The beginning of the Twentieth Century was a glittering time of hope and innovation. In the decade before the First World War and in the midst of technical advances, such as the development of the telephone and the first automobile, the globe felt smaller-- and better-- than ever before. It also set the stage for what was one of the golden ages of art, particularly in Paris, the glamorous capital of all things cultural, where writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein hobnobbed and debated ideas with painters like Salvador Dali, Georges Braque and many others who filled the bars, cafes, and salons, working and discussing politics and their idyllic fantasies about what art could be. Thinking and dreaming BIG was the norm-- and collaboration and sharing in each others’ concepts and victories was, too. But there was a shadowy side to such sharing, where friendships and support could morph into jealousy and competitiveness, as the drive to become the best took ultimate control. It is within this sparkling Parisian backdrop that what is possibly the greatest rivalry of art history played out-- what IS modern art, and what should it be?
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. And today, we are completing our season on great rivalries in art history with the two biggies of the 20th century: Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso and their competing ideas about the future of art. Welcome to the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
Art historians like to debate a lot of things. It’s what we do. And one of the topics that gets argued about most frequently is this: who is the quote-unquote “father” of modern art? Sexism aside (because how often do you hear someone asking about the identity of the mother of modern art?), there are a few different names that you can throw out. Personally I like to start in the mid-19th century with Manet and Courbet as the prime candidates, like we mentioned briefly in our last episode, while others move forward and present Paul Cezanne as the rightful standard-bearer. But if you are thinking of modernism as a 20th-century thing, then many will throw out one name and one name only: Pablo Picasso. Picasso! That crazy, bald Spanish guy who loved striped shirts and made paintings where people’s body parts are all mixed up. That’s what you know, at the very least, if you know art, even just a little bit. But there’s just as fervent a fan base for Henri Matisse as the father of modern art, that bearded savant whose concepts of color paved the way for artists decades after. Many passionate lovers of modern art will fall on one side or the other of the Picasso versus Matisse debate. They will claim that Picasso’s Guernica is the greatest work they have ever seen or that Matisse’s Woman with a Hat changed their notion of what a portrait could be. It’s funny, but it almost feels like we’re being forced to take sides, like you’re not allowed to find them both equally influential, though of course they both are. You’re a fan of one, or the other-- but not each of them. Which is a shame, really, because Picasso owed much to Matisse, and vice versa, and they share as many similarities as they do differences.
Pablo Picasso is the younger of the pair, the enfant terrible who arrived on the art scene with a giant splash. He was born in 1881, in the Spanish town of Málaga, to a father who was himself an artist-- so Picasso, of course, had a leg up in the art world. Early on, he was considered to be a child prodigy, whose art training naturally began as a child at the hands of his father, who always claimed that his son’s first word was lapiz or “pencil.” In 1895, the Picasso family moved to Barcelona largely to offer the teenage Pablo a better education and more opportunities for his budding art career. His father got a job at at the School of Fine Arts, and that connection allowed Picasso the chance to complete the entrance exam for enrollment. Normally such a process took students a month to complete, but Picasso took only 1 week to finish it, at the age of just 13. It should come as no surprise that he was quickly admitted to the school. By the age of 19, Picasso was copying the work of Spanish masters like Goya and El Greco in museums around the country, including the great Prado in Madrid. However, it wasn’t those artists of his home country who made the greatest impression on his burgeoning, unique style. The men who truly influenced him were Paul Cézanne, the great post-Impressionist, and Henri Rousseau, whose so called “primitive” painting style was like catnip to young Picasso. (Picasso, by the way, even got in on this whole “Father of Modernism” debate when he later said, quote, “My one and only master . . . Cézanne was like the father of us all.” Rule breakers themselves, Cézanne and Rousseau were headed, in their own ways, toward would become known as highlights of Cubism: the flattening of the picture plane, the abstraction of objects and individuals down to basic geometrical forms, and a fascinating, angular approach. But, like Rousseau and Cézanne before him, Picasso was finding it difficult, among the formal art settings of Barcelona, to have his work accepted and admired. And so he went to where his great heroes had lived and worked, and he traveled moved to Paris in 1900 to pursue a new path, which he made official when he permanently moved to the capital in 1904.
By the time Pablo Picasso arrived in Paris, there was another painter who had begun pursuing a new career path there, with a similar intention. Henri Matisse was born on December 31, 1869, in Le Cateau, in the Picardy region of France. Unlike Pablo Picasso, though, Matisse had no familial connection to the arts, and it was, in fact, far from his young mind, and he intended to become a lawyer all the way to his early twenties. In 1980, Matisse moved from Le Cateau to Paris specifically to get a head start on his legal career, and while he was there, he decided that he needed a little diversion, something fun to break up his study of dry law texts. So he began to sit in on drawing classes at a nearby school-- and began to fall in love. By 1891– the very next year— he abandoned his plans and studies for a legal career to pursue his new passion for painting full time. While it may be hard to believe now, given the radical and avant-garde work Matisse remains famous for, he received strenuous, rather formal art training at fairly traditional, conservative institutions like the Académie Julian and École des Beaux-Arts. After that point, he received additional training and apprenticeship in the studio of the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, with whom he studied until 1899. There, he was known as a diligent, focused, and meticulous worker. And that hard work and attention to detail paid off. By the age of 30, Matisse had begun to show his works within the Salon society of Paris, as well as making the acquaintance of other up-and-coming artists, like Paul Gauguin. Inspired by these connections and the optimistic response his artwork garnered, he was ready to start making new, bold pieces focused mainly on the use and manipulation of color, through which he could make a splash. About this, Matisse would later say, quote, “Colors became sticks of dynamite.” Such adherence and pursuit of color caused Matisse to be given the title of the de facto leader of the Fauves, or “wild beasts,” a group of artists art deemed nuts for their use of “brutal” or “wild” colors.
Matisse and Picasso first came in contact with each other through their art. They were both exhibited together in a 1902 exhibition at a small gallery in Paris, but they apparently had never met. They finally came together in person thanks to the helping hand of the famous writer and art collector Gertrude Stein. A close friend to both artists, Gertrude Stein could never have predicted that her simple invitation to these men would spark a rivalry between two powerhouse artists of the 20th century. At the time, the connection was fairly casual. Stein, alongside her brother Leo, was a fanatic patron of the arts-- dare we say matron of the arts?-- and together, the Steins purchased numerous works by both Matisse and Picasso separately. In that way that you do when you really enjoy the company and creativity of two different people, Gertrude Stein really wanted Matisse and Picasso to meet, get to know each other, and even become friends themselves. So, in 1906, the Steins took Matisse on a visit to Picasso’s studio for an introduction, and then began inviting both artists together to their weekly salons. And it was there, at the Stein residence, that a rivalry, instead of a friendship, took hold between a fiery young Spanish upstart and an older, established French painter.
The fact that the Steins supported and purchased works by both Picasso and Matisse made for a constant battle between the two artists, as each hoped to gain more favor with the collectors than the other. Various records exist that show how critical each artist could get with one another. For example, after the Steins bought Matisse’s important Blue Nude in 1907, an American friend of Gertrude’s-- the writer Walter Pach-- admired it openly at one of the salon evenings. Picasso was right there next to him, so Pach asked for his opinion on the piece. According to Pach, the conversation went as follows-- quote: " 'Does that interest you?' asked Picasso. I said, 'In a way, yes . . . But I don't understand what he is thinking.' 'Neither do I,' said Picasso. 'If he wants to make a woman, let him make a woman. If he wants to make a design, let him make a design. This is between the two.'“ So, not nearly as snippy as you might expect these artists to be towards or about each other, but still. Picasso didn’t have anything truly nice to say about the Blue Nude. And it was because of two things: one, the Steins really liked it, and it was possible that he felt a little jealous, and two, he was possibly also a little afraid that Matisse’s innovative use of color and form might overtake his own Cubist experiments with shape and space. Ultimately, each artist opposed the other’s style of painting because they were fundamentally different approaches. What’s interesting about the rivalry between Matisse and Picasso is that neither artist was necessarily trying to outdo the other at their own game or in the same style. No-- it was actually that both firmly believed that their chosen styles were better or more skillful at achieving a true modern art aesthetic-- as if there could, or should, only be one type or style of modern art. Which is why the Parisian art scene, and even the smaller up-and-coming New York art scene, were quite taken with both Matisse and Picasso at the same time and for different reasons.
Let’s take an example of each of the artists’ works to delineate their differences. Many listeners will already be familiar with what is perhaps one of the most famous works in the history of modern art-- Picasso’s 1907 breakthrough, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The unveiling of this work not only revealed Picasso’s guts to break the rules of the art world, but marked a clear break with any rules of conventional art when it came to depicting the human form. It took Picasso several attempts-- sketches, studies, and trial runs-- to reach his final composition featuring five nude women-- prostitutes, actually-- two of whom are donning African masks. But these are not nudes the way that we are used to seeing them in traditional painting-- their cropped, boxy, and disorienting forms, outlined thickly, are harsh to the eye at first glance, and it’s easy to understand how scandalous such images were, at first, to Parisian society. These women are not just nude-- they are naked, and they are brazen in their eye contact with us, the viewers. One woman crouches down, perhaps wiggling her hips, a starkly seductive act next to an incongruous still life of a bowl of Cézanne-like fruit. These women are daring us, even teasing us, with a cold, appraising stare-- they are the descendents of Manet’s Olympia, taken to the next level. While Les Demoiselles is not perfect, we are quick to identify a sense of the potential Picasso felt within Cubism. In the folds of the abstractions he created, his paintbrush planted bits of story and concept, which is rewarded only after close looking. Cubism is chaos upon first glance, but after that initial shock of the new, the energetic order that is inherently there bubbles to the surface.
Things were a little different for Matisse. Although interested in Cubism in that he found it a curious development, he rejected it, and instead sought to use color as the foundation for expressive, decorative, and often monumental paintings. For him, color held the key to representing any subject best, as well as to garnering a specific response from the viewer. As a sidebar, it makes sense that Matisse would come to this conclusion, as colors have long been associated with emotion. This is why redheads are thought of as “fiery,” and why we note that we are feeling “blue” when we are sad. So Matisse’s own use of color was specific and methodical. Largely focused on portraits and still-lifes, Matisse’s innovation came from such intensely saturated colors to paint any scene in a new way. There was no longer a need to have colors that represented the natural world, or what something actually looked like. Similarly, unlike for Picasso, it wasn’t important if his figures or scenes were harshly fragmented or made completely of lush and curvy lines that were “readable” to his audience. It was via his color choices that Matisse would capture the personality and mood of his models or environment.
Take, for example, Matisse’s The Dessert: Harmony in Red, painted only one year after Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Honestly, you probably couldn’t pinpoint two works of art that were made around the same time period but that are SO completely different. It’s a wonderful scene of a woman arranging a bowl of fruit in a rich, vermilion-toned room with a patterned tablecloth, wallpaper, a cane chair and window presenting us with a verdant landscape with an outbuilding. But it’s almost hard to see anything but red. The same red blankets the tablecloth and also the walls, both of which also have the same blue-and-black floral design. Because of this, any sense of depth or dimension gets flattened by the color, and one part of the room just blends into the other-- so much so that the young woman seems less like an integral figure but part of the decoration itself. Not that the work leaves you feeling cold. On the contrary, it’s warm, seductive, and inviting, and I really want to have a seat at that table, and grab one of the apples so lovingly displayed there. Matisse one noted that he wanted to create an art that would be, quote, "a soothing, calming influence on the mind.” I feel buoyed by a sense of wonder and joy when looking at this work, whereas Picasso’s Desmoiselles fill me with awe and curiosity, but also a little chill.
hen you come at the fundamental concept of what art is, or should be, from totally different sides, it makes sense that Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso would feel so strongly about their rival’s works. They not only compared themselves to one another, but their work, rightfully so, was argued about and placed in contrast to one another by collectors, dealers, and other artists, all of whom also felt strongly about what the new direction of art-making should be. And not only were the two compared in their artistic lives, but their personal lives and reputations also got a dose of tension and comparison. While Matisse was known to be meticulous and a family man, Picasso was often pitted as a modern Dionysian fellow of sorts - a womanizer, impulsive, and indulgent. This personality-driven comparison was expanded to encompass their subject matter, too, as Picasso’s works often featured subjects from the margins of society, such as the poor or prostitutes (as in Les Desmoiselles). But Matisse? He painted more comfortable, homey works-- at least in the beginning.
What I find hilarious is that not only do the comparisons continue today between Picasso and Matisse, but their differences have even been used as a litmus, or a personality test of some sorts. The U.K.’s Guardian newspaper even published a very jokey, very British quiz in 2002 so that you can determine if you’re a Picasso or a Matisse, with questions like “Which window are you looking through today?” to which you can respond, a) the shuttered one, b) the cubist one, c) the one with the lace curtains, or d) the shattered one. More seriously, though, are exhibitions that have tackled this comparison straight on, like the seminal 2003 exhibition, Matisse Picasso, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The question continues to matter because, in the words of Anne Baldassari, curator of the Musée Picasso, quote, “The relationship of Matisse and Picasso reflects on the whole history of modern art.” The Matisse Picasso show wasn’t a greatest hits exhibition where the very best Picassos were placed in a room nearby the very best Matisses, but instead works by each artist were placed next to each other, one by one, to show that they were made in dialogue with one another, and that they occasionally influenced one another. They were equally talented and important artists-- they were just different. That’s all. And even Matisse knew this, once stating that he and Picasso were like the North and South Poles of the globe.
That difference didn’t manifest in a rivalry of the same caliber as that between Constable and Turner, for example. They weren’t at each other’s throats, and though they disagreed totally on what art should look like, they were ultimately fighting the same battle against the traditions of art: against realism, against formal aesthetics, against all that art should be, and instead playing with what art could be. And as allies in that same battle, they ultimately had a respect for each other. In fact, Picasso once famously said, quote, “If I were not making the paintings I make, I would paint like Matisse,” and Matisse said much the same about Picasso.
It’s obvious that this grudging admiration, as well as their competition, was one of the reasons that Picasso kept such close tabs on Matisse, and vice-versa. Matisse once referred to their relationship as a, quote, “boxing match,” but self-doubt plagued him when he was compared to the younger, brutish artist. As Harvard art historian Yve-Alain Bois writes in the catalogue for the 1999 exhibition, Matisse and Picasso: A Gentle Rivalry, quote, “Picasso, the younger artist, was constantly trying to get Matisse's attention by showing off, stealing from his work, and rudely parodying him. Matisse, envious of Picasso's success, tried to ignore him. But they were too competitive to really be friends.” So a close relationship was out of the question, but as both artists aged, their rivalry softened and cooled, and Matisse even reached out to Picasso in the 1930s as a way to seek inspiration in the midst of an artistic funk. That outreach launched a different phase of the Matisse and Picasso conversation-- one that was much gentler, wherein the artists visited one another, exchanged notes and ideas, and even traded paintings until Matisse passed away in the 1950s. Whatever their relationship truly was - behind all the gossip and the speculations and the greater-thans - it cannot be denied that their mutual influenced pushed each of them to produce their best works and forever changed our sense of modern art. So perhaps rivalry is the wrong word. Maybe this was a correspondence where jealousy, admiration, and forced coexistence produced a complicated, viscous mix that, to us as outsiders, could look like a fierce clash fueled by disdain and bitterness, but it might really have been an unassuming brotherhood of sorts. So, rather than than raising the hand of the victor at the end of that boxing match, we might freeze the frame at the moment in the ring where the boxers lean on each other for support and repair, regaining strength and strategizing for the next move in the long history of art.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast, the final in our third season on art rivalries. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional research and writing by Stephanie Pryor. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki Creative. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com.
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