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Two Monoliths of Modern Art: Matisse & Picasso
The great victory over war is painting...

At the Queens branch of New York Museum of Modern Art (The Museum of Modern Art, Queens "MoMA QNS") Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Pablo Picasso (1981-1973) exhibition opened its doors on February 13th. The exhibition may only be seen in New York until May 19th.  

Henri Matisse: Portrait Marguerite, 1906 Pablo Picasso: Pitcher, Bowl and Lemon, 1907

by Bircan ÜNVER

"No one has ever looked at Matisse's painting more carefully than I; and ono one has looked at mine more carefully than he." Pablo Picasso

Although the tickets cost 20 USD for Matisse Picasso exhibition, "Ticketmaster" sold the tickets, just like the Broadway Shows. The day I went to see the exhibition on a Friday on September 14, although the weather was very cold, it was the second opening day of the exhibition and all the tickets were sold out at 11:00 in the morning. The museum staff, to avoid the rush of the crowd, took the visitors inside in groups every hour.   

The exhibition is the comparison and the summary of 20th century modern art, and the perspective of two monoliths against the first and the second world war, continuing to create their work of art, reflecting the two different dimensions of 20th century art, where Henry Matisse' and Pablo Picasso's art and friendship takes place.

Matisse, "De Luxe I", 1907, Picasso, "Boy Leading a Horse" 1905-06
Figurative painting, two paintings as figurative example
of the rivalry exhibited at the first period.

The works of art of the two giant artists are exhibited side by side hanging on the walls showing us how the works of art of each of the artists affected the other in which period of time, which is designed for observing the reflection of their influence on each other’s works. In other words, the artistic influence of fifty years, along with their competition and their parallel dialogue  is effectively imaginative and striking with 132 works of arts, which are presented to the world of art. The Matisse Picasso
exhibition on MOMA-QNS consists of paintings, statues, and collage works of the monolith that peaked the 20th century modern art in its era. At the same time on the exhibition, the works of art of the artists with an extra-ordinary presentation; parallel to the interactive and continuing dialogue of their art and life, invites the visitors to a new realization with the dynamics and the energy the works held within.    

Picasso and Matisse represent a unique example in the history of arts by being a rival and getting inspiration from the art of one another with their intimate friendship of highest caliber over fifty years.

Matisse: Blue Nude, Memory of Biskra, 1907

Picasso and Matisse met each other during an exhibition in 1906. At that period of time Matisse was the leader frontier of the art of “fauvism”. Picasso was 12 years younger than Matisse a young artist that has moved from Spain to Paris and joined the promising state of art with his talent and effection, his first aim was to get recognition and fame in the world of artists in Paris. His social background, life style, and talent have drawn the attention of critics in a very short time.

The artists met each other in 1906, there wasn't clash, but rather both of them traded their own paintings in 1907. The original idea of the exhibition by John Golding  (artist, historian and curator of the Tate Modern Museum) was inspired by the avocation of Picasso, which he states that ,"You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse's painting more carefully than I; and ono one has looked at mine more carefully than he." (Picasso, In Old Age; Matisse Picasso Exhibition Catalogue)

The exhibition project took place for the first time in Tate Modern Museum of London (curated by John Golding) between May 11- August 18, 2002 in London at Tate Modern; the second exhibiton took place in Galleries Nationales Du Grand Palais, on September 22, 2002 – January 6, 2002 in Paris. The Matisse Picasso exhibition is the third and most likely the last chain of this major exhibitions cycle.

Picasso: Bather 1908-9  

Like Day & Night

The critics compare that the personalities of Matisse and Picasso are as different as day and night. Against all, they define that Picasso was born with a passionate and a bohemian character and was more of a revolutionist. Matisse on the other hand, is more self-contained, gentle, and self-confident. He attended exhibitions with a suit and a tie, which represents the maturity of his character. While Picasso was already being accepted as the myth and the genius of modern art in 1930’s and 1940s has appeared in public demonstrations to maintain the need to confirm his fame and genius. All in all Matisse has taken rare public appearances and social activities, his whole world was his studio and his paintings and it was implied that this world of his was enough for him. 

Picasso bringing a new dimension taking the risk of “out-of-the-extraordinary” in his art is someone working non-stop in his studio by ignoring the world out side, labeling himself a "worker artist." Matisse, on the contrary being married with three kids, taking risks at the age of fifty, leaving his family, with a paint box, luggage and his violin in his hand, moves to Nice,  just like a student. He travels to Morocco, Algeria, Tahiti, and America. Picasso on the contrary does not feel the need to move out of Paris until the end of Second World War.

Coming to New York after opening in London and Paris, the Matisse Picasso exhibition was evaluated from the point of the works of the artists. Picasso being definitive, revolutionary, brave, and creative. Matisse being evaluated as peculiar and decorative. For this reason, the two giant artists have made their mark and shaped the art of the 20th century, they are evaluated with their character forming two different poles along with their art as well. Because of this exhibition either the curators of this exhibition or the art historians at their previous evaluations, advise that it should be revised and re-written.

From the very beginning, despite their obvious differences aesthetically and conceptually, mostly same collectors purchased both artists’ paintings at the same period of time and exhibited them in their wall side by side, or up & down on the same wall.  When the American Stein family purchased Matisse’ “Madam Matisse” in 1905, Matisse’ painting was placed on the wall with Gaugen and other contemporaries, then short after that Picasso’s Getrude Stein’s portrait joined to their collection, and placed on their wall top of the Matisse’ painting.

Picasso: Portait of Gertrude Stein, 1905-6; Matisse: Portrait of Auguste Pellerin II, 1917


American modernist author Getrude Stein sat for 3 months for her portrait by Picasso. Picasso became increasingly frustrated and is noted to have said, "I can't see you anymore."  He then deletes the head of her portrait.

Later, Picasso completes her portrait from his memory, and previously worked mask and sketches. Pellerin, after seeing Picasso’s Gertrude Stein portrait, wants to have his portrait made by Matisse. When Matisse finishes the first one, Pellerin didn’t like it very much, and so asks him to make another one. Matisse paints another Pellerin’s portrait but this protrait is found even more unappealing by Pellerin. However, in the end, Pellerin purchases both of his portraits. At the MoMA-QNS exhibition, Matisse and Picasso collectors’ Getrude Stein and oil trader Auguste Pellerin portraits have exhibited side by side, as well.

Matisse, together with being the father of “fauvism”, at the every turn point of art history, kept, the use of colors unusual, brave, matching with the figures, and expressions of it with colors, beyond all other elements. Picasso, in the world of arts, re-located esthetic figures forming cubism, labeling the art of 20th century by aesthete of the painting of thought. The two giant artists with their aesthetic and conceptual approach exhibited their lives on different dimensions. At The Sistine Chapel, Matisse, started to work with the stained glass and the wall paintings, what he did were the results of a work that went on for four years. In his work of art, although with the availability of the little space inside the chapel, and with the space given by the light and the reflection of light, he reflected figures such as women opening like flowers, mother, and child figures in flower motives and the nature with the harmony of colors. In addition, Matisse' works under the influence of Buddhism is defined as a summary of art of living and philosophy of life. On the contrary, Picasso being an atheist and member of the communist party even wasn’t aware of Buddhism at that time. Picasso with the thesis that a painting should resemble an ideal thought and with the communist manifesto, he came out with "clear cut" and aesthete of the world he believed in. He painted within the communist concept, "War & Peace" after Matisse' Sistine Chapel, as his own chapel. (Source: Matisse Picasso documentary by Philippe Kohly, 2002)

Picasso taking thought-concept higher than color and harmony, re-constructing-de-constructing everything around him in his paintings as well as sculptures, and Matisse going beyond the limits of colors, his harmony with figures, peace, getting the inner balance was observed by the collectors from the beginning.

Picasso: Harlequin, 1915; Matisse: The Piano Lesson, 1916

Continuing to paint against the war

During and after World War 1, continuing to paint against the war, proving their existence in terms of some means, the realization of the exhibition of Matisse and Picasso for the first time has taken place in 1918 in Paris as a success of two painters. Their exhibition’s brochure represented by puppet images of the two artists.

Matisse knowing very well about anatomy still works with models all the time. In other words, the fish, the flowers in the vase, his color palette and models are what self-portrayed himself. 

On the contrary, Picasso works without a model. Instead he opst for his imagination.  Picasso produced mostly his autobiography via his paintings. In one of the exhibitions of Matisse in 1930, Picasso noticed a statue and with this he turned out to work with models. In his statues he had an approach called de-constructivism and constructivism with the concept of surrealism where Matisse could never turn out to practice.

Picasso says “nobody has ever watched Matisse’ paintings as close as I and nobody has watched mine as close as he." Some sources say that during the time Picasso came to Paris, Matisse was at the peak of his avant-garde work, which persisted an opposite source of power and inspiration.

The great victory over war is painting...

Matisse and Picasso followed each other, painting in different dimensions above the limit; with their art carrier parallel to each other and with the lifetime decisions they gave. For example: Matisse was holding a ticket to go to Brazil during the Second World War when Germans entered France. Nevertheless, Matisse instead of leaving the country and not performing because of war, he continued painting against the war which in turn prolonged his resistance in France. The great victory for Matisse is painting besides and against war. Picasso following Matisse’ decision, stays in Paris regardless of the invasion. He is painting, and not leaving his studio during the time of invasion. At that time Matisse lives in Nice, and Picasso living in Paris did not get together at all. However, they write to each other with the help of mutual friends. When Picasso missed Matisse, he bought his paintings in Paris, and placed them at the best spot at his studio. When Picasso died, he had 10 of Matisse’  paintings which he had kept for the rest of his life.

As soon as the war ends, the "mutual works" against war between Matisse & Picasso was exhibited in London for the second time followed by exhibitions in Amsterdam and Brussels in 1946.

After the war, this time it was Picasso who moved to Nice with his love that he lived together with and inspiration of his life, Francoise Gilot, who was 25- years-old at that time period. Picasso, having two kids from Francoise, the family had most of the pleasure and excitement during their visits to Matisse. 

Unfortunately, with the cancer treatment Matisse underwent in 1940, he had not recovered in a fast pace and remained in his bed, accepting the guests at his bedroom. At that period he did not paint with oil but rather getting the inspiration from his collages he made as a child by performing them in his bed and on the wheel chair he was sitting in. The final effects of the collages Matisse made were seen in Picasso’s non-dimensional, metal statues during the years of 1960-1962. 

Today, Matisse and Picasso after fifty years of rivalry and the continuous interactive dialogue throughout their art careers, it is viewed as the most noticeable and exciting communication between two artists.

Picasso: Acrobat, 1930; Matisse: Acrobats, 1952


Both artists, at the beginning of their careers, were competing with each other making their mark in terms of fame and modern art. The obvious opposition in their art was the dialogue between Matisse and Picasso. It was defined by Matisse as “strange and extra-ordinary agreement."

A quotation from Matisse’ letter to Picasso was exhibited at the last part of the exhibition saying, "We must talk each other as much as we can. When one of us dies, there will be some things that the other will never be able to talk of with anyone else."

When Matisse died in 1954, his daughter Margurerite called Picasso immediately. Picasso never returned the call and does attend the funeral. He instead goes into a deep silence after the death of Matisse.

Picasso started to work on his series of 15 paintings two months after his death, which was his reply to his silence and pain. Then Picasso continues his dialogue with Matisse in the series of 15 pictures. At the last part of the exhibition the painting “Women of Algiers" takes place from the series labeled after Delacroix [Canvas N],1955. In this series Picasso refers to Delacroix, whom Matisse admired so much, at the same time includes his impression to paintings called “Odalisque." With this impression the theme of "Odalisque" was an inheritance he left to Picasso.

Picasso: The Shadow, 1953 Matisse: Violinist at the Window, 1918

The two monoliths of the 20th century's modern art, following each others affections, empowering and inspiring each other's lives with art never seen before. The understanding of their dialogue and their exhibition ends with two paintings that has been inspired from a different source. These paintings in one concept are meant to be their self-portraits. The first one is, Picasso, in "The Shadow", symbolizing himself as a black silhouette. His back turned to the audience in a cold disposition. The black silhouette looking into his bedroom. In the room there are symbolic toys such as a horse carriage. He is recalling the children he had with Francoises. At the same time, a contour of a nude, is to display Francoises in the bedroom on the sky blue color bed in white, as if at the point of harmony within the sky blue color eloborates love as sacred, and the theme of "woman" and "love" are the most valuable in his life as a source of his art.

Matisse' painting is hanging next to the above described painting. Matisse, with his violin on his shoulder and, his back turned to the audience playing the violin looking out of his room. We notice that related with this picture Matisse' violin and music is his second favorite after painting.  

These days in New York, yet with hundred thousands of people along with the protest of the proposal war, New Yorker's are visiting Matisse Picasso exhibition in the "Art Against War" with a degree of excitement and great deal of attention.

A picture of the entrance of Museum of Modern Art that opened in Queens’s area, the home of Matisse Picasso exhibition.

The curators of the exhibition are John Elderfield, Kirk Varnedoe, John Golding, Elizabeth Cowling, Anne Baldassari, Isabelle Monod-Fontaine. New York, Museum of Modern Art, the sponsor for the exhibition in Queens is Merrill Lyinch.

- . -
Related link:
Two Giants of the 20th Century's Modern Art Met
at the MoMA-QNS in New York...

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