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Matisse / Picasso

- In the Galleries

Art Review

By Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower

The Museum of Modern Art,


Matisse / Picasso
(Matisse Bio) (Picasso Bio)

May 16, 2003

When The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) moved to Queens, while the Museum undergoes construction in Manhattan, I was devastated. I had been a longtime member and did not look forward to the commute. However, I have now twice driven to the Queens location, and it is really an easy drive, right over the 59th Street Bridge. The Queens building is massive and not the warmest of ambiances. Yet, the MOMA administration has spread the displays nicely, throughout this warehouse styled venue, and, regardless, Matisse and Picasso would hold their own in any venue, comfortable/cozy or crowded/cold. This weekend was the end of this exhibit's tour, so our future opportunities will be to view Matisse's and Picasso's works individually, in museums and galleries.

The story is told that Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were best friends and rivals, all at once. They first met in 1906, when Matisse was twelve years older and called Le Fauve (wild beast), due to his preference for vibrant colors, with energetic brushwork. Both Matisse and Picasso were considered successful and charismatic. Picasso's work was eclectic, sometimes melancholy and austere. Yet, they had much in common, with Picasso's interest in archaic and tribal sculpture, and Matisse's interest in exotic Asian art. These artists are said to have given each other art as gifts, that is, paintings that they did not care for. Yet, it is also said that these paintings became valuable possessions to each, as their competitive friendship lasted for 50 years. Picasso once said, "No one has ever looked at Matisse's painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he." (MOMA Notes).

This famous rivalry took on incredible artistic dimensions, as seen in the brilliantly juxtaposed paintings in this MOMA exhibit, with commonalities in form, theme, color, and brushwork so obviously borrowed or emulated. During my visit, just days before the exhibit ended, with a crush of eager arts aficionados, I took notes that seemed to extrapolate the essence of this longtime artistic friendship/rivalry. I have been a life-long fan of all that is Matisse and Picasso, but this was my first opportunity to experience the intentional pairings of their works. My text will reflect commonalities and differences that were noticeable to me, as I wove through the crowded and enormous halls and spaces at MOMA Queens.

In 1908/1909 paintings of nudes and bathers, a white scarf on Matisse's bedroom scene was similar to a white towel on Picasso's beach scene. In self-portraits, 1906, both men are facing left, with Picasso as a calm and benign, as a peach-toned, young man, and Matisse as dark, bold, and macabre. In the gift exchange, with paintings they did not want, according to a friend of the time, Gertrude Stein (Bio), Picasso offered a 1907 painting of a pitcher, bowl, and lemon, and Matisse offered a 1906 portrait of Marguerite. In Picasso's 1907, famous, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and Matisse's 1908, Bathers with a Turtle, there are grouped figures with gray faces and dark, vacant eyes, with an obvious influence of African and Asian figurative shapes.

In Matisse's 1913, Portrait of Madame Matisse and Picasso's 1907, Woman in Yellow, we see a more matronly figure in Mme. Matisse, but the same almond eyes and crescent, black eyebrows. A pair of paintings from 1913-14 and 1916, show card players and a portrait, with Matisse focusing on color and Picasso on form. Other portraits, Picasso's, Gertrude Stein (1905-6), and Matisse's, Pellerin (1917), show a strong influence on figures with angularity and stillness. I also saw an influence in paintings with nature, with geometrically formed leaves and trees, with dark, bold, green textures and brushstrokes.

Two works with still life, a 1908 Picasso with a skull, and a 1912 Matisse with a goldfish and a small copy of a nude sculpture, showed icons of their own art, within newer paintings. There were also similarities in sketches with charcoal lines, as well as repeated images of guitars, newspapers, bottles, and tables. Picasso's 1915-16, Man Leaning on Table, and Matisse's 1916, Piano Lesson contained diagonal shapes that seemed to symbolically exemplify the fragmentation of human existence. I sensed disconnections, alienation, and despair in many of the paired works. There was also the personal icon, for Matisse, the violin, and, for Picasso, the guitar, that re-appeared so many times in their works. It is said that the guitar was reminiscent of Picasso's Southern Spanish heritage, and the violin was reminiscent of Matisse's refined background in Northern France. In addition, they both used the mandolin - Matisse in 1915, and Picasso in 1924.

In 1925, Picasso painted The Three Dancers, with grotesque and jagged lines, brightly colored and textured. For Picasso, dance was wild, not tame. This appeared to be in juxtaposition to Matisse's numerous and large paintings and murals of dancers, which, unfortunately, were not part of this exhibition. Matisse's dancers, as I know them, hold hands and appear to move with sensuality and harmony. Picasso's dancers, shown here, were intense and dissonant. Picasso also borrowed Matisse's signature, open window.

In a pair of paintings of seated women, against a dark background, Matisse's is asleep, looking serene and secure, and Picasso's is engrossed in thought. They have similar foreheads and angular noses. Combinations of works with food show knives and bold sausages in Picasso's and oysters and refinement in Matisse's. In later years, Matisse's signature, bold and brightly colored, cutout, paper shapes were found painted in Picasso's works, though not so playful and bright.

Finally, a look at their late, self-images shows Picasso's 1953, The Shadow, as a dark figure, standing in the doorway of a woman's bedroom. Matisse's 1918, Violinist at the Window, also exemplifies darkness and self-identity. When Matisse died in 1954, the rivalry ended between these two, fiercely connected artists.

Matisse Self Portrait

Henri Matisse.
1906. Oil on canvas. 21 5/8 x 18 1/8" (55 x 46 cm).
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. Johannes Rump Collection.
(c) 2003 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Picasso Self Portrait

Pablo Picasso.
Self-Portrait with Palette. 1906. Oil on canvas. 36 1/4 x 28 3/4" (92 x 73 cm).
Philadelphia Museum of Art: The A.E. Gallatin Collection, 1950.
(c) 2003 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at