modern; Paris, Grand-Palais and New York, MoMA) has revived interest in the links between the artists, it was eighty-five years earlier in 1918 that an exhibition was first arranged explicitly comparing these two artists (fig. 1).
That exhibition, organised by Paul Guillaume with little collaboration from the artists, marked an interesting point in the links between the artists. Matisse was extremely sensitive to what he felt to be a bias towards Picasso in the selection of the works, and came to feel that it had been a trap designed to make Picasso appear stronger and more revolutionary. The exhibition thus caused relationships to sour between Matisse and Guillaume, but also crucially between the two artists. But while this was a situation that was to last for years, it was not to last many.
The interaction between Matisse and Picasso stretched like some slow and wary ballet through half of the 20th Century, a century during which this pair completely changed the face of art and art history. The bad feeling surrounding Guillaume's show merely marked the increasing polarity between these artists. In the earliest years of the century, when Picasso was still a relatively new arrival in Paris and on the art scene, Matisse was already aware of his work, and was introducing collectors to the Spaniard. During the 1910s, some of the dialogue between the artists became increasingly explicit, as Matisse reacted to Picasso's Cubism, and Picasso to Matisse's use of colour and contrast. Each recognised the other as a power that could not be ignored and saw the other's advances as established facts, problems that had to be confronted in order for their own art to progress. Although following the 1918 exhibition the two artists appeared to make a concerted effort to avoid each other in both personal and artistic terms, the situation slowly changed, or thawed. By the early 1930s, this slow dance was beginning to speed up and to become open for all to see.
Although Matisse was considered a great pioneer of colour, and Picasso of form, the field in which the pair seemed to engage in open artistic sparring was in works on paper. Although it was partly through book illustrations that this contest and contact played itself out, it was apparent before Matisse began illustrating books. Already during the 1920s, many of Picasso's drawings can be seen as attempts to emulate a certain Matissean stylistic freedom, not least his images of people dancing. Likewise, the development of classical themes in Picasso's art, which was originally indebted to Italy and the so-called Rappel à l'ordre that followed the First World War, appears to have become increasingly whimsical in reaction to certain images from both Matisse's current and older works. However, it was in 1930 that Matisse was commissioned by Albert Skira to illustrate a new edition of Mallarmé's Poésies. The style that he developed for these enchanting images was a refined and almost classical manner of drawing, filled with simple, swirling lines. However, the apparent conservatism of these images belied the incredible sense of movement and life that they evoked. Although both Matisse and Picasso were groundbreaking painters, it seems to have been these beautiful and confident pictures, as opposed to any of the more famous and groundbreaking works, that provoked a direct reaction from Picasso. The Spaniard, in turn, began to evolve a reciprocal style of drawing, as is shown both in the drawings for and the final result of his iconic Vollard suite. There, the tumbling forms and relentless momentum of the figures echo to some extent the feel of Matisse's works. Likewise, Picasso's illustrated Ovid, also commissioned by Skira in 1930, appears to attempt to emulate or capture Matisse's freedom. Perhaps this result was partly due to the influence of Matisse's dealer son Pierre, who first suggested the theme of Ovid to Picasso. One wonders if Pierre became a witting or even unwitting go-between - or spy - for the artists.
These developments continued and increased apace. Picasso's reliance on Matisse's published and exhibited works was in part enforced by the latter's relative isolation as he worked on a large commission for a mural for the Barnes Foundation. This did not stop the artists referring to each others' works with increasing frequency. Indeed, by the end of the 1930s, they were almost friends, having spent the previous decades exceptionally wary of each other.
This near friendship consolidated itself, bizarrely, during the artists' enforced separation from each other during the Second World War, when Picasso remained in Paris, Matisse in the South of France. While in Paris, Picasso kindly ensured that some of Matisse's affairs were safe, including paintings in a bank vault. In return, Matisse sent Picasso a drawing, and so a modest programme of exchange began between the two which resulted not only in the exchange of works but also, through those works, of ideas. At the end of the War, Matisse visited Paris very promptly, and there made many visits to Picasso, initiating the last phase of their interaction. The pair had many of their pictures shown in an exhibition in London, the first joint show since the Paul Guillaume debacle and the first in which they had a fair degree of control, having themselves selected and lent many of the works. This was followed by other joint exhibitions, and joint appearances in public. The two gods, the two veteran pioneers, were becoming inextricably linked. During this period the interaction became friendly and overt between them. There are even series of pictures in which Matisse openly drew from Picasso's works, having sat in front of them, exploring the Spaniard's virtuosity first-hand. Now, these two men had had their apotheosis. There was no need for competition, as each was wholly established in his own right. And yet, each of the artists was continuing to innovate, to push back the boundaries of art. There was no cessation to their creative abilities. Matisse's works in the post-War period marked a huge departure for him, as did Picasso's, whereas many of their pioneering counterparts and colleagues from the early 20th had mostly either become conservative or had stuck to reproducing their main innovation again and again, like Severini and Braque respectively.
It is this period in the relationship that has been best recorded for perpetuity, and this is due to another of Picasso's relationships, that with Françoise Gilot. Her book, Life with Picasso (New York, Toronto and London, 1964) spends much time recording the interactions between the two artists. Ironically, Gilot's artistic hero had been Matisse, rather than Picasso, and so she was delighted to be able to encounter him, and more so to be a witness to their conversations, which she recalls with a combination of awe and enjoyment. The two would talk about painting, sculpture, women, and even Jackson Pollock. It is in one of these conversations that Matisse recognised the unique place that the two artists shared in the firmament of modern art: 'We must talk to each other as much as we can. When one of us dies, there will be some things the other will never be able to talk of with anyone else' (Matisse, quoted in Life with Picasso, New York, Toronto and London, 1964, p. 264).
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