By Patricia Boccadoro
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.
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."
Matisse: Self portrait (1906)
Oil on canvas; 55 x 46 cm.
Museum fur Kunst
Johannes Rump Collection, Copenhagen
courtesy of Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais
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.
"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."
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.
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. "
Picasso: Autoportrait a la palette (1906)
Oil on canvas; 91,9 x
The Philadelphia Museum of Art
The A.E. Galattin
Photo courtesy of Galeries Nationales du
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?
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.
Matisse: Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra (1907)
Oil on canvas; 92 x
The Balitmore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection
courtesy of Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais
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."
Picasso: Nude with Raised Arms (1907)
Oil on canvas; 150 x 100
Photo courtesy of Galeries Nationales
du Grand Palais
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.
Matisse: Madame Matisse (1913)
Oil on canvas 146 x 97,7 cm.
Hermitage Museum, St.Petersburg
Photo courtesy of Galeries
Nationales du Grand Palais
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
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."
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."
- Picasso will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art Queens
from 13 February - 19 May 2003.
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 Culturekiosque.com.