February 2020

Noted
by Miriam Cosic

‘Matisse & Picasso’: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Hanging works by the two masters together highlights their artistic rivalry and mutual influence

Pablo Picasso, L’Arlésienne: Lee Miller, 1937; oil on canvas. Private international collection. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency

It can be hard work coming to grips with the thinking of curators who go beyond the simple aim of showing the excellence of an artist in a solo exhibition or retrospective, particularly when their thesis stretches to the dynamic at work between artists.

A successful example was the 2008 Picasso and the Masters exhibition, brought together across the Grand Palais, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, by the then director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, Anne Baldassari. It juxtaposed the work of Picasso with the masters who influenced him, including Titian, Rembrandt, Goya, Poussin, Ingres, Delacroix, Cézanne and Gauguin. Blasé critics called it an exercise in “bling”, and it’s all very well for those sophisticates to say so. Ordinary visitors are unlikely to have the specialist knowledge, the means to travel across continents, or the trained memory to compare and contrast across time as experts do. That’s the beauty of “blockbuster” exhibitions: they give to ordinary mortals access to what resides in the mind’s eye of curators, critics and art historians.

Two shows about the influence of two artists on each other, on in Australia at the moment, demonstrate how it should be done. Neither requires labour in order to understand the point and, in both, the pictures leap together off the walls. Keith Haring | Jean-Marie Basquiat: Crossing Lines, at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, shows how those artists bounced off each other in the drug-fuelled, AIDS-riven, highly politicised New York avant-garde of the 1980s.

Another, at the National Gallery of Australia, is a calmer comparison of two giants of an earlier era. Matisse & Picasso, open until April 13, 2020, examines the rivalry and the influence that ran between the two artists and, despite the shock value of the radical chic on display in Melbourne, holds even more surprises.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954) was the undisputed leader of the avant-garde in early-1900s Paris when a cocky young Spaniard, 12 years his junior, appeared on the scene. Matisse had pioneered the Fauves (“wild beasts”), a strand of post-impressionism that was named for its violent use of colour. He was already influencing a younger generation, though his exploits weren’t yet earning him a decent income. Matisse influenced the younger arrival too (though Picasso was pretty sure of his own genius), and the whip-sting of his disparagement of Cubism (a term he inspired) incited the younger man’s development.

The two were very different in background and in temperament, despite their convergence on the Paris art scene. Matisse had grown up in a wealthy family in the north of France and was studying law when his mother gave him a paintbox to beguile his convalescence from appendicitis. He was 20 and immediately decided to become an artist, appalling his father. He later said, “From the moment I held the box of colours in my hands, I knew this was my life.”

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) was the son of a painter and professor of art in Málaga who encouraged his talent. By the time he was 20, he was already leaving behind a precocious skill in traditional representation. His dour “Blue Period” had begun.

Both artists were experimenting with perspective, believing they were furthering the aims of their hero, Paul Cézanne: Matisse through the deployment of space and of colour; Picasso via the superimposition of multiple viewpoints and the use of powerful geometric devices. Matisse’s paintings were languorous and sensuous, Picasso’s rigorously intellectual.

The writer Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo introduced the two in Paris in 1906, just as Picasso was moving towards Cubism. The two men admired and irritated each other in equal measure. Matisse himself is said to have called it “a boxing match”. Wassily Kandinsky, who pioneered the theory as well as the practice of abstraction, wrote of them: “Matisse: colour. Picasso: form. Two great tendencies, one great goal.”

Picasso picked up the eroticism in Matisse’s odalisques, for example, though his own highly sexualised pictures depict the real-life misogyny of a priapic serial user of women, two of whom died by suicide. Matisse’s portrayals are gentler, always focusing on the beauty even as he manipulated visual planes.

Picasso began work on one of his great masterpieces, the unsettling Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), immediately after seeing Matisse’s Blue Nude (1907). One can see the influence at work, if only in the come-hither positioning of the arms. Blue Nude is a single woman with fleshy curves, seemingly caught unawares, painted on an incline in deep blues and greens. Les Demoiselles is an austere geometric portrayal of five women with mask-like faces staring defiantly at the viewer. Picasso worked and reworked it, determined, it has been said, not to let Matisse outshine him. Picasso’s Woman with a parasol in the beach (1933), all curves, sketchy black outlines and blue tones, which is in the Canberra show, demonstrates how long each other’s pictures remained in the men’s minds.

This NGA exhibition brings all the discordance and the harmonies in Matisse’s and Picasso’s works into bold relief. The dialogue between the painters doesn’t require explanation for the casual visitor: the way the works are hung, the artists’ rivalry and their mutual influence leap off the walls.

Matisse is said to have criticised Cubism as both small scale and inert. You want movement? Picasso’s Woman with a Tambourine (1938) is a violent depiction of a woman dancing: limbs and breasts flailing in different directions, her face fragmented. Along the same wall hang Matisse’s elegant linocuts of Pasiphaé, Chant de Minos (1944), pages of an unbound book by Henri de Montherlant, which chart the transformation of the heroine of the ancient Greek myth into a cow so she could mate with a white bull sent by Poseidon to fulfil a curse. The pictures, minimal flowing white lines on a black ground, segue from the girl with her curly hair and necklace into the simplest outline of a cow’s head. They are tranquil despite the outrageous myth they depict.

Around the corner hang several etchings from Picasso’s Vollard Suite (1930–37) and the mood couldn’t be more different to Matisse’s portrayal of the Minotaur’s mother. Picasso’s busy black lines on a white ground reflect the ravagement and drunken satiety of the masculine figures – bovine and human – amid piles of disordered women’s bodies.

And so it goes. Elsewhere a group of blue-toned pictures by both men, hung against a duck-egg blue wall, depict synchronicities that take their benevolent mood from a central curvaceous odalisque, The Abduction of Europa by Matisse. They include two of Picasso’s statuesque Iberian women: Woman by the Sea (1922) and Seated Woman in a Chemise (1923). Picasso’s quietly perfect Face of Marie Therêse (1928), drawn on a single plane, is a rare mimetic depiction of one of his lovers. Matisse’s serene and quietly luxurious Woman by a Window (1920–22) could easily have gone on the same wall; in fact, that’s where I incorrectly remembered it hanging once I’d left the gallery.

More rarely seen works included in the exhibition are Picasso’s David and Bathsheba series (1947–49), which draws on the history of Spanish art in costuming and stateliness, and Matisse’s Le torse de plâtre, bouquet de fleurs (1919) from the São Paulo Museum of Art – one of more than 60 works lent by museums and private collectors worldwide. Also included are Picasso’s theatre costumes and associated paraphernalia from the NGA’s own collection, which would be well known to regular visitors.

There are a few sculptures in the exhibition. A bronze by Matisse, Reclining Nude II (1927), mirrors the pose of his painted Europa. The sculpture of a head by Picasso has the bulging distortions one would expect. The exhibition’s mastermind, Jane Kinsman, senior curator of international art at the NGA, described it as how one sees a face when one is up really close, when kissing, for example.

The final room contains two monumental wall hangings, screen-prints on linen, both made in 1946. Called Oceania, the sky and Oceania, the sea, they are assemblies of the cut-outs that Matisse made while confined to a wheelchair after cancer surgery and unable to paint. Illness seems to be the red thread than ran through his life.

It wasn’t until years after Matisse died that Picasso deigned to pay him sincere homage. “You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time,” he remarked in his old age. “No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.”

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Cover image of The Monthly, February 2020

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