Matisse and Picasso: The Story of their Rivalry and Friendship

by Jack Flam

Published by Westview Press

224 pages, 2003




Comparing Genius

Reviewed by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow


Pretty much everyone agrees that Matisse and Picasso were the best artists of their generation, as well as several other generations. Jack Flam ends Matisse and Picasso: The Story of their Rivalry and Friendship -- his dual artistic biography of the painters -- with a question: "If we were to add the name of a third great twentieth-century artist to theirs, whose would it be?" The question is mostly rhetorical but also a dare: anyone with an answer is welcome to write the sequel. But until that argument is made, 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. This book fleshes out the theme of the current exhibition at New York's MOMA and, though not officially connected to the exhibition, makes an excellent guide for it.

Flam compares the painters, at various stages of their relationship, to boxers, chess players and "top-level athletes who set the pace for each other." Scrabble strikes me as yet another apt metaphor: each artist built off his own work and the other's, playing not just to win but for the highest possible score. Each of these metaphors misses as much as it captures, but perhaps taken all together, they cover the essential aspects of the rivalry. Matisse and Picasso were also, in their own way, good friends.

The book's central drama is in the art. Flam deserves credit for making the artistic interchange as engrossing as gossip. His account negotiates a narrow path, avoiding both prurience, which would find ample material in his subjects' lives, and prudishness, which would mean ignoring that material even when it's relevant. He does tell us about their lives and personalities -- to avoid the fallacy of treating their work "as if they had set out to solve abstract sets of formal or art-historical problems" -- but only insofar as it enhances our understanding of the art.

Throughout the book, Matisse and Picasso emerge as strikingly different men. Matisse comes off as the reserved and somewhat prissy older brother to the rascally Picasso, 11 years his junior. Their approaches to art, as Flam shows, were also opposite in many ways. Picasso had a more literary disposition, worked from imagination, and usually centered his paintings around a single idea. Matisse, a master colorist who worked from nature, often put into his paintings more than he could consciously focus on at once, leading to a more diffuse space. 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. Yet both grappled with primitive art, the legacy of Cezanne, and the violence of the new century. Both painted primarily women, channeling their highly charged sensuality into their paintbrushes. And both chose not to veer entirely into abstraction; though they strayed from realistic representation, at least one readable reference point always remained, hinging their art, however loosely, to the recognizable world.

At its most revealing, Matisse and Picasso shows how each artist borrowed elements from the other while remaining true to his own artistic temperament, like languages borrowing needed words from each other and corrupting them with their own spellings and pronunciations. Flam traces Matisse's ambivalent reaction to cubism: he showed interest, but believed it was not for him, then chafed at its rise to fashionable prominence. By 1914, however, he was appropriating the cubist vocabulary to his own ends, using its monochromatic color and repetitive formal organization in a way that clearly referred to Picasso and implicitly corrected him.

Picasso returned the insult-frosted compliment at several points in his career. In a frenzy of erotic love for his new adolescent mistress, Picasso groped for a language to express it, and found the vocabulary he needed in Matisse's voluptuous garden scenes. Picasso's Nude Asleep in a Garden refers directly to Matisse's Blue Nude, which subtly contorts the angles of the body in a disorienting way. But Picasso's contortion is so extreme -- the body is a jumble of parts, perceived, Flam writes, "with the kind of urgent, everything-at-once simultaneity that parallels desire itself" -- that it makes Matisse's brand of eroticism look tame.

Throughout their lives and posthumously, Picasso has snatched more attention. His art is more flamboyant, more disturbing. Matisse was always recognized as Picasso's one possible equal, but often disparaged as pretty but not profound. As Matisse complained, "Next to him, I always look like a little girl." Of course, Picasso's excesses of energy and appetite contributed to his celebrity. He was larger than life -- or rather, larger than the conventions and concerns of his society. He was, so uncommonly, about the same size as life. Flam concludes that, in many ways, Picasso was the man of the future, and Matisse the artist of the future. Which does not necessarily mean that Picasso's art was less great, but that it was so privately idiosyncratic that good artists could not go anywhere with his legacy. Matisse, though, opened up the space of the canvas in a way that future generations could explore.

Jack Flam is a professor of art history, and I would guess he is a very good one. He conveys his impressive insights without the high-flown gobbledygook that sometimes infests art criticism. Harold Bloom has delineated two classes of critics. There are those who offer an original vision of art transmuted through their own sensibility, blurring the distinction between criticism and creation. And there are those who simply provide accurate interpretation and assessment. The first kind -- exemplified by a swarm of 19th-century critics such as Walter Pater, and today, possibly John Berger -- may be grander. But the more modest job of the latter, at which Flam excels, is at least as valuable for understanding the art at hand. He has the grace to make himself invisible. As a result, all we see -- and, thanks to him, much more clearly -- is the art. | April 2003


Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn.