Matisse & Picasso at Tate Modern

Anne Gardom on a strange, fruitful relationship

The current exhibition at Tate Modern has been put together to demonstrate the influence that Matisse and Picasso had on each other. It is an exciting chance to see these two major artists in a new and unexpected way. Tate Modern has huge spaces in which to display these varied works of art – not all paintings – and they look very impressive.

Not quite friends

Picasso and Matisse were frequently represented as being artistic enemies, jealous of each other's successes and mutually antipathetic. This is a gross over-simplification and distortion of their relationship, they each owned paintings by the other, and though not friends in the conventional sense, they studied each other's work with passionate attention, and both responded to what he perceived in each other's working methods and ideas. Picasso is reported to have said ‘We must talk to each other as much as we can. When one of us dies, there will be some things the other will never be able to talk of with anyone else.’ Although Matisse was twelve years older than Picasso, they started their artistic training at much the same time. They came from very different backgrounds. Picasso was Spanish, the son of an artist father who early recognized and cherished and the talent of his brilliant son, whereas Matisse came from a hard-working, respectable French family with a business tradition and had to fight to become an artist.

Portraits and Nudes

The exhibition starts with a self-portrait by each artist, the young Picasso is mask-like, simply painted, eyes looking into the distance giving nothing away, mainly in greys and cream. Matisse, in a striped fisherman's sweater, looks warily at the viewer from a background of brilliant blues and greens, with a green shadow on his face and slashes of red on his sweater. He usually painted himself in much more formal style, suited, bespectacled, with a collar and tie.

Both artists came from the tradition that used the nude body as the supreme of means of artistic expression, and both used the female nude above all others. The Blue Nude (1907) by Matisse, with its vibrant colours and distorted curvaceous body, produced a furore when it was first displayed. The angular ferocity of Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon was in part a response to Matisse's work. In this exhibition we can see his magnificent Nude with a Raised Arms (1907). Matisse had introduced him to African art, and its influence is clear.

La vie morte

The contrast between their still-life paintings is very revealing. Matisse's various Still-Lives with Goldfish are hugely popular and endlessly reproduced. It is a shock to see one of them in the flesh; their brilliant colours and exuberant patterns do, as he intended ‘create an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter.’ In the same gallery is Picasso's Still Life with a Skull, a latter-day Vanitas painting, the skull, the half-finished painting, the brushes and palette are a troubling and disturbing image – as was the intention. Two other still-life paintings, both done in 1941 show very different ways of treating such subjects. Picasso was in German-occupied Paris and his Still-life with a Sausage is a painting almost drained of colour, with the sausage and the artichokes looking like amputated body parts and the jumble of cutlery in the foreground like souls in torment. Matisse was in Nice, recovering from a major operation for cancer. He considered Still-Life with Magnolia as one of his best pictures. It is beautiful, brilliantly coloured, hopeful picture. His Still Life with Oysters also painted during the war is a celebration of good things, painted in the shadow of hardship and deprivation.

Picasso's Cubist still-life paintings, with facets of their objects almost woven together in subtle colours, often with collage effects, are very much the product of his association with Braque, but the Cubist movement affected Matisse too. His Still-life after Jan Davidz de Heem's La Desserte is a wonderfully exuberant exercise in Cubist Geometry – you can see the meticulous Dutch still-life transformed before your eyes.

Dessins

A small gallery is devoted to a selection of their many drawings. Matisse drew with flowing, sinuous lines, nudes posed in front of mirrors, the reflection showing him, serious and bespectacled, at work in the background. Picasso usually drew in a much more traditional and controlled way – one of his pencil portrait heads could have been by Ingres who, along with a Delacroix, was admired by both artists. These are relatively early drawings, his more aggressive drawings came at a later period.

Two of Matisse's monumental bronze Backs are on display (Nos III & IV) – over life-size, and refined down to simple majestic planes. Shown alongside them is Picasso's Three Women at a Spring demonstrating a sculptural approach to the paintings of nudes, his massive heavy-limbed women looking like ancient carved images. In other paintings of nudes the difference of approach is much more marked. Matisse paints a curved sinuous groups on rich colours, whereas nudes by Picasso often convey a message of conflict and emotional fragmentation.

Picasso's The Three Musicians is a joy – a painting full of humour and imagination and technical brilliance. The Music Lesson by Matisse is in the same gallery – a space-filled, haunted picture. They both painted studio interiors, Matisse's full of light, a model on a red-patterned bed, Picasso's Painter and Model is a total re-arrangement of shapes, but with echoes of Matisse's use of pattern and light.

Feminine intuitions

In their portraits, mostly of women, each was much influenced by the other's work. Matisse's portrait of Madame Matisse became more mask-like as he painted it, Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein also has a mask-like sculptural quality. Picasso paints his Portrait of a Young Girl, complete with the smart hat, rather like Madame Matisse's. But Matisse's portrait of Madamoiselle Yvonne Landsberg surrounds her with hoops and arcs which give it a semi-abstract quality. Each found the work of the other fertile source of interest and inspiration.

Nowhere, however, is this more apparent than in the splendid collection of bronze heads. Picasso's jagged spiky Head of a Woman (Fernande) and his more rounded and exaggerated bust of Marie Therese, can be seen alongside a series of heads by Matisse. Matisse simplifies and adapts the rounded and oval-shapes of the head of Jeanette to create increasingly geometric forms. His heads become progressively less naturalistic as he adapts and experiments.

Coupage

As Matisse became bedridden and unable to paint, he began to create his famous cut-outs, simplified shapes and using colours in a more direct way. They are among his most well known and beautiful works. Picasso's sheet metal sculptures date from about this time. He made models in cardboard before having them made up in metal, and their debt to Matisse was recognized by both artists.

This exhibition is full of surprises. Whether you know a great deal about these two artists, or little or nothing, it is a source of pleasure and illumination. Tate Modern has done itself – and us – proud.

Anne Gardom is the Art Critic of New Directions

The Exhibition is open till 18th August. Entrance £10, Concessions £7.

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