We were lucky enough to get to this exhibition which was on at the National Gallery of Australia from 13 December 2019 to 13 April 2020. It’s been unlucky; first with bushfires forcing closure and now Covid-19. So, we count ourselves lucky. We went to pre-book tickets on the 10th of March thinking we might need to wait until the next day to visit, but given how few people were there we went in straight away.
The exhibition purports to tell the story of the artistic relationship between two of Europe’s greatest twentieth-century artists who met in 1906 and for more than half a century followed each other’s creative developments and achievements.
The NGA makes the big claim that the sustained rivalry between them was not only key to their individual success, it also changed the course of 20th century Western European art. Whether that statement is true it’s certainly the case that both were highly influential.
The gallery seemed a bit apologetic about staging a show including work by Picasso. On the website there’s this disclaimer: they understand Picasso is without question a polarising figure but they believe it is important to learn from history and see art as a catalyst for reflection, conversation and cultural change around issues of gender and equality in our society.
I’m not sure about that, but this was a unique opportunity to see more than 60 paintings by both artists from both public and private collections from around the world.
The Picasso Museum was closed for renovations when we were last in Paris and there were quite a few paintings from there as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and quite a number that are owned privately, including this one, a very early and atypical Picasso.
It was interesting to see which works by Matisse were owned by Picasso. These two were in his private collection when he died and are now in the Picasso Museum in Paris.
These two very early paintings suggest some element of interchange of influence between Picasso and Matisse in their early work. They were at the very start of the exhibition.
Nono Lebasque was painted by Matisse in 1908. It’s in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to the accompanying note: The juxtaposition of Nono’s bright outfit against the vivid blue wall creates a shallow sense of space, where the subject (Nono) and background are equally important; a technique Matisse utilised in portraits throughout his career.
Here’s another couple of his portraits that demonstrate the point; neither of which seemed like traditional Matisse paintings to me, although you can see his style in the lines on the faces.
Whereas this lovely, delicate painting seems more consistent with the style for which Matisse is famous. Very evocative of time and space and state of mind.
Perhaps the difference is that this is not a portrait of a named individual. But then neither is this one, White plumes 1919, from the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It’s from his period in Nice and is of the 19-year old Antoinette Arnoud; his favourite model for a number of years.
This is another, to me, unusual Matisse painting. Trivaux Pond 1916-17, from the Tate. According to the accompanying note this was painted after he’d moved to Issy-les Molineaux, south of Paris after criticism of his recent work in the excitement generated by Cubism: and the beauty and tranquility of his new surroundings are reflected in this work.
Similarly, I would not readily have recognised this Woman in profile 1901, from the Museum of Modern Art, as a Picasso. It seems so different from the rest of his work. Much more delicate and similar to the French Impressionists.
There are interesting similarities in these three works which were grouped together in the same space. I was surprised to see this one was by Matisse, I thought it looked like a Picasso. It’s in the NGA collection. The abduction of Europa, 1929.
Here are another two Matisses that are said to have influenced Picasso; both painted in 1926, and both currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I love them both. They have a strong sense of narrative about them; by which I mean you want to know these women and what they’re doing in these sumptuous surroundings. The detail in the rooms is exquisite and their faces are so expressive – are they bored or resting or waiting, happy or sad?
The accompanying note in the gallery refers to these paintings as evoking an exotic world as if in a stage set. His works were constructions of his imagination – a series of beautiful models dressed in costumes in elaborate stage settings filled with wall hangings, screens, rugs, domestic utensils and furniture, many from his own collection of Islamic decorative arts.
It goes on to say; By the mid-1920s Picasso was invading Matisse’s territory of the orient without his reverence to past traditions or Islamic content. There are two paintings to illustrate this, both of which were in his private collection and are now in the Picasso Museum in Paris.
Reading 1932; a portrait of his mistress Marie-Therese Walter. The note says it is in familiar cubist forms; The shapes are gentle, with sensuous curves – mirroring the appearance of his lover and recalling Matisse’s tender portrayal of his models [and his] rich colour palette and emphasis on decorative elements. I think it’s quite lovely.
An uglier, in both intent and execution, is this portrait by Picasso of his wife of ten years, Olga Khokhlova which the gallery note describes as a punishing estimation of their relationship, and a cruel jab at Matisse … an image of his wife as a screeching odalisque, naked and reclining on a chair in a sumptuously ornate Matisse-style interior.
Here are two still lifes; once again the work by Matisse precedes the one by Picasso. I’m not sure about the similarity, but both are very beautiful. This is The goldfish bowl by Matisse painted in 1921-22 and held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I liked it very much.
These two paintings of women in white dresses were placed next to each other in the gallery. I’m not sure whether to indicate similarity or otherwise but I think they accentuate the difference. Same subject, very different styles.
Woman by a window was painted by Matisse in 1920-22; it’s from the Columbus Museum of Art. He painted it when he was living in Nice where he became obsessed with sunlight flooding through open French doors, revealing only a glimpse of Nice beyond: the tip of a palm tree and a simple blue band of ocean. The inclusion of a window became a much favoured pictorial device that appeared in his art throughout his career.
You can almost see Picasso thinking he would show people that he could paint a Matisse in this work following the death of Matisse. He certainly showed that he could. The studio, 1955. The note describes it as an homage to Picasso’s late rival. The setting is the large studio in Picasso’s villa near Cannes.
This painting is another homage to Matisse after his death. The women of Algiers (after Delacroux), 1955. It reflects Matisse’s interest in Morocco and channels his rich colours, complex patterning of fabrics, clothing and architectural forms, particularly the inclusion of a window. It’s on loan from a Museum of Art in Hartford.
Here are two more paintings from Matisse. The plaster torso 1919, from the Museu de arte de Säo Paulo Assis Chateaubriand. It’s an homage to Paul Cézanne. On the wall behind is the same patterned blue fabric he painted in Pansies (see above). The twisted plaster torso and vase of flowers create an ambiguity between the animate and the inanimate.
This is one of my favourites. Still life with sleeping woman 1940, from the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. The note says: Matisse’s depictions of sleeping female figures were a response to an idea that Picasso investigated a decade earlier. Although I don’t remember any paintings of that nature and I didn’t take photos of any that would let me illustrate the point in this blog. This is another example of the story telling in Matisse’s paintings. You wonder why is she sleeping in this way, in this place. What has she been doing and what is she going to be doing next?
Picasso is harder to like. As the gallery recognised; a polarising figure indeed. His treatment of his wives and lovers after he has discarded them is awful and I think the resulting paintings are awful too. Here are seven paintings of Dora Maar all done in 1939.
Here’s a portrait of her he painted in 1941, Portrait of a woman (Dora Maar), from a private international collection. The accompanying note tells us that his portraits of her were often filled with anguish and include this quote from himself: For years, I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure, either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was the deep reality, not the superficial one. This is one of his milder paintings of her and I quite like it – bold colours and thought provoking.
But even when a painting is pleasing to look at the accompanying description can be quite off-putting. Like The soles painted in 1940 and now in the National Galleries of Scotland. I liked the colours and the fish and crab figures. The accompanying note tells us the crab dominating the painting – and his two lovers – is Picasso. The intellectual Dora Maar is the sharp-faced fish with jagged teeth in the foreground and the fluid and rounder fish in the centre is the meeker Marie-Therese Walter. Still it looks nice!
I’m very pleased we got to see this exhibition. It’s a shame it has had to be closed, which actually happened today, 23rd March, due to Covid-19. We are living in a disrupted world. These artists lived through worse. It’s consoling to know that we will always have great art to inspire us.