classic view of the Matisse/Picasso rivalry is that these two artists were the equivalent of the odd couple of TV fame (Milroy). A staff writer for New York Newsday, Ariella Budick, describes the typical opinion of these men as "a pair of complementary opposites." Textbooks tend to bolster this point-of-view. Modern Art (Hunter and Jacobus) places its discussion of Matisse in a chapter entitled "Expressionism in France" and puts Picasso in the chapter "The Cubist Revolution." Moreover, neither of these chapters makes any substantive mention of the other artist - which further supports the opinion that their approaches to art are fundamentally different. The same holds true of the Artist in Profile series of books put out by Heinemann Library. Matisse is categorized as a Post-Impressionist (Bolton, 34) while Picasso is segregated into the Cubist school of art (Wallis, 48).
The current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art challenges this conventional wisdom. In the words of Sarah Milroy of the GlobeandMail.com:
such binary oppositions seem hasty and incomplete. It now looks like Matisse was more of a renegade than we thought, often provoking Picasso's most daring feats, while Picasso clearly provided Matisse with the impetus for some of his most assured creations. They took turns, it seems, in leading the dance.
And a recent book entitled Matisse and Picasso: The Story of their Rivalry and Friendship by Jack Flam also reflects this point-of-view. Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow explains in a review she did for this book that the reason why both of the artists were great was that they had each other. She describes their relationship and interaction like those one would find between two players in a game of Scrabble: "each artist built off his own work and the other's, playing not just to win but for the highest possible score."
But whether either of the above approaches more closely reflects the true nature of the relationship between these two men, one thing is certainly clear. Each had a unique personality which he revealed through the medium of his respective artwork. This paper will attempt to draw forth and elucidate the characteristics of these two personalities by both analyzing general commentary by art critics as well as by referring to specific paintings these men completed following their meeting in 1906. The end result will hopefully be an accurate description of the depth of character personified by these men.
General Comparison of the Artists
There is no denying that these two men were, as Matisse expressed it, as different as the North and South Poles (personality-wise, at least). Their work stands as testament to this fact. Paul Trachtman makes clear that the choices that they made for their paintings "depended as much on their personalities, their temperaments and emotions, as on their skills and styles as painters." And who was Henri Matisse as compared to Pablo Picasso? According to Adrian Searle (writer for The Guardian), Matisse was "effete and bourgeois behind his little pebble glasses, next to the macho Spanish bull." Matisse avoided "psychological complications in his art," preferring instead to affect a calm, untroubled, "analgesic side." Tuhus-Dubrow indicates that "Picasso's art tended toward paroxysms of aggression, whereas Matisse sublimated those forces into 'an art of balance, of purity and serenity,' in his own words." Even the sculptures produced later on in life uphold this fact. Picasso fashioned collages which were made up of, essentially, trash and other forms of garbage, consciously violating "the line between art and life....Where Matisse, even at his most provocative, is always elegant."(Budick).
On a more personal note, Picasso was well-known for his inability to remain committed to one woman. Searle goes as far as to say that "in almost every respect the man has been found wanting, especially of loyalty ... Everything, as well as everyone, is there to be used - including other people's art, and other men's mistresses." And while Matisse was able to keep his private life out of his art to a very large degree, "nearly all Picasso's art can be read as a diary of his affections and private preoccupation." (Searle). Picasso's relationships can be found throughout his paintings, most especially his feelings of jealously, items not obvious in the work of Matisse. This has led certain individuals to describe the latter as "formal and austere and the former "spirited and impulsive ("Art Giants")
Discussions of the Matisse/Picasso self-portraits usually centers on those which were completed in 1906 (though there are two other sets of candidates for this title - see below). Searle points out the most basic contrast in these pictures when he notes that already one can see the master of color (Matisse is wearing a "brightly striped sailor's jumper") at odds with a "more linear ... less painted than drawn ... colour reduced ... draughtsman." This description is called by Budick the "familiar colorist/conceptualist dichotomy, with Picasso playing the role of bold, brainy experimenter and Matisse that of the intuitive eye." However, Budick claims that she sees Matisse as the rebel here and Picasso more "preoccupied and introspective."
But probably the most provocative comparison of these two self-portraits comes from a Ms. Lavinia Greenlaw of Tate Modern in London. Quoted in total for the full effect, she says that the Picasso...
comes in hard, from the jut of his collarbone to the right hand made an empty fist, as it he's going to punch the colour into place. His palette is deadly serious - more or less the four shades with which Apelles swore he could paint anything which become, for Pablo, elements of the self: earthy, impasto, sanguine, obdurate. He throws in an extra - sidelong. Not yet thirty, he's still in thrall, selling himself like a bride, burnished and plucked with a come-hitherish slant to the eyes; like Genet or Byron, all bolshy shoulders and slipping chemise.
For Matisse, she doesn't exude quite the same energy. Instead, she sees him as more reserved, to the point of being somewhat uptight. He...
....might have been trying to bring out the beast (the fauve) in himself, but looks green about the gills, His eyes are exhausted and bloodshot, as it he's seen too much of something he'd rather not and must hold himself in reserve, keep receding. But the primary stripes of his jersey are racing. He is a Sunday sailor who has reeled himself into the yacht club, ozone-blasted and jangled by the seal who sang from a rock, 'Wanna f____?' Salt freezes his beard, clamps his mouth shut. A lump in his throat. A marine shadow keeps his cool. He will never tell.
Another set of self-portrait are compared by Milroy. Picasso painted one in 1953 where he "presents himself as a looming shadow in a tilting doorway, hovering over a recumbent nude […] there seems to be no means of escape in sight." It turns out that this was a time when Picasso was facing yet another "marital meltdown" -- which explains the character of the painting. On the other hand, Matisse painted the Violinist at the Window (1918), and he "depicts himself standing at the open balcony with his instrument tucked beneath his chin, rehearsing as he gazes out the window to the pale lavender Mediterranean beyond...." (Milroy). The difference in each man's outlook toward life is quite apparent.
Miscellaneous Other Paintings
An analysis of other paintings of these two men reveals much. First, both men owe a debt to Cezanne - clear to see in the comparison of Picasso's Le Demoiselles d'Avignon and Matisse's Bathers with a Turtle. However, the different way that they approach their individual canvases reveals the divide which separates them. John Elderfield, curator for the Museum of Modern Art expresses this as follows: "Picasso is taking Cezanne's elements - the cone, cylinder and sphere - into Cubism. Matisse is taking Cezanne's interest in the wholeness and the clarity of figures ... Picasso is understanding it as decomposition, and Matisse is understanding it as composition."(Trachtman).
A similar divide reveals itself when comparing Picasso's The Three Dancers (1925) with Matisse's Nasturtiums with Dance II (1912). Trachtman says that "[b]oth distort the classic theme [...] of Greek goddesses who dispense charm and beauty. Picasso's painting, however, was utterly savage, while Matisse's retained some sense of grace." Budick expresses a similar viewpoint on these contrasting paintings when she says that:
Picasso's merry perversity jangles against Matisse's more refined approach...Matisse's slender revelers cavort with sublime, innocent lyricism across a solid blue background on a receding plane. ... Picasso's dancers, on the other hand, crowd up against the picture's surface, exalting in an unsavory Dionysian celebration. One figure throws her head back in a beastly frenzy exposing a mouth full of spiky teeth. Another lifts her arms as if she were being crucified, while sinister shadows hover in the background.
The Effect of War on the Artists
The reaction of these two men to wartime experiences reveals certain important aspects of their personalities. Matisse, true to form, was able to…