Taking on the Titans of Art

To the list of great match-ups--Magic/Bird, Ali/Frazier, Agassi/ Sampras--add one more. In Febuary, Matisse Picasso opened at the Museum of Modern Art in Queens for the art world's version of one-on-one. The works, many of which have never traveled, are cleverly paired--nude to nude and vase to vase--to show the relationships between the two titans. Patricia Leighten, professor and chair of the art and art history department, and her colleague Mark Antliff, associate professor of art history, share their views. They are co-authors of Cubism and Culture.
January 31, 2003


Extracting from the abstract: art historians Leighten, left, and Antliff

 Extracting from the abstract: art historians Leighten, left, and Antliff


From what you've seen of the catalogue, do you think the exhibit will live up to the hype?

Leighten: It looks like it's going to be a remarkable show in bringing together fabulous works, many of them not that well-known. They even stretch to find some Picasso works that haven't been shown in recent exhibitions. And the Matisse, more so. Shaft of Sunlight, the Woods of Trivaux, this very abstract Matisse from 1917, is quite stunning. I had never seen it. It's always worthwhile looking at works in the original. You can study all you like, but all your study is tested by looking at the work in the original to see if it really follows through with what you thought that you were seeing in reproductions.

Were Picasso and Matisse really so exclusively competitive or is this exhibit something of a marketing gimmick?

Leighten: The idea that you've only got two giants who will only look at each other is all too frequent in art history and, in particular, museum culture. People want to find a blockbuster that's going to bring in people who don't normally visit museums. There certainly was this relationship between the two; the problem is that I don't believe that Picasso had any idea of Matisse as his only worthy rival in the world. He was much too knowledgeable. He was in dialogues with many other artists working, like Braque, over his entire career.

If you were going to do a proper show on modernism, you would have Picasso and Matisse, but you would also have the less well-known artists with whom they were deeply involved. Instead, both artists are decontextualized from the world that they actually operated in. Those worlds certainly intersected, but the show extracts it from the real history that it all happened in. So you don't have any other artists, any journals or critics. You don't have anything. They are cut off from all that made their art mean something.

I don't believe that art has a universal meaning for all time; it means something different to each audience who sees it. To us, Matisse can look tame, whereas he looked like a flaming radical at the time. We're on the other side of Jackson Pollock--people doing performances, lighting fires. The context is different now.

An exhibition like this vastly oversimplifies. It ignores twenty years of scholarship in art history. The cultural fabric that art is expressive of has sort of been peeled away. It's entertainment. Intellectual and beautiful, luscious and worthwhile entertainment. But entertainment.

What was the basis for Picasso's fixation on Matisse?

Antliff: Matisse, from the standpoint of 1905, was incredibly radical. He was in the vanguard position, the leader of the movement known as Fauvism, which hit the world stage in 1905 and had an immediate and huge influence on artists everywhere, including Germany and Russia. There was a group of avant-garde artists from as far away as Denmark and the U. S. who gathered around and studied him, so he had a following that was significant. Matisse was among the first to "discover" African art-- it had long been present in Paris, but contemporary artists had not paid much attention to it-- and, around 1904, the group around him became highly interested in it. And so did Picasso.

The difference is that whereas Matisse, in a very timid way, adopted some of the stylistic features of African art, Picasso did so in a way that was cataclysmic. You know, the Demoiselles d'Avignon transformed the way we conceive of modernism, and that signature painting had a huge impact and really turned the tables on Matisse's position as the leading radical. It's at that point that they enter into this rivalry, which also included those who collected their paintings.

For example, they were both being collected by the Steins--Gertrude and Leo and Sarah. The Steins, as a family and as avid intellectuals (Gertrude Stein studied with William James, for instance), kind of fell out philosophically and aesthetically along the lines of supporters of Picasso (Gertrude) and supporters of Matisse (Sarah and Leo). And, to some extent, that division was defined in a very complex way that dealt with the metaphysical theories, too. Sarah Stein was a follower of Henri Bergson, who was a very important French philosopher, and Matisse read Bergson. Many assume, and I think correctly, that this was the major philosophical influence on Matisse during that period.

Picasso's art was evolving in a very different way, equally complex, but in a manner that is divorced from some of the concerns that Matisse was developing out of those interests and that shared community. So one has rivalries not only on the stage of avant-gardism but within the realm of worldviews and the greater intellectual community.

Leighten: Matisse did think Picasso was mocking him. My personal feeling, though, is that he was not ever mocking Matisse. Picasso was simply doing something so much more radical in formal terms than Matisse was doing. He was "geometrifying" his works so strongly and denying traditional readings of space and really making works that are about being ugly, purposely rejecting traditional notions of beauty in European culture. I think that Matisse thought that part of what Picasso was rejecting was Matisse's own work, and, to a certain extent, that is true. But I don't think it was personalized. I think he was just rejecting everything prior to what he was doing, not just Matisse. And as radical as Matisse's own art was, he was working more closely with more minor modulations on the traditional notion of the female form as an embodiment of beauty.

Is a Matisse-Picasso exhibit new to the art world?

Antliff: No. Yves-Alain Bois put on this huge exhibition in February of 1999 that focused on the inter-war period of the two artists, and he got the idea from an exhibition that occurred in the 1930s. So this trope has been operative in the museum world for a while; it's just been revised.

Were Matisse and Picasso more prolific than most?

Leighten: Yes. But quantity has little to do with an artist's reputation. Quantity can sink your ship. Creativity is the key.

Antliff: For instance, Vermeer did not produce a lot of art. But he's arguably one of the most famous artists in the world. When they had a Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, it broke the record in attendance.

Leighten: Some of these figures are so enormous in the art-historical canon--not simply because they did some of the most moving and powerful works in and of themselves, like Matisse's Joy of Life or Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, but because of the influence they had on other artists. Art history is often constructed in terms of "leader and follower." Matisse was the leader of the Fauves. Picasso was the leader of the Cubists. Picasso is, in my heart, the greatest of the Cubist artists. But we wouldn't have Picasso as a Cubist if it weren't for all of those artists he was involved with. They spent all their time together--talked, drank, and shared their thoughts on art and life. The idea that you have this one leader who generates all of the meaning of a whole movement and a bunch of second-rate artists--that's a market-driven model of history; it really doesn't work for me.

Would we have Picasso without Matisse?

Leighten: Perhaps Cubism might have developed a bit differently without Fauvism as a model of radicalism that it was both responding to and reacting against. But neither of them would look the way they do without CÈzanne. If there is one large figure who generates a lot of questions and ideas in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, it's CÈzanne. His contemporaries thought he was interesting, but they had a different set of priorities. Then the Fauvists and Cubists come along and look back and say, "there's somebody doing something amazing." And they took what struck them and played it out in different ways.


Which would you rather have on your wall, a Picasso or a Matisse?

Leighten: I'll take whatever they're giving away.

Antliff: Same here.