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'Matisse Picasso' Exhibit Examines Relationship Between Two Great Artists - 2003-02-14

One of the blockbuster exhibitions of the international art world has opened at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit, examining the relationship between two of the giants of 20th century art, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, is expected to attract visitors from around the globe.

The Museum of Modern Art is calling the exhibition "Matisse Picasso." A simple title for two artists who need no further introduction. Museum director Glenn Lowry says the competition and collaboration between Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso changed the course of 20th century art. "What you see on our walls here are 132 absolutely remarkable sculptures, paintings, and works on paper that span the entire career of two artist who were virtually integral to any understanding of the 20th century and certainly to the vision and understanding of modern art that we represent," he said.

The two artists are often thought of only in terms of rivalry and contrast. Matisse's work was big, bold, bright. He was a master of color, painting works of beauty and serenity. Picasso focused on form and concept. His work was often angry, surreal, sometimes frightening. Kirk Varnedoe, one of six curators who put the exhibition together, says 20th century culture would be incomplete without the two. "Matisse is the great colorist and Picasso is the great form-giver," he explains. "They are very different as artists. Matisse is much less interested in exploring areas like constructed sculpture, which was so important to Picasso. Picasso is the more mercurial and more innovative and inventive. Matisse is the steadier artist but he is also an artist's artist. He is a brilliant painter."

But co-curator John Elderfield says the great influence they had on each other is often overlooked. "If there was anything that was our motto in this it became the statement of Picasso that 'No one has looked at Matisse's paintings more carefully than I and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.' "

To illustrate the relationship, or ongoing artistic dialogue, between the two, the exhibition displays side-by-side works of the painters responding to each other's art. It begins with two self-portraits executed in 1906, shortly after the two first met, and opens with two paintings they exchanged the following year. In the early years, experts say, Picasso sought to catch up with the older Matisse. That changed in 1907 when Picasso put cubism on the artistic map with "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," which was heavily influenced by African tribal masks. Matisse, who first introduced Picasso to the African tribal masks, hated the painting at first.

"Matisse's encounter with cubism and the 'Demoiselles' sets the tone for how they related to each other for their whole life," he explains, "what it must have been like for Matisse after clawing his way up against resistant parents and a long slow maturation as an artist at the age of 36 to suddenly see this 23-year-old whippersnapper from Barcelona who barely spoke French and had none of the social graces suddenly riveting and galvanizing the Paris community and Matisse forced to come to terms with it."

Mr. Varnedoe says the situation reversed a decade later. Matisse was painting lush, sensual fantasies while Picasso channeled his personal unhappiness into surrealism, producing works marked by violence, ugliness and deformity. As his life took on a happier tone, sparked by love, he turned to Matisse. "Picasso now must come to terms with Matisse in the early 1930s," explains Mr. Varnedoe. "As his relationship with Marie Therese Walters matures, suddenly he needs a vocabulary of sensuality, that no longer has the deformation of surrealism. To whom can he turn for such a vocabulary, but Matisse?"

John Elderfield says the research done for the exhibition revealed a far richer and complex relationship between the two men than had been previously thought. "My feeling of seeing this all together is not only to recognize the complexity of the relationship between the two artists, but how they helped each other elevate the level of their art, that is really does seem that neither could have achieved the heights without the other one," he says.

At the end of World War II, Picasso moved to the South of France where the two became closer, both taking comfort in the fact that unlike many artists neither had fled France during the Nazi occupation and recognizing, as one curator put it, that they were "alone at the top of the hill." Matisse once told Picasso "we must talk to each other as much as we can. When one of us dies, there will be some things that the other will never be able to talk of with anyone else."