Matisse and Picasso. If there were an enterprise called Modern Art, Inc., surely they would be the co-founders.
Books on Their Friendship and Rivalry
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 painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.Pablo Picasso
After reading Kurt’s piece on Weggenmann last week, I found myself revisiting my books on Matisse. I have the Taschen book by Volkmar Essers, the Spurling bios, and a copy of the exhibition catalog from the MOMA retrospective in 1992 written by John Elderfield.
Books on Matisse I Own
I read the bit where Elderfield compares Matisse with Picasso.
This sparked a memory. Some years ago, I took a figure painting class, taught by a younger and somewhat celebrated French artist who had inexplicably moved to the US and taught art classes on the weekends. I loved the class. My French instructor was hilarious and he demanded that we paint our nudes on the largest supports we could find: as large as 6 feet by 3 feet.
On the first day of class, I got lucky and made a life drawing that I found enchanting. Regrettably, I drew it with vine charcoal on cheap newsprint. It would yellow and disintegrate. I wanted so badly to recreate it with better materials, but that proved impossible.
One day when I was struggling, my French art teacher came up to me, and looking at my work said mischievously, “Ah, you have the drawing of Matisse and the colors of Picasso.” It wasn’t unkind, but it wasn’t exactly a compliment either. More flustered than flattered, I kept painting.
I wanted to prove my skill at representing nature and create a painting that everyone would see as beautiful. I made a few paintings in that class that strongly moved me, but I never felt I accomplished my goal. I still remember a particularly compelling painting that I thought was just too bold, too sloppy, and too unfinished. I didn’t keep it. I didn’t want to claim it as my own.
Truth and Daring
What does this trip down my personal memory lane have to do with Matisse, Picasso, and the development of Modernism?
As an artist, it’s all too easy to fall into disavowing your best work, the work that’s truly alive and singularly you. You worry that your work is ugly, shocking, that it will never sell. You fear that it might even make people question your talent, your skill, your taste, your judgment, even your sanity or character. Of course, that’s rarely the case. Odds are no one cares. But the best artwork is a unique reflection of the artist, and it’s not always easy to look in that mirror.
Sometimes people say that modern art was born ugly. Matisse and Picasso were making paintings that were so far from the artistic standards of the time that people were shocked and outraged. A century later, some people still don’t get it. I marvel at the strength of character and self-acceptance required to accomplish what they did.
In the end, everything depends on one’s self, on a fire in the belly with a thousand rays. Nothing else counts. That is why, for example, Matisse is Matisse. . . . He’s got the sun in his gut.Pablo Picasso
Could they have done the work if they hadn’t challenged each other and cared enough to push back? Would either Matisse or Picasso would have had the will to continue to show their masterpieces if they hadn’t been there to egg each other on? How many “double-dog-dare-yous,” did it take for the pair to so fearlessly invent modern art?
In the end, there is only Matisse.Pablo PIcasso
More recommended reading
Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art by Francoise Gilot
A memoir by Picasso’s lover and artistic muse.
Picasso and Matisse compared to other 3 other pairs of modern art “frenemies”: Manet and Degas, Pollock and DeKooning, and Bacon and Freud.
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