Matisse and Picasso

book by Jack Flam

Matisse and Picasso: The Story of Their Rivalry and Their Friendship by Jack Flam, was published in 2003. "It deals with their rivalry and friendship as a continuous story."


  • Although Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was the most unnerving painting Picasso had done, Three Women... was more directly challenging to Matisse. ...The early version... that Matisse saw... encroached on territory Matisse had thought was his. The subject and style... owed much to Cézanne... The underlying subject... was also one that Matisse had been working with... in which process—the coming into being of things—was emphasized over stability. ...[I]ts outward-spiraling composition of three figures that seem to emerge from the bowels of the earth ...was a more resonant evocation of primal beginnings than had been Matisse's... Le Bonheur de vivre or Le Luxe... Three Women... contained a bold imbrication of the figures within their background—a motif Matisse had employed in his Fauve paintings, such as Woman in a Japanese Robe Beside the Sea... But whereas Matisse's merging... was based on... optical sensations, Picasso was developing a... symbolic language. ...also something Matisse had been involved with... especially in his... treatment of mythological themes. Picasso's Three Women seemed to combine references to a standard mythological theme... the Three Graces [previously classically painted by Botticelli, Raphael and Rubens], with a more generalized "birth of the world" imagery that went to the heart of the primitivism that had haunted both... along with... Derain, Vlaminck, and Braque... In response to Three Women, Matisse painted Bathers with a Turtle...
  • In "Ma Jolie,"... the most concrete information about the woman comes largely through the two words "MA JOLIE," which refer to the refrain from a popular song. ...It is commonly said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But in this picture two words are reveal more than the entire image. ...In its hesitation at the limits of abstraction, the painting casts doubt on the whole enterprise of visual representation.
  • Picasso was deeply impressed by Matisse's Goldfish and Pallete, and its emotional force and resonant use of black seem to have influenced his 1915 Harlequin... Harlequin is one of Picasso's first clear images of a divided personality. ...This evocation of multiple identities is given an added dimension by the rendering of... an unfinished canvas. ...Because this rectangle is rendered in a painterly way, it also suggests... the process of painting... a reminder of the impossibility of completeness, either in painting or in life. ...[W]hen Matisse saw Harlequin... he told the dealer that his goldfish had led to it, for in this painting Picasso had picked up precisely those aspects that Matisse had taken from him, such as the conflation of the figure with its surroundings, the suggestion of different psychological viewpoints, the fractured planarity, and... the situating of the picture in a space... somewhere between the thought and the seen, the internal and the external. In Harlequin, Picasso responds with his own version of multiple realities... the strong sense of process and... use of black... to evoke both light and darkness... as lessons from Matisse's painting.
  • Artists of the previous generation, such as Cézanne and van Gogh, had employed systematic "distortions" in their works, but... as part of a... direct way of communicating the "truth" of his own personal vision. Picasso's contemporaries, including Matisse, followed in that tradition. Matisse's varied styles between 1905 and 1918 had grown out of his direct visual responses... and were not calculated to be artificial or arbitrary. Picasso, by contrast, insisted that there were many possible ways of arriving at the truth, and that all of them were equally artificial. ...the artist could choose among many different visual languages ...Each of these modes or styles ...being inherently expressive of attitudes that were implicitly contained within the style itself.
  • Marie-Thérèse was... a natural or "primitive" version of the uninhibited and all-accepting woman the Surrealists were trying so hard to construct. ...Their relationship was rooted in a complex game of hiding and revealing, which soon spilled over into his art. Picasso's earliest representations of her were not paintings but geometric line drawings of musical instruments, done in pencil, in which he encodes cryptograms that use her initials: M-T. There is something charmingly adolescent about the gesture... The linear style of these works [line and charcoal drawings, plus The Dress Designer's Workshop and The Painter and His Model] is directly related to the notational systems Picasso was using in the studies for his illustrations for Balzac's Unknown Masterpiece—a story in which a seventeenth-century painter named Frenhof spends years working on what is supposed to be his masterpiece, and overworks it to such a degree that he finally produces an incomprehensible muddle.
  • Picasso signed on for his own retrospective exhibition at the same gallery [Galerie Georges Petit], to open... 1932, exactly one year after the Matisse show... Picasso had been referring to Matisse's works for the past several years, playfully and often with more than a hint of mockery, but now he raised the stakes and produced several paintings that are usually characterized as his most "Matissian," with bright colors, sweeping arabesques, intense decorative patterning, and an extravagantly lyrical sensuality. These... are in a sense more "Matissian" than anything Matisse himself had previously done; in a curious way, they anticipate Matisse's late style several years before Matisse had formulated it.
  • Matisse's response to Picasso's inventive reorganization of the human figure was concentrated in one of his most sublimely sensuous pictures of Lydia [Delectorskaya], the so-called Pink Nude... which was his variation on the pose of his 1907 Blue Nude. ...Returning to a practice he used with the Barnes murals, he photographed... while it was in progress... As with the murals, he also used pieces of cut paper to make quick modifications to the composition without having to wait for the paint to dry. ...[T]he painting began as a relatively naturalistic rendering... As the picture developed, Matisse radically altered not only the composition but its basic pictorial language... He also tried to augment the forcefulness of the figure by contorting it in a manner similar to Picasso's. ...But in the end, such an approach was not true to his vision, and he reverted...
  • [T]he trauma of the war forged a new solidarity between them. As the two most prominent artists in France, they came to stand for French culture, and even—in the face of barbarous fascism—for the values of civilization itself. (This was an ironic turnabout; before the war they were frequently accused of having introduced barbarism into modern art.) The probity of their personal comportment also stood in clear contrast to the shoddy behavior of a number of their colleagues, such as Vlaminck and Derain, who accepted invitations to go on propaganda trips to Nazi Germany.
  • [A]fter Matisse's death... he became fixed on the idea of doing variations on the masters, and these became a subgenre within his work. His variations seem to be animated by a desire both to possess a work of the master and to measure himself against it. ...Picasso is again asking the same question about the greatness of his gifts that he had posed... when he and Matisse first met. if he were again struggling against doubts about whether his election as a great artist was really strong enough to defeat death. (This was something Matisse never visibly questioned, at least in his work.) ...Picasso does seem to have been profoundly concerned about the possible death of his creative gift, and perhaps about its validity early on and the degree to which his work would survive him. For a Spanish artist, the pinnacle of comparison would be with Diego Velázquez ...His variations [see Las Meninas, 1957] on Las Meninas were an escape from the present, as well as an attempt to dominate the past and affirm his standing in the future.
  • If Matisse's triumph was... to transcend death by bravely ignoring it, Picasso's triumph was to look death and decay straight in the face and not flinch. Though it was not possible to report back from that "undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveler returns," at least he would send back images from the most distant frontiers that adjoined it.
  • Matisse's works collectively give very little sense of a life long lived. ...Matisse's works give a vivid sense of a life lived as an artist, but not nearly the sense that Picasso gives of a life lived as a man. ...Matisse gives almost no sense of the political or economic history of the twentieth century, or of the demonic energies it unleashed... no sense that an artist might feel to take revenge upon the world. There is no equivalent of Picasso's Guernica... or to the death-haunted still lifes or harrowing political allegories, such as The Charnel House. Nonetheless, Matisse's painting does provide a profound engagement with the spiritual uncertainties of the century, and a very personal response... in his inspired balance between observation, analysis, and the pure poetry of painting.

Quotes about Matisse and PicassoEdit

  • Jack Flam explores the compelling, competitive, parallel lives of these two artists and their very different attitudes toward the idea of artistic greatness, toward the women they loved, and ultimately toward their confrontations with death.
    • Bayron, (December 10, 2016) @Avax
  • [T]heir tumultuous relationship is examined and brilliantly told.
    • Masterworks Fine Art (Oct 19, 2017) book review.
  • Timed to coincide roughly with the opening of the blockbuster Matisse-Picasso exhibition's third and final stop, at New York's MoMA... Flam is terrific. Flam locates... productive appropriations and reappropriations between the two painters over the years, so that anyone standing in line for the exhibition in Queens will profit...
    • Publishers Weekly (2003) book review.
  • Flam has given us a lucid and compelling study of these two geniuses, explaining what made them so good, and why part of the answer is: each other.
    • Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, "Comparing Genius", January Magazine (March 29, 2011)

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