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Equally matched

Matisse Picasso

Tate Modern

11 May to 18 August

10 (7 concessions)

CONTRASTING STYLES and technique, two of the greatest artists of the twentieth century come together in Tate Modern's latest blockbuster. The collaboration with museums from New York and Paris has brought art never before seen publicly in Britain or exhibited together.

The premise of the exhibition is that Matisse and Picasso interacted throughout their lives. Although they are typically characterised as competitors, they were kindred spirits, united in their acknowledgement of one another's ability. The evidence presented here is more than enough to prove the curators' point. Picasso seems to concur: "You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse's paintings more than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he".

On show are intriguing combinations of work by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. A number of sculptures are included, but the emphasis is on pictorial art. Immediately, we come face to face with the two protagonists in the form of self-portraits painted in 1906, shortly after they first met. Matisse, who usually portrayed himself wearing a suit and glasses, is in a sailor's striped top, engaging the viewer, giving nothing away. Picasso gazes into the middle distance, palette in hand, preparing himself to paint.

Sometimes particular works directly echo or confront the art of the other artist. Picasso's Serenade (1942) refers to Matisse's Music (1939). In both, a woman in blue on the right plays the guitar. On the left, an ochre figure lounges. Music shows Matisse's impeccable use of colour and composition. Vivid reds, deep blues, luscious greens. Serenade is in stark contrast. Cubist forms and a dark, foreboding interior.

The question explicitly posed is whether this is artistic opposition or a complementary re-working. It is often impossible to judge.

Matisse's The Italian Woman (1916) is presented in tandem with Woman with a Fan (1908). Both their heads are slightly downcast. What Picasso expresses with angular blocks of colour, Matisse achieves by other means. The Italian Woman is a simplified figure, her arms delineated by a thin black line. There's sadness in her expression - introspection. The bold, oval eyes are reminiscent of Picasso. Her hair falls straight, a sharp divide, an effect achieved in the Woman with a Fan by the line of her dress and shadows. Very different styles and technique are employed to convey similar moods.

Some of the examples presented are more tenuous. The claim, for example, that Picasso's Still Life with Pitcher and Apples (1919) recalls the Bowl of Oranges painted by Matisse three years earlier is stretching a point.

This is a very human exhibition, portraying a complex interaction between these two artists. Certainly, the ten years following their first meeting in Paris are characterised by intense rivalry. Matisse, in his mid-thirties, was the principal figure in the French avant-garde. He was leading the 'fauvist' movement, which incorporated striking use of primary colours to suggest movement and vitality alongside a rough-hewn, unfinished quality. It can be considered as a natural extension of impressionism, but its energy and spontaneous look, inspired by the clear light of the Mediterranean, caused a sensation. Picasso, twelve years younger, was the exciting and brash new prospect - recently arrived from Spain - beginning to break through onto the international stage.

This power struggle for artistic supremacy included many canvas-to-canvas clashes and encounters. Picasso would regularly deride Matisse as an 'interior decorator'. Matisse would accuse Picasso of stealing his ideas, denouncing him as 'a bandit waiting in ambush'. Nevertheless, it was at the very start of this period that Matisse is said to have introduced Picasso to African art, a key element in his development of cubism with Georges Braque from 1908 onwards.

There is some truth in the characterisation of Matisse as the specialist in colour, with Picasso in the role of draughtsman. Matisse's reflection, sophistication and introversion - he kept his personal life private - are contrasted with Picasso's extrovert raw energy - his art was a riotous autobiography of sensuality. But this is only part of the story. They reacted to each other's work, adapting it to their own style. Out of that, something new would be created.

It is a complex relationship. Both artists were living in France and stood shoulder to shoulder - often literally - as the leading artists of their time for nearly 50 years. There was a profound mutual respect. They taunted, challenged and inspired each other. They met. They talked. They swapped their works of art.

The first cubist paintings by Picasso and Braque were, in the main, sombre, often monochrome. Matisse was not a cubist but helped bring colour to the movement. He criticised cubism in general as being too mathematical and unemotional. On the other hand, he recognised that it was an important movement which he should understand and comment on. As a result, Matisse applied its principles, moving away from traditional perspective, flattening and compressing the visual effect.

Piano Lesson (1916) is a key work on this route, a master-class in how colour can be applied without destroying the cubist perspective. It seems to have caught Picasso's attention and marks the beginning of a new-found respect for the older artist. Before Matisse, Picasso and Braque had been introducing colour tentatively, most effectively in their collages. After Matisse, Picasso produces more decorative cubism, as seen in Three Musicians (1921).

Their different temperaments are graphically illustrated in their treatment of African art, especially sculpture. They were both heavily influenced by it but Matisse takes a more measured approach. He assimilates it, bringing it under his control. Picasso dives in at the deep end, revelling in its physicality and power. It fit the cubist bill perfectly. The facial features of Picasso's Nude with Raised Arms (1907) - if not the pose and composition of the painting - is typical of Picasso's early African-inspired cubist work. There's the trademark over-sized oval head, a shape repeated in the prominent eyebrows and eyes, and dark shadows across the face.

Matisse was also attracted by Islamic art and its use of rich, decorative colour. In it he discovered what was, at first sight, an unlikely connection with cubism. Above all, the flattened perspective was a common theme. Although flat, Islamic art put across a lot of spatial information, using the whole canvas to full effect. Matisse's The Painter's Family (1911) is a prime example. Two central figures are playing chess, a woman is standing, another sits on a sofa. There's a fireplace, carpets and furniture. It is remarkable how so much detail can be included without perspective depth. And all of it in exquisite colour. This contrasts with Picasso who, at that time, concentrated all his energies on the subject, leaving an undefined background in the shadows.

The first Matisse/Picasso exhibition was in 1918 in Paris. But ever since their first meeting, their paths continued to cross right up to Matisse's death in 1954. In 1920, Diaghilev's Russian ballet company commissioned both artists to design sets and costumes for different music on the same programme. In 1930 Matisse was on the jury which awarded Picasso the prestigious Carnegie Prize, which he had won himself three years before.

Following the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, Matisse and Picasso signed declarations supporting the Spanish republican movement and contributed to fundraising events for refugees. During the second world war, Picasso remained in Nazi-occupied Paris, under close surveillance which included regular intrusions into his studio. Matisse was in Nice, his wife and daughter working for the Resistance in Paris. Although he was relatively safe in the South, he underwent a near-fatal operation for duodenal cancer in 1941 which affected him physically for the rest of his life.

Picasso's connection with surrealism and Matisse's hostility towards that movement, exacerbated by the geographical divide, meant that the two artists drifted apart in the war years although some contact was maintained via mutual friends. After the war the two artists made up for lost time. Picasso settled in Vallauris, not far from Nice, and they entered the closest phase of their relationship.

The exhibition ends with a remarkable cross-over between the two artists, bringing the premise of the exhibition to its logical conclusion. More than two decades separate Picasso's Acrobat (1930) and Matisse's Flowing Hair (1952). The Acrobat is an oil painting. Limbs fill the frame with tumbling dexterity. The dance-like movement of Flowing Hair is made from cut paper. Since the onset of cancer, Matisse found it increasingly difficult to paint or tackle intricate work. He wielded a pair of scissors instead, his physical limitations could not prevent him from producing pictures of elegant beauty.

Picasso produced sheet-metal sculptures in 1954 just before Matisse died. These strongly parallel Matisse's paper cut-outs, especially as the production process involved the use of card models. But Matisse's designs were also intimately bound up with the early cubist collages of Picasso, nearly 50 years earlier. And that is the point. They reached the pinnacle of artistic achievement via different routes. But the reference and cross-reference was a permanent feature. It is not that every picture or sculpture was automatically linked with some piece by the other artist. But they knew one another's work intimately. Sometimes one would trigger strong positive or negative reactions in the other. They fed off each other.

Near the end of his life Matisse wrote to Picasso that "we must talk to each other as much as we can. When one of us dies there will be some things the other will never be able to talk of with anyone else". Fittingly, this statement has also been attributed to Picasso.

 


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