“Matisse wanted to express an affirmative vision of the world … Picasso dared to question everything. Matisse was generous… Picasso had a flair for the new, the unexpected. Matisse intensified the interplay of color, while Picasso’s revolt was aimed at structure and form. Their polarity was mutually invigorating… they needed each other as a permanent challenge.”
– Francoise Gilot
KERA: How did Picasso and Matisse differ in respect to the making of art?
Yve-Alain Bois: Matisse works with continuity and fusion, and Picasso works with discontinuity and articulation, and I think that’s because they have two different things to say, or two different things that they think art should do with regard to the beholder. Matisse wants to communicate an effect that cannot be put into words very easily. He wants to overwhelm us with complex sensory stimuli. Matisse alluded to music very often in that way, as something that cannot be put into words or represented by fragments of reality very easily, as something that touches our senses in many different ways.Rick Brettell: I think that Picasso makes works of art out of a kind of eruptive, emotional need, and that Matisse is much more involved in thinking about the function and structure and necessity of the work of art, its relationship to other works of art in that tradition, in that mode, and even to his own works of art. For Matisse, it’s more of a game in which he is the chess master, whereas Picasso has a kind of tumultuous relationship to the production of art.
Picasso, on the other hand, is interested in ping-ponging moments where things change, where things become the opposite of what they were before, in articulating differences for which discontinuity is an important element.
KERA: On a technical level, what do you think Matisse and Picasso responded to in each other’s work?
Yve-Alain Bois: Picasso knew that Matisse was fantastic with color — he knew that right from the start. Matisse always admired Picasso’s facility as a draftsman, and Matisse knew that he had to go to endless lengths to achieve the same kind of fluency.
In other words, they each recognized the special talent and facility of the other, and each knew that it was not theirs. So, when they dialogued in their world, they tried to address or to combat, to circumvent the facility. And so, that became their goal. Picasso became an incredibly good colorist because Matisse was there as a competitor. He knew that he would never be able to really compete with Matisse, but nevertheless, he worked very hard.
Matisse became an incredible draftsman, especially at the end of his life. His drawings are just masterpieces. They look effortless. They’re not effortless at all, but they look it. And I think it had a lot to do with the way in which each tried to surpass the other’s achievements. Each was obliged to apply his talents in more diverse and more powerful ways.
Rick Brettell: Color for Picasso became more and more important as a result of his relationship to Matisse. And it was never important in the same way that it was for Matisse, but he would use pinks and reds and salmons, and brilliant fuschias rather than the beiges and blacks and browns and grays that were easy for him.
Yve-Alain Bois: Yes, there are certain audacities that Picasso takes with color. He would never have had the confidence to do that without the desire to compete with Matisse. And you have the technical aspects of the brushstroke. Especially after World War II, and even after Matisse’s death, he uses a very loose brushstroke with a lot of turpentine or a dry brush. The white of the canvas shows through and vibrates and makes the color more saturated even though theoretically it’s not. All that comes directly from Matisse.
Picasso learned many technical things from Matisse, from Matisse’s audacity. Very early on, for example, Matisse scratches his canvases. He just draws with the back of the brush. And Picasso starts doing that in direct emulation of Matisse’s casualness.
KERA: And what do you think Matisse took from Picasso?
Yve-Alain Bois: I think he got encouragement… a kick in the butt, I don’t know how to say it any better. Something like, “You can do it.” And he was stimulated by Picasso’s limitless imagination.
KERA: At a time when Matisse is struggling, unable to paint, Picasso begins to quote Matisse’s work in an attempt to “bring him back into the ring,” as you say. In 1935, Matisse responds with a painting called Large Reclining Nude.
Yve-Alain Bois: One of the things that is amazing about this work is that she looks the beholder in the eye. That’s not something that Matisse usually does. And I think that’s a kind of direct quote of Picasso, because that’s something that characterized Picasso very much. And this is my private interpretation, but I see that woman looking at Picasso and saying, “Hah, I dare you.” In this painting, Matisse goes back to some of the characteristics of his early work — the color saturation, the daring color juxtaposition of pink and red and orange – right at the border of kitsch, which is something Matisse could do all the time. He could create all kinds of color combinations with incredible success, which is something Picasso could never surpass.
KERA: During World War II, Picasso sends Matisse an unusual gift: a dramatic, tortured portrait of Picasso’s lover at the time, Dora Maar. When Matisse offers Picasso a painting in return, Picasso chooses a painting that’s outrageously pretty, even sweet by comparison. What does this exchange tell us about the two artists?
Yve-Alain Bois: I think they are both interested– and know that the other is interested –in what the other is unable to do. Picasso sends Matisse something that he knows is very, very different from what Matisse is doing. And it’s a very powerful portrait. And Picasso chooses, because Matisse gives Picasso a choice, Seated Young Woman in a Persian Dress, which in its innocence is completely removed from what Picasso would do.
I think one of the things that fascinated Picasso in this painting was the way the color breathes. The white of the canvas shows through the brushstroke. And also the relationship between purple and green– FranÁoise Gilot wrote that Picasso was fascinated at the time by the purple-green juxtaposition. Picasso’s Still Life with Steer’s Skull uses the same color relationship.
Matisse and Picasso were each interested in the things the other was best at, what they couldn’t do as well. And it’s very interesting that Matisse goes back to the Portrait of Dora Maar later in his life, after the war, when he is doing The Stations of the Cross for the Vence Chapel. Now this is something that Matisse doesn’t know how to do, to paint pain, horror. He’s not good at it. Every time he tried to represent a scene of violence, he was not very convincing. It wasn’t his mode.
And so each artist’s conception of beholding is different; what they want to do with art is different. They don’t quite know themselves at that time. It will take a long time for each of them to know why they differ so much, why they can’t do what the other is doing. They were always very intrigued, one by the other, and there are many witnesses who heard Matisse or Picasso say, “How does he do that?”