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Exhibition Review

Matisse - Picasso


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 3 February 2003 - Visiting exhibitions of the French Impressionists in Paris is always a pleasure, but now and again, a show comes along more sumptuous than the rest, in which not only the quality of the works presented, but the atmosphere created around them makes them exceptional. Such was the case of Matisse - Picasso at the Grand Palais this autumn ,which drew crowds of over 9000 people each day, an exhibition which was shown in London's Tate Gallery last summer and is due to open at the Museum of Modern Art Queens in New York in two weeks. Not only was each painting a masterpiece, but the entire exhibition was brilliantly conceived by Anne Baldassari, curator at the Musée Picasso in Paris, and Isabelle Monod-Fontaine, deputy director of the Musée National d'Art Moderne.

It was the painter and art historian John Golding who initiated the idea of the exhibition here two or three years ago, although the idea was not new. Already in 1918 a joint exhibition of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, organised by the French poet Apollinaire, was opened at the Galerie Paul Guillaume in Paris, and again, after the second World War, a show was held in London, Brussels and Amsterdam. This time, the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York worked alongside the Picasso Museum, the Pompidou Centre and the Musée d'Art Moderne here to negotiate the loan of some of the greatest masterpieces in the world.

"Matisse and Picasso were the giants of this period", Anne Baldassari told me, "they are the two poles of modern painting, and what the exhibition shows is the constant dialogue between them from their meeting at the end of 1905 to the death of Matisse in 1954. The 165 works on display, the sculptures, paintings, papiers collés, and drawings illustrate their continual stylistic and thematic exchanges. Matisse brought in colour, Picasso, form, yet Picasso too revolutionised colour, and while the recurring images in their work brought them both close together they also blasted them far apart."

Henri Matisse: Autoportrait
Henri Matisse: Self portrait (1906)
Oil on canvas; 55 x 46 cm.
Staten Museum fur Kunst
Johannes Rump Collection, Copenhagen
Photo courtesy of Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais

"They were the leaders of the revolution in art", she told me, "and remained in contact even when they were physically apart and neither saw the other's work, as, for example, during the war. While Matisse was in Nice, the free zone, Picasso, in Paris was protecting his colleague's paintings from the Nazis, putting them with his own in vaults in the National Bank du Credit Industriel. Then, at the end of the war, he also moved down to the South of France where they were in very close contact in great part due to Picasso's companion, Francoise Gilot, a fervent admirer of Matisse. It was in fact her book on their friendship, written about this period, but not published until 1990, which again sparked off the debate", the curator added.

Over a year was spent working out the hugely successful lay-out of the exhibition in France, where each of the fourteen rooms was designed by an architect, and where great attention was given to the setting of the Grand Palais, itself a 'modern' construction of glass and metal, and dating back to 1900, and where the two artists crossed paths for the first time, Picasso the feted young prodigy, and Matisse, twelve years older, whose paintings were refused and who was working there as a general handyman in order to feed his wife and three children.

"We wanted to use the atmosphere there, but needed to up-date the building and install the right lighting. It was rather like working in the theatre, creating a sort of choreography with the potential visitors, and leaving no trace of ourselves", said Baldassari. "We wanted the minimum of fuss. The paintings were so powerful, and so extraordinary that our goal was to let them speak for themselves, and for each to lead the visitor on to the next. With that in mind, we hung the paintings with little or no commentary; it wasn't necessary, and we did not want to distract the people who came. For the same reason, we gave considerable thought to the anti-theft devices which we wanted as unobtrusive as possible."

Pablo Picasso: Autoportrait a la palette
Pablo Picasso: Autoportrait a la palette (1906)
Oil on canvas; 91,9 x 73,3 cm.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art
The A.E. Galattin Collection, Philadelphia
Photo courtesy of Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais

"We played upon the inherent tension in the works, placing those that resembled each other together, the better to see at a second glance, that often the same theme is treated in opposition. "

Consequently, as soon as the visitor steps into the exhibition, he is confronted by three strong 1906-7 works, Portrait de Marguerite, the painting of his daughter by Henri Matisse, given as a gift to Picasso, together with his moving "Autoportrait", both works in violent contrast to Picasso's cold, and distant "Autoportrait à la palette", where he has created an almost primitive being carrying the symbolic tool of his trade. Why these three together?

"Because they are the same, yet very, very different", smiled Anne Baldassari. "If you study them carefully, it becomes increasingly obvious that Picasso has a different language. When certain works with similar subject matter, colour and postures are put together, further explanation isn't necessary.

Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra
Henri Matisse: Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra (1907)
Oil on canvas; 92 x 140 cm.
The Balitmore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection
Photo courtesy of Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais

" The second room hosts Matisse's disturbing and much criticised Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra, inspired by a small African statuette he bought in the Rue de Rennes,a work which drove Picasso to create Nude with Raised Arms. The posture is the same, but the model has been made to sit up. At this point," she told me, " both artists worked from postcards of African women, which were also at the base of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Neither copied from the other, it was a dialogue, where each contributed to the conversation. It just happened, around 1909, that the nude became the "battle figure" of their painting."

Pablo Picasso: Nude with Raised Arms
Pablo Picasso: Nude with Raised Arms (1907)
Oil on canvas; 150 x 100 cm.
Private Collection
Photo courtesy of Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais

Room five concentrated on portraits, and displayed some of the most stunning of the period 1908-1917, including the fabulous Madame Matisse, on loan from the State Hermitage Museum in St.Petersburg, presented next to Picasso's Portrait of a Young Girl, where the artist tried to apply papiers collés to his treatment of a face.

Henri Matisse: Madame Matisse
Henri Matisse: Madame Matisse (1913)
Oil on canvas 146 x 97,7 cm.
State Hermitage Museum, St.Petersburg
Photo courtesy of Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais

The sculptures, an amazing series of heads including Picasso's 1930-31 series of Marie-Thérèse, where both men attempted to "sculpt like a painter", are presented on a very long, low table in the centre of another vast lofty room. The visitor is free to walk right round each object, to see them from every angle, and without any plexi-glass boxing in, hampering the view, whilst nude paintings both in landscapes, or inside adorn the four walls.

"Each work of art here interacts with the next", commented the curator. "The works are not always in chronological order, or it might have become boring.

However, the special quality of this exhibition owed much to the fact that everything surrounding these masterpieces was deliberately understated and nothing distracted from the beauty of the paintings. Many visitors played games, guessing who had painted what, and mistakes were made, but what was perfectly clear was the fascinating dialogue between these two artists which each recognised. "When one of us dies", said Picasso, "there will be some things that the other will never be able to talk of with anyone else."

To end with a quote from Anne Baldassari, "Picasso dreamed Matisse, and Matisse dreamed Picasso. Without the other, neither would have existed, at least in the form we know. I hope that that is what the exhibition has made clear."

Matisse - Picasso will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art Queens from 13 February - 19 May 2003.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on visual arts and dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and is a member of the editorial board of

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