When Matisse met Picasso

It was an encounter to be savoured: the leading modern artist of his day and the hungry young pretender. Kevin Jackson recalls a meeting that changed the world
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Think of them as like a couple of dogs: fur up, circling, sniffing, ready to snarl and bark and bite at the first open provocation. The scene is Gertrude Stein's studio on the rue de Fleurus, in the autumn of 1905. (Or maybe, as others say, it is March 1906, and another Parisian studio entirely. We are in the realm of legend here, and the calendar does not rule supreme.) The great big hound, defending his home territory, is Henri Matisse; the feisty little terrier of a newcomer is Pablo Picasso. Our two painters have no reason to look on each other with anything other than suspicion. Patronage for their difficult kinds of art is not easy to come by in these early days of the 20th century, and it looks very much as if young Pablo, the Hispanic whizz-kid, is trying to muscle in on the cosy little relationship Henri has recently built up with Gertrude – so large, so friendly, and so rich – and her brothers Michael and Leo.

Still, Henri has no need to feel too threatened just yet. He might even be entitled to a touch of smugness. If he looks round the walls of Miss Stein's flat, he can enjoy the pleasing sight of many of his own canvases, recently purchased by the American writer at good prices. After years of crippling poverty, he is finally beginning to earn a decent living. He is happily married, to a wife who is as supportive as she is intelligent. He is smartly dressed, in the severe bourgeois style he adopted a few years earlier, when his wife's family were caught up in a major financial scandal, and which he will maintain – a kind of defensive armour against unwanted intimacy, like his "German professor" manners – for the rest of his life.

He is acknowledged as the leader of the most exciting artistic gang in town, the Fauves ("Wild Beasts", the press had sneered, once again dreaming up an insulting label that would be cheerfully embraced and then flown by the artists as a proud rebel banner). He is well read and eloquent, and he holds forth on his artistic theories in polished, articulate phrases that impress everyone who listens; perhaps he should have gone into the law after all, just as his poor disappointed father had wanted.

Now consider young Picasso. Far from being a great orator or charm merchant, he is still a fumbling beginner in the French language, which Matisse plies as a master fencer wields a finely balanced foil. Pablo is scruffy while Henri is dapper, moody while Henri is poised, obscure while Henri is well-known, callow where Henri – a full 12 years older – is mature. (Henri Matisse: born 31 December 1869, in his maternal grandmother's house at Le Château-Cambresis in Picardy. Pablo Ruiz Picasso: born Malaga, 25 October 1881. Do the sums: Henri is 36 or 37, Pablo 24 or 25.) It looks like a hopelessly uneven match. But Matisse has – what an understatement! – sharper eyes than most; and he is seriously worried by what he sees. Talent, obviously. Genius? Maybe.

True, the Spaniard's work so far isn't greatly to his personal taste. Profoundly serious, Matisse finds Picasso's Blue Period stuff a bit sentimental and his Rose Period a bit cloying. But he silently notes Picasso's oblique wit, his careful contrivance of an enigmatic air, his raw charisma, and that unmistakable sense of ruthless determination he can recall from his own days of struggle, when a bowl of plain cooked rice was a superb feast. This young man could be a real threat.

And so it proves. Soon, Picassos start to appear on the Steins' walls next to the Matisses; then a split develops in the Stein family along Matisse/Picasso lines, with Leo Stein (who considers his sister's literary efforts a big heap of hooey) hogging all but one of the Matisses, and Gertrude snaffling all but one of the Picassos. From 1905 to 1906, Gertrude also has Picasso paint her portrait – an amazing work, this proves to be mainly realistic in technique but with a sculptural quality that made her look like archaic statuary. Gertrude says that she admires the work, but doesn't recognise herself. Don't worry, Pablo replies, you'll soon grow into it...

The rest is (art) history. By 1912, the Spanish insurgent overthrows the local Parisian talent and goes on to become probably the greatest, certainly the most famous, artist of the 20th century. Game, set and match to the Spanish lad. And the displaced Matisse? Well, the story is not too gloomy. After some years of renewed harshness, he also prospers exceedingly, gains riches and a large audience, both throughout his long life (he died in 1954, aged 85) and posthumously.

What's more, he wins at least one major battle for hearts and minds that Picasso loses. As if taking to their collective bosom his famous statement about wanting to make an art that is as comfortable, refreshing and soothing as a good armchair, his paintings and cut-outs are happily consumed by all sorts and conditions of people, including many who think that modern art in general – and Picasso's art in particular – is wilfully ugly. Matisse's work is all things bright and beautiful, and even if it may not stop your parents from making funny remarks about the relative artistic capacities of the infant-school set, you need feel no hesitation about taking it home to show them.

But there is a catch. To win the mass approval of the untutored in this way is to risk the condescension of the cognoscenti. The very qualities that make Matisse beloved by the many, cause him to be dismissed by the few – snobbish sourpusses for whom his beauties are mere prettiness, his serenity another term for pig-like (they call it "bourgeois") complacency, his virtues at best those of the decorator, not the major artist. André Breton, the leader of the Surrealists, was one of the first to argue this way, using Picasso as the club with which to beat Matisse to a pulp. And whether or not there is anything in these charges, it is undeniably true that Matisse's sustained interest in happiness, in the luxe, calme et volupté of earthly paradises, puts him at odds with that mainstream artistic sensibility that prizes tragedy, irony and the grotesque – exactly Picasso's strong suits.

The sense of tempered admiration, of yes-very-nice-but, is so pervasive that even those critics who admire Matisse profoundly do not always put up the most spirited case for him. One conventional approach – well dissected in the catalogue for the marvellous 1992/3 Matisse retrospective in New York, which traces the critical tendency back to as early a date as 1912 – is to pay him the backhanded compliment of seeing him as being important precisely for not being Picasso, thereby returning to the adversarial spirit of that initial encounter chez Gertrude.

According to this mythology, the story of visual modernism becomes reduced to the uneven struggle of two ways of seeing: Picasso (revolutionary, challenging, cruel, therefore good) vs Matisse (conservative, appealing, aloof, therefore not so good). In style, Matisse vs Picasso equals: colour vs monochrome, decorative vs austere, unity vs fragmentation, flatness and shape vs space and form. In emotional effect: harmony vs dissonance, facility vs difficulty, simplicity vs complexity. In ideology: detached vs critical, acquiescent vs engaged, artificial vs real, on holiday vs at war. And so on.

All of which is a) at first glance, fairly plausible, and b) on closer inspection, dead wrong. Wrong enough, anyway, to stand in need of some major objections and qualifications, such as those provided by Tate Modern's abundant new show Matisse/ Picasso, and by David Thompson's elegant, eloquent two-part film on Matisse for Omnibus, Paradise Found and Paradise Indulged. Some of the weaknesses of the case are so evident as hardly to need labouring, so let's just touch on them swiftly:

Far from being uniformly "pretty", a good deal of Matisse's work was, in its day, charged with "ugliness" quite the equal of Picasso's; of the two artists, it is Picasso who is more accurately to be described as "facile" – astoundingly facile, in fact; and on the matter of "bourgeois" complacency... well, Picasso's mistress Françoise Gilot recalls mentioning to Matisse how superbly his 1912 still life of oranges expressed the pure spirit of joie de vivre. Matisse replied that he had painted it in Tangier at a time when he was not merely racked by poverty again but so desperate that he was on the brink of suicide. It might easily have been his final work.

To pursue such contradictions to a deeper level, one needs to add only a single piece of information: Matisse and Picasso soon outgrew their original jealous rivalry to become friends, good friends, the very best of friends, and though it would be misleading to say that either of these superhumanly fecund inventors "needed" the other, they paid each other such deep and respectful attention that their respective oeuvres can often look like the two sides of a conversation that they sustained – and which sustained them – for almost half a century. (It began in 1907, when Picasso saw Matisse's Blue Nude, recoiled from it in incomprehension, and then began to build his response to it into his shattering masterpiece Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.)

For the ocular proof of this assertion, go and wander through Tate Modern for a couple of hours. For first-person witness, take the words of Picasso, late in life: "You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing... No one has ever looked at Matisse's painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he."

The friendship began with an act of exceptional, indeed almost self-destructive, generosity on Matisse's part: he introduced Picasso to the major Russian collector Sergei Shchukin, who soon bought about 50 of the Spaniard's paintings. At first, Picasso's response to this kindness was repulsively churlish: when Matisse's sometime friends (including André Derain and Georges Braque) deserted him to form the "Picasso Gang", la Bande à Picasso, the young man not only encouraged their defection but watched silently, in apparent approval, while the crew hurled cigarettes and matches at the 1906 Portrait de Marguerite that he had hung on his studio wall.

Despite this unpromising start, they began to talk in amiable terms, to exchange ideas and paintings. The relationship blossomed slowly, and it was not until 1930 or so that they let down their defences fully and started an intense mutual interrogation about the hows and whys of their respective projects. As Françoise Gilot put it: "They softened to each other, and a deep emotional bond was sealed. After all, no one could understand them as they did each other." By this time, not even their different political allegiances were allowed to drive a wedge between them, and during the War – Picasso holed up in Paris, protected by his fame, Matisse in the South doing his best to ignore what was going on – they managed to smuggle news and paintings to each other.

The post-war period of 1946 to 1954 was happiest of all for them, especially since Picasso was now spending more and more time in the South, though he sometimes expressed disappointment that Matisse was "always so formal with me, so composed... He could confide in me, trust me. Am I not his best friend?".

Undoubtedly so; and all the more so in that those who are blessed with exceptional gifts can seldom hope for the additional blessing of an equal with whom to discuss the inner mysteries of that gift. "We must talk to 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 about with anyone else" – so said Picasso of Matisse, or maybe it was Matisse of Picasso, it doesn't greatly matter. "They were in fact as complementary as red and green... They were two sides of the same coin" – so said Françoise Gilot. And to say that Matisse has suffered by ill-advised, mean-spirited comparisons with the one man who really understood him is not to tear down Picasso from his niche in the pantheon but to raise Matisse up as a figure more than worthy to stand at his side, as an equal.

Think of them as like a couple of gods.

Matisse/Picasso opens at Tate Modern, London SE1, on 11 May. The Matisse 'Omnibus' films are on BBC 2 on 18 May

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