Double Dealing

John Haber
in New York City

Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso

In 1906, two artists warily exchanged studio visits. Not that either lacked for self-confidence or charisma. The older man dressed well and said little. One knew a Frenchman of the old school in manners, if not in his art. Critics were calling it Fauvism—painting, they declared, like a wild and dangerous beast.

The younger artist, hardly two years in Paris, had not yet outgrown an art of fashionable melancholy. Nonetheless, he clearly meant to make an impression. Gertrude Stein, who hooked them up, describes him as "completely charming" before so much as mentioning his work. Matisse's Self-Portrait (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, 1906)

The Museum of Modern Art unfolds a history of modern art as much about their wariness as about their exchange. It has the impact of an epic saga, of confrontation and subterfuge across decades. But is it true? Maybe or maybe not, but it ends up producing a Modernism more lyrical, dangerous, intricate, and multiple than one might ever have expected.

Sons and daughters

They must have known how little they had in common—and how much. In self-portraits from that very year, both turn slightly left, like a nobleman in Renaissance portraiture. In both, one remembers the black, arching brow and high forehead. One draws back from the brooding eyes and small, terse lips.

Pablo Picasso not long out of Barcelona holds a palette almost as bare as the wall behind him, but not even a brush. Everything remains a blank slate except for his bulk and determination. Henri Matisse presses forward even more. The strange blue and green shadows spill from his face onto the background without completing it, as if nothing else matters.

When they exchanged works, the visitor may or may not have made the choice. Praise hardly came easily to these men, and Picasso's friends used what he brought home as a target for suction-cup darts. Yet each went out of his way to find something of himself.

Henri Matisse took home perhaps the first truly modern still life, with a clash of colors rare for Picasso, especially then. Its objects spill to the frame. They cut every which way, in sharp, bright, parallel stripes, not unlike the shirt in Matisse's self-portrait. In the still life, Matisse found a study of objects as themselves works of art. Yet the objects press beyond the foreground, to create a greater ideal.

Picasso took a laconic portrait, not unlike his own female portraiture yet to come. Loose hair and dark eyes, a choker, the outlines of a face, and the name above in capitals define a woman. The muted tones, inward expression, and youth let on little more. One would never know her as Matisse's daughter. She could just as well pass for a waitress in Picasso's pallid, sordid views of café society. Matisse seems to have caught her once, never to see her again.

Picasso chose a woman whose sensuality lies at odds with her dry reserve and apparent profession. Did twentieth-century drawing begin here? Picasso drawings could be traditional, revolutionary, or both at once. He found form apart from color and words on a par with imagery, as if no one system of representation could make sense any longer by itself. If he felt an almost Oedipal rivalry with the older artist, he chose to square off with a child.

Fast forward

At the same time, the artists perceived something in the other—more even than the artist himself knew. Picasso had a long way to go before the tension and formal complexity of Cubism, as with another portrait, that of Ambroise Vollard. The jumbled objects announce that direction years in advance. Matisse then was still pushing Post-Impressionism to extremes, with discrete brushwork and big splotches of color. The Portrait of Marguerite discovers the virtuoso outlines and wide-open fields of color that became his legacy to Modernism.

Picasso's Self-Portrait with Palette (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1906)The exchange suggests a dogfight or a friendship. In reality, it began a lifetime of mutual understanding and fierce independence. Does that add up to a rivalry or something else entirely, something as changeable as modern art? A great show at MoMA QNS has one asking about two artists and art's many histories.

In fact, one had better start asking questions. I had to start the moment I entered, before the pictures blow me away, as they must have blown away Gertrude Stein or Albert C. Barnes of the Barnes Foundation. If they brought to each other—and to art—a healthy suspicion, one would do well to bring the same to Queens.

For starters, suppose Picasso or Matisse took from the other exactly what he wanted and little more. Has the Modern done the same? Consistently, it cuts each artist to the other's mold. Obviously their early years, before they met, goes out the window. So, too, however, do critical years for modern art. That alone changes how one sees the rest.

One pretty much skips from Picasso's confrontation with African art to his stippled color more than five years later. One sees barely a trace of Analytic Cubism, with its reconstruction of seeing and knowing. One could easily miss the discovery of collage—or almost anything not so easily cubby-holed as Picasso painting or Picasso sculpture.

At almost the same time, Matisse was introducing one color on a scale unseen again until Mark Rothko. However, one will not find Red Studio or the first version of The Dance here.

Politics and collaboration

Even the clearest parallels disguise breaks in time. It took years for Picasso's formal, conceptual compositions, his abstract planes and collage, to affect Matisse. Matisse's big patterns, saturated color, insistence on the model, self-quotation, and amiable clutter sank in slowly, too. Attentive museum-goers had better check the wall labels. Paired works may date from years apart.

If chronology all but vanishes, along with abstraction and conceptual art, so does politics. The Frenchman could not have shared Picasso's horror at the Spanish Civil War, so out goes that theme as well. Picasso may come off more lyrical than before, Matisse more adventurous. Yet neither the anthem nor the risk brings one closer to the front lines.

The show makes modern art seem older and less radical in another way, too. In Queens, the personal is the political, because art history amounts to titanic geniuses. It gives Modernism a lingering air of Renaissance rivalry and Romantic discontent. It makes sense for a museum blockbuster. It makes sense for each artist's adoring public. However, it sounds suspiciously close to cliché.

One could instead see modern art as a collective. Influences and rivalries, patronage and the avant-garde, abstraction and the recovery of vision—artists reinvented all of these again and again, in nation after nation. Picasso and Georges Braque, say, really did become inseparable for a while, while Fernand Léger, Constantin Brancusi, and others watched. A concurrent show of American Cubists at New York University's Grey Art Gallery could almost stand as a corrective.

Perhaps any two modernists would make sense in the other's company. No wonder the parallels startle with their very ease. Do they really reveal two seminal artists, or did artists just have things that needed doing? One speaks of Modernism or the School of Paris for a reason. Then again, even in Berlin, Max Beckmann drew on masks and "primitive" art—with allusions to woodcuts and Vikings.

Rosalind E. Krauss calls Cubism a direct affront to avant-garde myths. For her, Cubist collage, quotation, and pastiche have a life of their own. That "circulation of the sign" apart from its creator challenges Postmodernism even now. At the Modern, however, two lone geniuses face off, and everyone else had better stand back.

Turning back

Better not give up so fast. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse took more than what they wanted. They also saw in each other a process of becoming, and so does the Modern.

It begins with the tiniest of details. I do not just mean incidental parody or tribute. When Picasso sees a shadow leaping free of a face, a hand left as unfinished as a stump, he too can draw out a stroke of paint. However, he also sees the questions it implies for vision and form. He sees how the artist's appreciation for a female model gets caught up a challenge to the male animal.

Faced with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Matisse responds with a big canvas. In his Three Bathers with a Turtle, the naked figures seem hardly to share the same space. Their clumsiness upsets art's association of femininity with male desire. But Matisse also notices a small detail in Les Demoiselles and runs with it. Picasso thrusts forward a basket of fruit like a knife blade, and Matisse substitutes the turtle. He catches the importance of the foreground object as both still life and bestial, small and potent, tempting and impenetrable.

In other words, Picasso and Matisse do not simply quote one another. They are at once creating and questioning modern art. How can one represent a world with concepts, objects, and sensation instead of mathematics? Does the space around the subject still matter? What would it say about art and vision if one knew? What would it say about the artist?

They leave the mark of their own hands on cast sculpture, then transfer that to paint. One reduces trees to the tracery of stained glass, in fantastic echoes of Paul Cézanne in his Pines and Rocks or Cézanne's wife in a conservatory garden. Another thins his paint in reply. Or they drag thick oil across a surface until one can no longer overlook its opacity. The more they reflect on painting, the less clearly it has anything left to reveal.

Both artists keep returning to the whole idea of a break with tradition. At first, both take the contrapposto, the half-turned figure that long stood for form and motion, and push it beyond its limits. They turn to the primitive, but in context of European traditions of desire, narrative, and portraiture. They show the artist in his studio or a musician, almost as in Renaissance debate over the priority of the arts. When they make art itself the subject, they know well that painting can get lost in its own mirror.

The music and the mask

For all the cheating, the pairings help in another way. They leave Picasso and Matisse further apart than ever. Matisse embraced art a source of pleasure and an undisputed reality all to itself. Picasso keeps returning to art as if daring it to prove itself. He cannot give up the dare—or the art. And yet this, too, may well draw them closer.

When Matisse seeks the primitive, he rediscovers the West—in Giotto and the early Renaissance—but at the cost of disrupting his own European tradition. Picasso sees the whole idea of Western art as a puzzle, but at the cost of appropriating African art for the west. When Matisse paints a room, one can easily mistake the art objects for another distorted model. Picasso sticks to the model, but she turns into her own guitar.

When Matisse paints the artist in his studio, the model retains her pride of place. Yet the artist never quite emerges from the glimpse of his back. Picasso paints artist and model side by side, in violation of logic and vision. Yet the artist remains a stick figure or a sign, as if to affirm the greater reality of what he sees. One backs away instinctively from the exposed edges of his steel sculpture, but one never doubts that the artist himself had to do the same.

Matisse lets a detail of light transform a whole room. The shadow across a pianist's face turns the eye into black gash. The windows and the street behind echo the decorative curves of a music stand. They assimilate musical notation, the bulky instrument, painting, and sound while leaving no one standard of representation untouched.

Picasso transforms his subject just as thoroughly, but his transformations tend to end in a terrifying failure. Instead of the black slash across a face, one remembers the unpainted palette of his self-portrait or later harlequin. Like the blanks on old maps of Africa, they show the limits of the western eye. The rejoice in and fear what they cannot see.

So which painter ends up more radical? Maybe it depends on whether one still trusts in radical departures. When Matisse paints Arabs at prayer, one can hear the music in the air. In Picasso's Three Musicians, one can almost hear the silence. Nothing, not even an incantation, may lie behind the masks.

Exchange program

The show works, then, not by tracing art history, but by recreating its histories. Does it omit key works? It never promised two simple career surveys. In fact, it promised much more.

Does it falsify chronology? Artist themselves have a way of circling about their own past work and influences. Does it suggest a pat, conservative history, like the Met's gallery for Matisse and Picasso together? It has the chance to recover a few new ones. By cutting some of the canon, it helps dismantle a story itself grown too simple.

In old accounts, Picasso stood for line, Matisse for color. Around mid-century, however, the twin peaks of the School of Paris gave way to another polarity, with a new tale of influences. American art had combined Cubism's great balancing act with the Surrealist unconscious. Instead of line and color, one had abstraction and action painting, intellect and spirit, Classicism and Romanticism—in short, a new sublime.

A new pairing offers a fresh chance—to see two artists disrupting and refreshing the lines of influence. Instead of a struggle between Surrealism and formalism, one can see a lineage from Matisse's saturated colors to Joan Miró and beyond. One can imagine Picasso's violent disruptions as tumbling back, into the mind, and forward, into the viewer's reality. From Cubism through late Modernism, Picasso's tradition may not lie flat after all.

Perhaps Modernism never did come to an end, even with the late Picasso, but something happened to criticism soon after Picasso's death. Structuralism started to describe meaning as a circulation of tokens, like an exchange of ritual objects in anthropology. Picasso and Matisse could serve as a reminder that a gift, freely given, can come laden with ambition. The Museum of Modern Art's curatorial games fit in just fine.

Postmodernism teaches one to think of multiple histories. For each breakthrough, it sees old power games, and for each turn to the past, it sees another change. That could serve as a fair summary of the ever-changing careers of Modernism's two most famous artists.

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"Matisse Picasso" ran through May 29, 2003, at MoMA QNS.


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