Whatever you may think of the new Broadway version of La Boheme, there's a better story of art-world devotion and backstabbing just across the river in Queens, N.Y. That's where the Museum of Modern Art is squeezed temporarily into a remodeled warehouse in a neighborhood where the sport-utility vehicle of choice is a dump truck. While its Manhattan headquarters is being reconstructed, MOMA is still managing to play host to the kind of exhibition that will bring hundreds of thousands of people to a place with no hot restaurant and no cabs. At a time when the museum blockbuster is threatened by high insurance rates and topic fatigue--there are Monet haystacks I see more often than I see my mother--"Matisse Picasso," which comes to the U.S. after hugely successful runs at the Tate Modern in London and the Grand Palais in Paris, is proof that the blockbuster can still be a public service, not to mention a supreme pleasure. It's only February, but it's safe to say that this is the show of the year.
From the first, critical and popular thinking positioned the two artists as the heads of opposing camps. The critic Andre Salmon summed it up in 1910. "There are lovers of art capable of admiring both Picasso and Matisse," he wrote. "These are happy folks whom we must pity." We all know the terms of their face-off. Matisse the color-infatuated voluptuary, Picasso the spiky engineer of Cubist space. Matisse the consoler, Picasso the bomb thrower. Matisse the man who once called for "an art of balance, of purity and serenity," Picasso the one who said, "In my case, a picture is a sum of destructions."
It would be too much to call these understandings false. There were times, especially in the Cubist years, when Picasso did rush in to places where Matisse feared to tread. And when it comes to color, Picasso, so given to dull greens and nougat browns, is no match for Matisse's vermilions and aquamarines. But the great lesson of the Matisse exhibitions of the past decade or so--the lesson this show carries forward--is that Matisse was every bit as much the trailblazer.
Certainly that was the case when the two men first met in Paris around 1905. Henri Matisse was then leader of the Fauves--the wild beasts--whose abruptly brushed, feverishly colored canvases had taken the lessons of Van Gogh and Gauguin to the inevitable far reaches. Pablo Picasso, 12 years younger, was still little known and working--though sometimes to surprising effect--with the dwindling resources of fin-de-siecle Symbolism. Both men were coming to grips with Cezanne and the means by which he represented space--with shallow patches of pigment that create the illusion of depth but still assert themselves as smears of pigment on the surface of the canvas. Matisse was the first to grasp its implications. But Picasso would drive further into them.
The recondite mazes of Cubism, so open, so impregnable, are what followed. Very soon, with the ferocity and radical distortions of a single canvas, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Picasso would turn every other artist into cannon fodder and take from Matisse the leadership role within the avant-garde. Georges Braque and Andre Derain, onetime Fauvists, defected to Picasso's camp. In time Picasso would even usurp Matisse's position in the affections--and worse, in the collection--of Matisse's once devoted patron Gertrude Stein.