Exactly 20 years ago, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas staged its epic exhibition Matisse and Picasso: A gentle rivalry that examined the work of two of the most prominent artists in 20th century modernism, not in terms of influences and rivalries, but as a complex dialogue - a chess match played out by two of the grand masters of international art.
A few years later, the Tate in London with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Pompidou and the Musée Picasso in Paris assembled the knockout Matisse/Picasso exhibition that was shown in all three cities that again moved the emphasis from an early rivalry to a later profound empathy. Subsequently there have been myriad exhibitions that have juxtaposed the work by the two masters, including one focusing on their graphic work in Sydney in 2000. The show at the National Gallery in Canberra is the first major institutional exhibition in Australia to tackle the theme on a grand scale. It consists of over 200 works (about half from the Canberra gallery's own collection) with strategic loans from throughout Australia and around the world.
Picasso and Matisse probably first met on March 20, 1906, in the Paris apartment of Gertrude Stein. Gertrude, and her brother Leo, had for several years been collecting the work of Matisse, who was older than Picasso by 12 years, but had relatively recently discovered the work of the young Spaniard.
The two artists had been aware of each other's work for several years and both were working in Paris and had friends, dealers and patrons in common. Picasso lived in Montmartre, while Matisse in the Latin Quarter, and a bit like the north shore and Paddington in Sydney, these were separate enclaves in Paris and their inhabitants seldom mingled.
Leo Stein left us with the following evaluation of the two artists: "Matisse in an immaculate room, a place for everything, and everything in its place. Both within his head and without. Picasso - with nothing to say except the occasional firework, his work developing intuitively with no plan ... Matisse saw himself in relation to others and Picasso stood apart, alone. He recognised others, of course, but as belonging to another system, there was no fusion. Matisse exhibited everywhere. He always wanted to learn, and believed there was no better way than to see his work alongside the work of everybody else. Picasso never showed with others."
The Steins strongly promoted this idea of Picasso and Matisse as being poles apart and the idea found favour in the competitive art market. Picasso's wives and mistresses also fostered this idea. Fernande Olivier, in her memoirs (1933) spoke of Matisse as the artist from French Picardy, and Picasso, as the genius from the Spanish Andalusian region, standing like the north and south poles, which separated and dominated the course of modern art for fifty years.
Francoise Gilot, in her numerous publications on her years spent with Picasso, echoes a similar notion of what she terms, "spontaneous antagonism and empathy", nevertheless each of them recognising the necessity of peaceful co-existence as they had to share the same turf with the same friends, collectors, dealers and critics.
Now in retrospect, on reviewing the evidence of their work presented in this and other related exhibitions, it points to a different conclusion concerning the relationship between these two giants of 20th century art, one which may be more aptly described as "friendly rivalry". One can argue that both were batting on the same side - for example, both largely opposed pure abstraction, both subscribed to the idea of art as essentially an aesthetic object and both shared the notion of art having an interaction with society - in other words they were two sides of the same coin sharing their discoveries and constantly comparing notes.
Both also acknowledged the paternity of Paul Cézanne and saw themselves working in his footsteps. Matisse once told Picasso, "we must talk to each other as much as we can, as when one of us dies, there will be some things that the other will never be able to talk of with anybody else." Following Matisse's death in November 1954, Picasso had to concede and pronounced famously: "There are a number of things I shall no longer be able to talk about with anyone after Matisse's death ... All things considered, there is only Matisse".
There is another way of looking at this relationship that Joachim Pissarro put rather nicely when he wrote: "In this ongoing debate between Matisse and Picasso, no one actually wins, but no one is the loser either." Here the concept of "active understanding" rather than "influence" seems more appropriate.
After Matisse's death, Picasso announced that now he had to make art for both of them. Picasso once stated, "No one has looked at Matisse's painting more carefully than I, and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he."
The exhibition demonstrates the richness of the National Gallery's own holdings of mainly graphics of the two artists and their work for the Ballets Russes. The inaugural director, James Mollison, was responsible for many of these pioneering acquisitions, while Dr Jane Kinsman, the curator of this exhibition and the main author of the monographic catalogue, was responsible for many of the subsequent acquisitions.
Loans of major work by either artist are difficult to secure without a huge budget, so the exhibition has a credible, rather than spectacular selection, drawn from public and private Australian collections, especially interesting work from the Kerry Stokes collection.
There are also over a dozen international public collections that have loaned work for this show, especially the Tate, National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the Musée Picasso in Paris.
For Canberra audiences, there is the wonderful experience of seeing old friends such as Matisse's Jazz (1947) and his breathtaking Oceania, the sky (1946) and Picasso's Vollard suite (1930-37). The costume designs for the Ballets Russes, by both artists, are also rare gems.
The show sparkles with interesting visual connections where the curator's intimate knowledge of the collection allows her to weave her particular brand of seductive magic. Sadly, this is Dr Kinsman's swansong exhibition following which she retires after many years of service to the gallery.
Matisse and Picasso was a love affair, where despite the battered egos and the occasional bitchy words, they were each other's greatest admirer.
This is an exhibition to be enjoyed and explored where all sorts of gems will gradually reveal themselves.
- Matisse & Picasso. is showing at the National Gallery of Australia until April 13. Visit nga.gov.au for details.