This book is the celebration of an encounter. Definitely the most compelling encounter in the history of 20th century art, if not as this book argues, “the most compelling and rewarding in the entire history of art”. The book grew out of an exhibition designed to show how Matisse and Picasso, through their friendship, their rivalry and mutual respect, influenced and informed each other’s work. It is meant as an interpretative accompaniment of the exhibition and is a long and illustrated essay (even though the book is the work of several hands) on the Matisse-Picasso relationship.
Matisse (born 1869) was 12 years Picasso’s senior. They met for the first time in March 1906 when Gertrude Stein took Matisse to Picasso’s studio.Their personalities were “as different as the north pole is from the south pole”, Matisse once said. Matisse had the reputation of being anti-bohemian; he was urbane, erudite, friendly and always impeccably turned out. Picasso was mercurial; there was magic in his charisma and his smouldering magnetism had embedded in it a capacity for cruelty towards his loved ones, especially his women. Despite the differences, the chemistry was immediate and both recognized in the other his only true rival. Picasso once said, “All things considered, there is only Matisse.” And Matisse: “Only one person has the right to criticize me. It’s Picasso.”
Subsequent to the first meeting, the artists began to visit each other’s studios and even exchanged pictures. The artistic fallout of this friendship was quick to follow and was spectacular. Matisse’s La Bonheur de vivre was a challenge to Picasso, which he felt he must answer. The answer emerged in 1907 after an internal tussle in what can only be described as an explosion: Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon. John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer, in his rich reading of the canvas, suggests provocatively but meaningfully, that Picasso never finished the painting because it was unfinishable. To finish it would have been to say that the artist’s revolutionary endeavour had been accomplished. The open endedness of the painting is the clue to its everlasting attraction. La Bonheur and Les Demoiselles stand, unforgettably, at the gateway of modern art. If Matisse’s painting, as John Golding remarks in his essay in this volume, is one of the landmarks in the history of art, Picasso’s awesome canvas is one of those rare individual works of art that have changed the very course of this history.
Matisse was utterly shocked by Les Demoiselles even though his own Blue Nude had left its obvious mark on the picture. He responded with Bathers with a Turtle, which Picasso so admired, and the power of Les Demoiselles was reflected in the other artist’s Dance II. Matisse’s inevitable engagement with Cubism was ambivalent. He once commented, “Picasso shatters forms, I am their servant.” Matisse’s overt response to Cubism was invariably executed on a monumental scale whereas Picasso’s cubist paintings between 1909 and 1914 are all of average size.
After World War I, during Matisse’s first Nice period, anonymous young women with the attributes of oriental odalisques furnished his interiors. Picasso’s nudes of the early Twenties were responses to these even if they are anti-odalisque. After Matisse’s death, when Picasso was at work on his variations of Delacroix’s Women of Algiers, he said, “When Matisse died, he left his odalisques to me as a legacy.” It was in the Twenties, especially in the Marie-Therese series, that Picasso brings an opulence of colour obviously inspired by Matisse’s use of colour. Picasso told his friend and rival, “I’ve mastered drawing and am looking for colour; you’ve mastered colour and are looking for drawing.” It was in the early portraits of Dora Maar that Picasso pictorially drew close to Matisse.
After World War II, the relationship became close and poignant. They exchanged pictures and commented on each other’s work. Matisse, now ailing, drew strength from Picasso’s vibrancy and the latter from Matisse’s inner serenity. “We must talk to each other as much as we can. When one of us dies, there will be somethings that the other will never be able to talk of with anyone else.” We do not know if Matisse said this to Picasso or the other way around. They spoke to each other through their pictures and in other ways. This book is a record and an analysis of that unique and creative dialogue.