Conversations with Dr. Yve-Alain Bois, renowned art historian and Harvard professor and Rick Brettell, independent curator and professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. (PART TWO)
Left: Odalisque With Tamborine, Henri Matisse, 1926.
Right: Large Nude In A Red Armchair, Pablo Picasso, 1929.
KERA: How did Picasso and Matisse differ in respect to the making of art?
Rick Brettell: I think that Picasso makes works of art out of a kind of eruptive, emotional need, and that Matisse is much more involved in thinking about the function and structure and necessity of the work of art, its relationship to other works of art in that tradition, in that mode, and even to his own works of art. For Matisse, it’s more of a game in which he is the chess master, whereas Picasso has a kind of tumultuous relationship to the production of art.
Yve-Alain Bois: Matisse works with continuity and fusion, and Picasso works with discontinuity and articulation, and I think that’s because they have two different things to say, or two different things that they think art should do with regard to the beholder. Matisse wants to communicate an effect that cannot be put into words very easily. He wants to overwhelm us with complex sensory stimuli. Matisse alluded to music very often in that way, as something that cannot be put into words or represented by fragments of reality very easily, as something that touches our senses in many different ways.
Picasso, on the other hand, is interested in ping-ponging moments where things change, where things become the opposite of what they were before, in articulating differences for which discontinuity is an important element.
KERA: On a technical level, what do you think Matisse and Picasso responded to in each other’s work?
Yve-Alain Bois: Picasso knew that Matisse was fantastic with color — he knew that right from the start. Matisse always admired Picasso’s facility as a draftsman, and Matisse knew that he had to go to endless lengths to achieve the same kind of fluency.
In other words, they each recognized the special talent and facility of the other, and each knew that it was not theirs. So, when they dialogued in their world, they tried to address or to combat, to circumvent the facility. And so, that became their goal. Picasso became an incredibly good colorist because Matisse was there as a competitor. He knew that he would never be able to really compete with Matisse, but nevertheless, he worked very hard.
Matisse became an incredible draftsman, especially at the end of his life. His drawings are just masterpieces. They look effortless. They’re not effortless at all, but they look it. And I think it had a lot to do with the way in which each tried to surpass the other’s achievements. Each was obliged to apply his talents in more diverse and more powerful ways.
Rick Brettell: Color for Picasso became more and more important as a result of his relationship to Matisse. And it was never important in the same way that it was for Matisse, but he would use pinks and reds and salmons, and brilliant fuschias rather than the beiges and blacks and browns and grays that were easy for him.
Yve-Alain Bois: Yes, there are certain audacities that Picasso takes with color. He would never have had the confidence to do that without the desire to compete with Matisse. And you have the technical aspects of the brushstroke. Especially after World War II, and even after Matisse’s death, he uses a very loose brushstroke with a lot of turpentine or a dry brush. The white of the canvas shows through and vibrates and makes the color more saturated even though theoretically it’s not. All that comes directly from Matisse.
Picasso learned many technical things from Matisse, from Matisse’s audacity. Very early on, for example, Matisse scratches his canvases. He just draws with the back of the brush. And Picasso starts doing that in direct emulation of Matisse’s casualness.
KERA: And what do you think Matisse took from Picasso?
Yve-Alain Bois: I think he got encouragement… a kick in the butt, I don’t know how to say it any better. Something like, “You can do it.” And he was stimulated by Picasso’s limitless imagination.
KERA: At a time when Matisse is struggling, unable to paint, Picasso begins to quote Matisse’s work in an attempt to “bring him back into the ring,” as you say. In 1935, Matisse responds with a painting called Large Reclining Nude.
Yve-Alain Bois: One of the things that is amazing about this work is that she looks the beholder in the eye. That’s not something that Matisse usually does. And I think that’s a kind of direct quote of Picasso, because that’s something that characterized Picasso very much. And this is my private interpretation, but I see that woman looking at Picasso and saying, “Hah, I dare you.” In this painting, Matisse goes back to some of the characteristics of his early work — the color saturation, the daring color juxtaposition of pink and red and orange – right at the border of kitsch, which is something Matisse could do all the time. He could create all kinds of color combinations with incredible success, which is something Picasso could never surpass.
KERA: During World War II, Picasso sends Matisse an unusual gift: a dramatic, tortured portrait of Picasso’s lover at the time, Dora Maar. When Matisse offers Picasso a painting in return, Picasso chooses a painting that’s outrageously pretty, even sweet by comparison. What does this exchange tell us about the two artists?
Yve-Alain Bois: I think they are both interested— and know that the other is interested —in what the other is unable to do. Picasso sends Matisse something that he knows is very, very different from what Matisse is doing. And it’s a very powerful portrait. And Picasso chooses, because Matisse gives Picasso a choice, Seated Young Woman in a Persian Dress, which in its innocence is completely removed from what Picasso would do.
I think one of the things that fascinated Picasso in this painting was the way the color breathes. The white of the canvas shows through the brushstroke. And also the relationship between purple and green— FranÁoise Gilot wrote that Picasso was fascinated at the time by the purple-green juxtaposition. Picasso’s Still Life with Steer’s Skull uses the same color relationship.
Matisse and Picasso were each interested in the things the other was best at, what they couldn’t do as well. And it’s very interesting that Matisse goes back to the Portrait of Dora Maar later in his life, after the war, when he is doing The Stations of the Cross for the Vence Chapel. Now this is something that Matisse doesn’t know how to do, to paint pain, horror. He’s not good at it. Every time he tried to represent a scene of violence, he was not very convincing. It wasn’t his mode.
And so each artist’s conception of beholding is different; what they want to do with art is different. They don’t quite know themselves at that time. It will take a long time for each of them to know why they differ so much, why they can’t do what the other is doing. They were always very intrigued, one by the other, and there are many witnesses who heard Matisse or Picasso say, “How does he do that?”
Matisse and Picasso: Rivals or Friends?
KERA: Yve-Alain, some critics have written about Matisse and Picasso as though they represented opposite ends of the artistic spectrum. What’s wrong with that notion?
Yve-Alain Bois: There’s nothing wrong with the idea that they are opposed, that they are like two big fish in a big pond that are going to go in various directions, opposite directions at times and all that. But it doesn’t allow for a lot of historical movement, for change. It casts them too much in bronze, when in fact their relationship is very fluid. The thing that is different about Matisse and Picasso is that they were very conscious of playing this role themselves, and they played it with a vengeance.
KERA: What was behind Picasso’s early perceptions of Matisse? How did the rivalry start?
Yve-Alain Bois: I think that Picasso felt that, you know, this guy was really powerful and he didn’t want to be left behind. Picasso was extraordinarily ambitious, and he had already achieved quite a lot of success. And he knew that Matisse was a big obstacle in the road that Picasso had chosen for himself. Picasso wanted to become the most powerful avant-garde painter in Paris at the time, and so this very clear element of rivalry occurs very early in their relationship.
KERA: And later on, the rivalry was intensified by people in Picasso’s circle who began to ridicule Matisse openly.
Rick Brettell: Picasso never, ever had a conventional bourgeois life. I mean, though he was married, and though he had children several times, he lived outside the strictures of conventional morality. And therefore he could construct his own social life, because you know Madame Picasso was not such an important deal, and the kids were not such an important deal. What was important to him were the informal friendships of dealers, collectors, critics, friends, and hangers on.
With Matisse, on the other hand, even though in the 20’s the kids are getting older, and perhaps he’s a little bored with Madame Matisse, his sense of being a pater familia and of being bourgeois, of being correct, is a very important part of Matisse’s life. And for that reason alone, almost for the social reasons, it was very easy for the young, ne’er-do-wells, sexually libertine, socially libertine, foreign artists in Paris to make fun of, you know, the old guy who’s down in Nice painting odalisques because he can’t get it up with his wife anymore. I mean it’s fairly easy to make fun of Matisse during this period of time.
KERA: And then, near the end of 1920’s, Matisse finds himself unable to paint.
Rick Brettell: Matisse, like all artists, has moments of confidence and then moments of doubt. And that has a lot to do with modernism. Mearleau-Ponty wrote this great essay called “Cezanne’s Doubt” that’s about how self-doubt is actually one of the principal ingredients of modernism, because if you feel comfortable with what you’re doing, then you do it in a way which is rote and formulaic. And if you don’t feel comfortable with what you’re doing, if you’re your own worst critic, and if you chose to pit yourself against other artists who you perceive as being stronger, then your chance of actually doing something original and important is much better.
No matter who you are, if you’re forced by your age, and by the circumstances of your fame, to confront yourself entirely, then there’s the possibility of clutching, particularly when you’ve clutched before. And there was a monumental clutch, and a fear of failure, and of not knowing where you were going. And that’s the most interesting time in Matisse’s career, I think.
Yve-Alain Bois: So, you can imagine, Matisse is in isolation in Nice; he doesn’t want to speak to anyone; he can’t paint. And here you are, with Picasso churning out one work after another that alludes to Matisse’s early work. Can you imagine how irritating that must be? It seems to me that you have to overcome your misery by fighting back, which I think is exactly what Matisse did.
KERA: Why did Picasso pick on Matisse?
Rick Brettell: Who else is there to pick on? Why pick on Matisse? A little bit because he’s down and out. A little bit because he really is greater than anybody else anyway. I mean you can’t pick on Braque anymore. You can’t pick on Leger. I mean the surrealists are a bunch of young punks who aren’t doing much of anything anyway. I mean, can you imagine taking Salvador Dali seriously if you’re Picasso, a painter like Picasso? I mean, who do you engage?
And you know, when you engage somebody else in that way, it means that you need it too. You need that engagement. And clearly Picasso felt as if he himself had gone through a kind of eclectic and formless decade. And so, the two of them did need each other. Each of them thought that the other was a giant. So what’s wrong with sparring with a giant? It makes you stronger.
Yve-Alain Bois: In some ways, Picasso was bored, and he wanted Matisse back in the ring, and he wanted to find a way to get the old man out of his den. That’s what he did. He did it in various ways, and one of them was by caricaturing some of Matisse’s previous work. And he would always quote Matisse’s style from let’s say 1906-1914. I mean, he was telling Matisse, “Why don’t you do the same thing that you’re doing now, but the way you used to do it, in the style you used to use before? It would be much more interesting.”
KERA: And the dialogue continued for the next twenty-five years…
Rick Brettell: Yve-Alain’s exhibition celebrates the last third of their careers. There’s a feeling that they’ve transcended mere fashion. All these younger artists are barking up trees that they no longer have to bark up. The exhibition deals with the mature phase in the history of two artists whom we are taught to think of as opposites. And it makes us realize that though they are in many ways opposites, one feeds the other. It’s almost like a love affair in a way, because nobody else could inspire them as much as they could inspire each other.
Yve-Alain Bois: I think it’s rather interesting to think of their relationship as a sibling rivalry. I see Matisse and Picasso that way a lot.
Rick Brettell: They each wanted to dominate the other. And nobody wanted to win. I don’t see Matisse and Picasso as friends. I see them as being archetypal rivals, sort of friendly rivals.
Yve-Alain Bois: Chess is a very interesting metaphor for explaining the relationship between two artists like Matisse and Picasso. They needed the challenge of an adversary in order to become better themselves. They knew it.
KERA: And then Matisse dies, and Picasso goes through a period of mourning, painting the series of interiors at his studio, La Californie, in memory of Matisse. What do you see in those paintings?
Rick Brettell: The notion of the old guy paying homage to the older guy now gone…I was just stunned. The black, I mean that spaceless, extraordinary black. One remembers Matisse’s blacks from 1910 and 1911, and Picasso remembered even that.
And it’s interesting that Picasso actually knew enough about grief, about the way in which any kind of expressive form plays a role in grief, to let himself grieve artistically, and to do it in a rather concerted way. And therefore to be able to have an end, so that he could go on.
Matisse & Picasso is a high-definition television documentary produced in 2000 by KERA Public Media.