PRINT February 1999


As final preparations were underway for “Matisse and Picasso: A Gentle Rivalry,” which opens this month at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, art historian LINDA NOCHLIN met with the exhibition’s curator, YVE-ALAIN BOIS, and talked with him about his revisionist approach to the relationship between these two central modernist figures. By turns parodic, agonistic, even elegiac, the conversation Bois details unfolds as a series of nuanced moves and countermoves within the artworks themselves. Often seen as antipodal forces, the two artists emerge as necessary partners and foils, twin protagonists engaged in a mutually enabling dialogue that helped shape the narrative of modern painting.

As the end of the twentieth century approaches, those grand old lions Picasso and Matisse, once seen as polar opposites within the narrative of modernist innovation, seem more and more like congenial creative companions. Perhaps it is today’s art-video, object, or installation oriented-that makes the two look sympathetically old-masterish, mythic remnants of a pre-abstract, painting-and-sculpture-centered tradition inherited from the nineteenth century. In short, Picasso and Matisse today seem more similar than either of them is to Robert Gober, or Janine Antoni, or Mona Hatoum, or for that matter Andy Warhol or even Jackson Pollock. For all the differences in their lives and careers—even their national origins-both have shown their mettle equally as survivors on the historical scale.

It is said that the artist-hero is dead, as are painting and sculpture, the expressive media par excellence of the heroic creator. Attempts to revive the myth in exhibitions like the current traveling Pollock retrospective or the recent Bonnard survey may result in invigorating shows, but they reveal how firmly the artists in question belong to history rather than the present. I must admit I approached the idea of a Picasso-Matisse exhibition with a measure of skepticism. Another celebration of those doughty chers maîtres who binged on the female nude and denigrated actual women; more connection between sexual prowess and pictorial inventiveness; more models lying down, more Big Boys, erect and alert, horns locked in agonistic struggle? If Yve-Alain Bois’s conception of the Picasso-Matisse relationship cannot avoid the inevitable stereotypes, it goes a long way toward usefully complicating them. Bois, the Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University, is really interested in the connections and the processes of connectedness between the two, the “gentle rivalry,” in all its subtlety and variability. It is not that he attempts to extricate the “real” Picasso from the man of myth or the “actual” Matisse from his various legends (as though such a project were even plausible). Indeed, although Bois may resort to biography at times, it is really the relationship among the works-specific works at specific times-that interests him, not the relationship between the individuals. I found myself deeply captivated by the unfolding of a process informed by modalities of relation that seem unexpectedly multiple in l’affaire Picasso/Matisse. The two artists, both powerful figures, emerge from the encounter hauntingly aware of the other’s presence, seductive or threatening, in the genesis of their own work.

Linda Nochlin

LINDA NOCHLIN: Why do we need another exhibition featuring Picasso and Matisse at this moment in history? Haven’t there been an incredible number of shows about these masters in recent years?

YVE-ALAIN BOIS: Yes, that’s true. But there’s never been a show about the relationship between the two. It’s true that the first part of their relationship has been studied-that is, up until World War I. There’s a kind of tradition of speaking about the tit-for-tat connection between say, Matisse’s Joy of Life and Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (followed by Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle). But the literature on Picasso after 1930 doesn’t really take Matisse into consideration. It’s as if he weren’t part of the picture. And I became more and more convinced that he was. I think the images, in a way, speak for themselves.

But what I really hadn’t considered was how much the elder Matisse was involved with Picasso during these later years—in a very different way, of course, because Matisse didn’t have an Oedipal relation to Picasso. But by looking at the works very hard, and studying them in detail, I did find that, in fact, Matisse was quite receptive to considering Picasso a partner when he reentered the ring of modernity in the early ’30s.

LN: That would certainly be a good reason for the exhibition. But what is the purpose of using such a dramatic analogy, the “gentle rivalry” of your title, to frame the show?

YAB: Well, the rivalry is one aspect of the equation. But I wanted to tackle a more complicated theoretical issue, which is the whole problem of “influence.” I don’t think it would be intelligent to say that Picasso was “influenced” by Matisse, nor do I think the reverse is true; it just doesn’t work that way. I think, rather, that at certain key moments, both felt they were in a kind of boxing ring. Or that they were players/partners in a sort of game. And the stake of that game was, for both of them, the very practice of painting.

LN: You mean: “Who owns vanguard painting?”

YAB: Or maybe, “What is the possibility of painting today?” Though they’re not of the same generation, both belong to the pre-abstract tradition. For them, pure abstraction, what the Russians were doing, say, was something they refused. They wanted to remain within the parameters of a certain tradition; they were the two big fish in that pond. I literally felt, while working on them for this show, that they had an almost missionary determination to prove that it was still possible to work within these parameters.

LN: To prove that they were, in a sense, the leaders of this “tradition”?

YAB: Leaders and definers.

LN: Those are such active words. What do we do with that pervasive concept of influence? Influence implies a passive “catching,” the way you catch the flu, which would not seem to be how creative art works.

YAB: This is why, historically, the relationship becomes a bit of a drama. In the late ’20s, Matisse is basically dead, kaput, for the avant-garde. And Picasso, at the end of the ’20s and early ’30s is busy doing all these self-conscious parodies of Matisse—the Large Nude in a Red Armchair (1929), which is a kind of takeoff of Matisse’s 1926 Odalisque with a Tambourine (from the Paley Collection at MOMA), or Acrobats, which refers to the 1910 Dance. At some point, Matisse gets hooked back in, and Picasso turns up his sleeves and, dropping the pastiche mode for a while, decides it is time to study Matisse's work more generously—that yes, now it’s worth learning from him. They have several such moments of acceleration, moments when they look more to what the other is doing, and that’s what I decided to study. Each time I was trying to see the logic in their own work that pushes them toward the other. The situation becomes much more dramatized when you try to understand the kind of strange dialectic relationship between the two and why they would suddenly become more aware of and receptive to what the other was proposing. Especially in the late ’30s, it’s spectacular the way each tries to introduce, in his own language, some trope of the other—and to do something with it. So it’s like: You do this, I do that; you do this, I do that.

LN: OK, I see that this is not really reducible to the idea of influence. But you substitute other modes of relationship. One is the notion of dialogue. What does dialogue mean in your sense?

YAB: Well, it’s not really my sense—it’s a notion borrowed from Bakhtin. It’s basically the idea that whenever you utter something, you have an interlocutor in mind. And when you speak, when you paint, you paint in a certain way because you already anticipate the answer to a great extent. And this answer is already part of the data bank you work with when you speak or paint. When you have individuals as strong-willed as Matisse and Picasso, the data take on a very dramatic and very powerful aspect, which leads to dramatic changes. You can literally see the process in action. One of the moments I found extraordinary is when Picasso paints Games and Rescue on the Beach [1932] —which, unfortunately, I couldn’t get for the show— a painting he makes before he has seen anything new by Matisse since the Nice Odalisques of the ’20s. He knows that Matisse is working on the Barnes Dance murals. He paints his picture something like a month after Matisse’s illustrations of Mallarmé’s Poésies come out and a few months before any photograph of the Dance mural has appeared in the press. Games and Rescue is an unbelievable anticipation of what Matisse would do in the Barnes panels. It’s an attempt to be more Matissean—a more modern Matisse—than Matisse. Picasso is trying to outdo Matisse.

LN: Even though he hasn’t seen the work in question.

YAB: He hasn’t seen it (it’s not even finished at the time), and never will. And yet the result is very close—not so much to the Barnes Dance, but to the Paris version (at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, a version that Picasso probably did not see, if ever, until it was exhibited in Avignon in 1949): the same kind of friezelike arrangement, the same blocks of colors. It’s quite amazing, this will to try to outdo Matisse, even before the fact. Bakhtin called it an anticipative response, and that’s my idea in this case.

LN: Did Picasso or Matisse have dialogues with other artists?

YAB: Oh, absolutely. Both were heavily interested in Miró—and I didn’t know that about Matisse until I did research for this show. Matisse also had a rather intense relationship with Bonnard. That was his turf: Picasso had complete contempt for Bonnard. Both had utter contempt for Léger, interestingly enough, even though there are some quite Légeresque moments in the work of both artists. There are plenty of other artists, but I think the strongest dialogue either had was with the other.

LN: And the most continuous.

YAB: With the exception of fifteen years or so—not quite—after 1917, when there is a complete interruption.

LN: You work with Harold Bloom and his categories from The Anxiety of Influence. Is Bloom’s notion of “misprision” a subcategory of dialogue?

YAB: Well, dialogue is about understanding, and misprision is about misunderstanding. And the interesting thing about the notion of misprision is that it presupposes a desire to misunderstand.

LN: Or the inability, albeit unconscious, to understand.

YAB: But transformed into a positive factor.

LN: Yes, but it’s certainly not a conscious procedure for the young artist, who thinks he’s trying as hard as possible to “get” the older one. But here we have two more or less equals—

YAB: Yes, there’s only a slight generational difference between Picasso and Matisse. But it’s very interesting to transfer Bloom’s notion, which is very Oedipal, into something closer to sibling rivalry. It transforms the concept a bit, but I think it’s very useful.

LN: It is—I agree.

YAB: And one other thing, which I didn’t quite understand until I worked more seriously on the objects themselves, is that they have a lot of parameters that are the same. They wanted to belong to the same tradition; they have the same legacy. But at the same time, the relationship each had to the art of painting—of representation—is almost antithetical. To boil it down to one term for each, I would say that Picasso is a structuralist (he’s interested in the permutations of signs, in the transformation of the sign for something into a sign for something else) and Matisse is a phenomenologist (he’s concerned with the effect engendered by the presence of things, and it is this effect, not the presence itself, that he wants to render). But I don’t think that they were conscious of their fundamental difference. And they were intrigued by each other’s art all the time, and kept trying to understand it, but they were speaking different languages. And that’s why they were successful in their misprision-in their misunderstanding.

LN: Right. Because the languages in which they understood each other were mutually exclusive.

YAB: Yes, exactly. So when they had to translate the other’s idiom into their own, they inevitably transformed it radically.

LN: Do you feel there’s something extremely gendered, not to say macho, about the very terms and categories of Bloom’s and your own? “Strong,” “combat,” “weapon,” “aggressive”. . . ?

YAB: Oh, absolutely. The agonistic structure of Bloom is very gendered.

LN: It all has to do with art as agon, as individual struggle. Do you think, on the other hand, there are other, less “masculine” ways of conceiving the relation between artists? Think of the Impressionists, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the vanguard Russians, where there were, after all, a lot of important women artists involved.

YAB: Yes, but I do agree that the relation between Matisse and Picasso was strongly marked by the macho, agonistic aspect.

LN: But you don’t really see the aggression in the paintings.

YAB: Matisse’s conception is to lose the beholder, basically, and to make one oblivious to many things. When Picasso paints a hand badly, it jumps out at you. Matisse’s hands are almost always “badly” painted, but you don’t notice, because there are so many different things there to distract you. So Matisse has a conception of the gaze which is very diffuse—very decentered, allover. Picasso, on the contrary, is very much within the aesthetic of concentration, of concentrated focus. It’s very strange, by the way, given the unbelievably common sexual metaphors that were used by the critics of the time, that in the ’30s Matisse was not so much spoken about as the feminine painter.

LN: Really? Even with all the decorativeness and color?

YAB: Yes, I was surprised.

LN: It is funny, because in the late nineteenth century, during the Postimpressionist period, critics went back to critique Impressionism for being too feminine: formless, intuitive, decorative. Berthe Morisot’s work was positioned as paradigmatic of Impressionist “charm” and femininity—and weakness.

YAB: This sort of criticism was leveled against Matisse early, but it more or less stopped. He was basically cast off by the avant-garde in the late ’20s. He was disowned by the avant-garde critics.

LN: He no longer counted.

YAB: So when he finally reemerged, in 1932 and ’33, after the publication of the Mallarmé illustrations and the creation of the Barnes Dance murals, there was first of all a feeling of happiness by all concerned that he was back. The real low point was the Georges Petit exhibition in 1931, Matisse’s first large retrospective. He didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it; he was busy doing the Barnes project in Nice, and he didn’t bother much with the show. As a result, the dealers who organized the exhibition put in a lot of the unsold works of the early ’20s, most of which are not very good, and the show was a terrible flop. Even people who had been his great supporters, like Henry McBride, wrote a review saying it was terrible. It was as though Matisse were dead.

LN: I was interested in the whole Saussurean analogy, and your interpretation of what you call “the Matisse system.” It makes me think of Gertrude Stein’s essay on Picasso, where she says something like: “When Matisse looks at a tomato, he sees it the way everyone else does; but when Picasso looks at a tomato, he sees it differently from anyone else.”

YAB: The only thing I would add is that perhaps Matisse sees a tomato as everyone else—but he also smells it. (Laughter) And he tries to put the smell in his painting. While Picasso would see a tomato as a sign that could be transformed into anything else.

LN: Can we really use a Saussurean system to analyze the visual arts? What are the limits of arbitrariness?

YAB: Well, in fact, the issue of arbitrariness and motivation is much more gradual in Saussure than we tend to remember. Saussure basically demonstrated that, even in the most totally arbitrary system, there are clusters. Words are arbitrary but there is a limitation of rules; it’s never completely random (for example, the whole formation of a family of words is internally motivated by conventions that function mimetically: you know that “absurdly” is to “absurd” as “largely” is to “large” and from that knowledge you can create any adverb you want from any adjective, at least in theory). So Saussure speaks about the relative motivation of the arbitrary sign quite often.

LN: Relative—within a certain context.

YAB: Yes. So when you speak about a sign system such as figurative painting, which is inherently related to mimesis—of course, you know, it has to be a relative arbitrariness. I mean, it would never come to my mind to try to do what some people tried to do when I was a student: to attempt to read a painting by decomposing it into little Saussurean units, and all that. That’s completely absurd. But what the model allows us to do with Picasso is to understand his notion of using the same visual sign to translate totally different realities—and vice versa. This kind of insistence on the migration of signs helps us to understand how Picasso can metaphorically transpose signs, whereas Matisse cannot.

LN: No, never. He’s not a punster. A bicycle handle will not become a bull’s horns for Matisse. You talk about Picasso’s semiology versus the Matisse system. What do you mean by the “Matisse system”?

YAB: It comes from a lot of previous work I’ve done. One of the things that Matisse always tries to do, I think, is to convey the sense of inarticulate sensuous presence: a rush. Once, in front of a blue wall that impressed him in Tangier in 1912, he expressed regret at being unable to get the “‘sensorial intensity’ of the blue color in to the painting.” In the catalogue I quote a conversation with Severini, to whom he confided that to “discharge himself from the sensation of blue that dominated all others, he would have had to paint his whole canvas blue, like a wall painter.” But of course, Matisse couldn’t paint a monochrome in 1912. So he’s always interested in being able to give the beholder, without fixing his attention on any one point in particular, a swelling notion of an image that has this inarticulate rush of color and spatial expansion. And the way he’s able to construct this is quite complicated. He has certain axioms that he discovers fairly early and sticks with right to the end. One of them—“quality = quantity”—is simple but has huge consequences. The quote he always used is, “One square centimeter of any blue is not as blue as a square meter of the same blue.” This means that the quantity of surface determines the value of the color itself. And, for Matisse, that implies a whole different way of drawing, in which the values of the whiteness of the paper depend on the intervals between the lines. His gesture, his line, his way of differentiating the zones of the paper itself—added to the fact that it’s never a question of an image being applied to a support, but a question of the support itself, and the quantity of support which is untouched this is what makes his drawings vibrant and alive. This is totally new in terms of art, and it comes in part from Cézanne . . .

LN: It seems to me It’s more suggestive of Gauguin than Cézanne.

YAB: Gauguin is obviously part of it, which Matisse always denied, wrongly, I think. But Gauguin’s method was still academic in one respect. He would enlarge a small study into a big composition on canvas, something Matisse just would not do. For Matisse, scale was very important, in order to produce the kind of expansive rush he was after. He could not just square up a composition, he had to think of it at the exact size it would be done, and this is exactly why any Matisse (except for the Nice period) always looks larger in reproduction than it is in reality: Before working at it he has internalized its size in order to find out which scale he would be working at.

LN: But when he did the Dance for Barnes, he made smaller versions. Though he had terrible trouble? (Laughs)

YAB: But not for long. As soon as he got into it, he wanted to rent a garage and work on this huge thing. All those very rapid sketches he made in preparation for The Dance, and which I reproduce in the catalogue, he never used directly, but they were essential to the process. Those are shorthand notations that have almost nothing to do with the final composition but try to convey in one or two strokes the movement of a dancer. In fact they mark a radical change, forever, in Matisse’s drawing procedure. With them he is not trying to refine an essence, but as I say in the catalogue, “to internalize it—to capture within himself, synesthetically . . . the very movement he draws.” He thinks of himself as a kind of acrobat; he has to prepare himself with arduous exercises so that when he has to perform, his mind can be empty and his body can make the right move spontaneously.

LN: You talk about Matisse’s Cubism. I know he has a Cubist period, but I never can understand it as Cubism in the Braque-Picasso sense. I mean, it’s more austere, rigid, abstract than his previous work—paintings like Goldfish and Palette (at MOMA) or White and Pink Head (at Beaubourg). But these works don’t even seem to me as Cubist as Gleizes or Metzinger.

YAB: I think what happened is that, by 1912, Matisse is really depressed. He thinks that he has been dethroned by Picasso. At that time, Picasso’s friends are very nasty to Matisse. He goes to Morocco, and he’s depressed there, too. And he comes back to France, then goes back to Morocco. After he returned for the second time, he decided: I’ll give Cubism a try. And that’s when he becomes very friendly with Gris.

So I do think that, for about three years, Matisse says: I’ll try to understand Cubism. And he cannot. What he gets from Cubism—the only thing he gets—is a sort of ambiguity about things. And, for some reason, in his hand, when he tries to do it, it always accelerates very quickly into abstraction. And that totally freaks him out.

LN: It seems to me that getting closer to abstraction in the case of Picasso is very different from what that means in the case of Matisse. In Picasso, it’s 1910 or so when you have nothing but structure.

YAB: Sort of grid scaffolding.

LN: I mean, the subject almost disappears. But with Matisse it’s much more a process of elimination—erasing objects, getting rid of them.

YAB: Yes, that’s true.

LN: But why are Picasso and Matisse so terrified of abstraction? After all, Kupka had done it; and Kandinsky and the Russians. It wasn’t as though nobody had ever made a “nonobjective” painting, as we used to call it. By the ’20s that had already been done.

YAB: That’s another question that I’ll try one day to answer: Why was it a kind of . . . incapacity for them? Later in life, when Matisse spoke about abstract art, he would say: Well, your taste gets fixed at a certain point, and you can’t understand what the young generation is doing, and that’s normal. But Picasso was violently opposed—

LN: I read that when Picasso first saw a Pollock, he was horrified. He said “That’s what I’m trying to defend against,” or words to that effect. He felt that Pollock had let himself go.

YAB: One of Matisse’s problems was his fear, later in life, that people would think that what he did was easy.

LN: Just pretty outlines or lovely plane of color: no tension between vision and design.

YAB: That’s why he exhibited works at various stages of their progress. I reproduce some of the photographs of these exhibitions. In 1945, in the first such show at Galerie Maeght in Paris, he shows about eight paintings which had just recently been exhibited at the Salon. He displays these pictures with photographs of them in progress—framed photographs slightly smaller than the paintings. You have all these paintings, surrounded by those eight, ten, whatever, photographs of the work because he wanted to demonstrate that it wasn’t that easy; that his simplicity is hard-won. Isn’t that amazing? I don’t know of any other artist who has done that.

He got more and more obsessed by this idea that the young painters would think he wasn’t really working. He wrote a beautiful letter to the director of the Philadelphia Museum for his retrospective in 1948, about how he was afraid that people would think that he could do it “just like that.” It’s not just like that, he would say.

LN: But that was the lesson we were taught in our classes on modern art in the late ’40s: that nobody “just did it like that”; that artists had to work hard to achieve the effect of effortlessness.

YAB: Yes. You know, there are many interviews late in life where Matisse is asked what’s the secret, and he says: “Travailler.

LN: A bourgeois idea. Though Manet, also a true bourgeois, would never have said that. Now for something entirely different: isn’t there another show of Matisse and Picasso, curated by John Golding for the Tate in collaboration with the Museum of Modem Art and the Centre Georges Pompidou? What’s the difference between the two shows?

YAB: My show is conceived, as you say, as a drama—as a tit-for-tat affair. One artist makes his move, the other responds to it. Their show is totally different in concept. It’s not chronological, from what I’ve heard.

LN: What is it then? Thematic?

YAB: It’s more thematic, I suspect.

LN: And what about the chronology of the other show?

YAB: Well, as far as I understand—I can’t speak for them, and I know very little of the planning—chronology is not at issue. When I speak about the last exchange between Matisse and Picasso, I show the work from 1952 and ’53. But I also introduce in the catalogue a relevant painting of 1925-26 by Matisse, and one from 1930 by Picasso. I believe that’s more what they will do. So, in the end, their show will emphasize common motifs and forms. You know, I’m always pitched as the formalist, but I suspect the Golding-MOMA show is more truly formalist than mine. It’s perfectly legitimate, of course, but it’s a completely different way of looking at the material. I think they’ll propose juxtapositions we may not have immediately come up with. They can show a Matisse from 1905 next to a Picasso from 1965.

LN: But what point would such a juxtaposition make, exactly?

YAB: I don’t know, but I’ll be very intrigued to find out. Too bad we have to wait several years. My show is based on the models I propose in the catalogue: Bloom’s idea of willful misunderstanding; the active dialogue of Bakhtin; the chess-playing model that Hubert Damisch has applied to art-historical issues; and a fourth mode of interpretation, proposed by René Girard: rivalry. The motto for this type of rivalry could be: “I only desire what the other desires, I only desire through the desire of the other, whom I try to imitate.” For example, when Matisse, so to speak, “gave” Picasso African art (in the sense that it is he who pointed this art out to Picasso) he himself had not done much with African art, but he had shown enough interest to stimulate Picasso’s desire. And Picasso takes it and runs with it. There are many other moments where they tease each other like that—by being interested in something . . .

LN: It’s like children. (Laughs)

YAB: Well—no, no. Rivalry—

LN: It is. Because children will behave exactly like that.

YAB: What’s moving for me is the end of the exhibition, after Matisse’s death. Because there, for the first time probably because there’s no rivalry anymore—Picasso is able to truly incorporate some of Matisse’s mode of painting, really efficiently, in the Studio at “La Californie” paintings. And here it’s a kind of homage.

LN: Yes, but isn’t it connected in some way with the whole change in Picasso’s life? The retreat from Paris, living in a very domestic situation.

YAB: There are plenty of explanations—every single move in life and in art is explained by many different causes. In this case, you ignore all the other ones, and take this parameter—Matisse-Picasso—and read the art of the one by the art of the other.

LN: It’s not a total explanation.

YAB: No. I’m not suggesting that everything else is irrelevant. I’m just saying: OK, for the time being, let’s bracket the rest and see what happens. And what happens is that a lot of things come to life—a lot more than I expected, actually. There are peak moments and moments of acceleration; moments of discrepancy between the paths the artists take, and moments where you can see a convergence. I take as a principle the idea that when, in this experiment, one artist does something, he is imagining the other as the interlocutor. Once you accept this principle, then a lot of things come into play. If Picasso makes acrobats that look like Matisse’s Dance, or a painting that looks as though it is mocking Matisse’s earlier Odalisque, or those Studio interiors that are related to Matisse’s Studios of 1911 at the very moment when Matisse himself is in a crisis and can’t paint, it quickly becomes a matter of teasing, a matter of trying to pull Matisse back into the ring. Aside from the narrative interest—the pulse that it adds to the experiment—this principle also provides a kind of mode of explanation. Why, for example, did Picasso do those things at this particular moment, among the many other routes he could have taken? Why did Matisse go back to his earlier aesthetics so dramatically around 1931 or 1932?

LN: it certainly makes for an interesting way of looking at both careers, from the late ’20s on. A conventional art historian would say that Matisse influenced Picasso. What’s the difference?

YAB: Well, within the dynamic that I put in place, Picasso does the things he does with a purpose. My own take was that he was bored, and he needed Matisse back. He just can’t stand being alone in this camp in which he has put himself, defined by the desire to remain within the tradition and keep it alive. And, having refused the readymade, photography, and abstraction, he finds himself closed off from most of the avant-garde possibilities of the time; after a while, the Surrealists started to annoy him, basically. By this point, he occupies a position in the history of art of which he is very conscious—and he needs a partner. There’s no one else who can fulfill this function. So my idea is that when Picasso is doing all this work, it’s partly wishful thinking: “I wish Matisse were here. And I’m doing a little Matisse myself”—you know, to be able to have a dialogue with an absent partner. But also, with respect to my supposition of the tease, he is trying to get Matisse to come out of his comer.

LN: At times it sounds like Eve Sedgwick’s idea.

YAB: A little bit—yes.

LN: With art as the woman that they’re meeting over, at times fighting over. It is interesting to have these two strong heterosexual men flirting with each other, teasing each other, contesting each other—over the body of art.

YAB: And they were conscious of it.

LN: You point out the centrality of the idea of the decorative for Matisse. I find that extremely illuminating. Could you talk more about it?

YAB: Well, it’s important for me with respect to my argument that Picasso and Matisse didn’t speak the same language. I think that Matisse’s decorative stems from an idea which has a lot to do with decenteredness, diffusion, and diffraction. He speaks a lot about it in his texts, which are extraordinarily articulate. He’s one of the most precise and inventive art writers of this century. As a theoretician, he’s amazingly clear about what he wants when he writes, and even in interviews. He is trying to translate into the visual realm something that will branch out to all the different senses. And his way of doing so is by decentralizing the field of vision. And that comes very early on. Already, in 1908, he says: “Expression, for me, does not reside in passions glowing in a human face. . . The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive.” And he says at the same time that expression and decoration are the same things. So the decorative for him is something which has to do with taking into account all the areas of the canvas—making sure that no particular area takes a major share of attention—so that your mode of address is multidirectional. Which, because it is so diffused and so allover, will actually have a kind of subliminal effect. Matisse’s idea (or goal) is that it will have the same effect on the beholder as his particular subject matter had on him. He doesn’t want to paint a rose, but he wants to paint the effect that the rose had on him, and so forth. That’s why he’s often obliged to transpose colors. And that idea—of the effect rather than the object, rendering the effect of the object rather than the object itself—comes completely out of Mallarmé. It’s the real core of Mallarmé’s aesthetic.

LN: Would you say, in that case, that Matisse is tied into tradition—a modernist tradition—more strongly than Picasso?

YAB: Well, you could also say that Picasso too is very close to Mallarmé, especially with Mallarmé’s notion of the polysemic, the use of signs. Matisse is more bound to a nineteenth-century aesthetic on that score, but he and Picasso basically had the same training. Oddly enough, in fact, Picasso’s training was more academic and traditional than that of Matisse.

LN: Many critics talk about the Matissean qualities of Picasso's 1934 Nude in a Garden. Is there something profoundly disturbing, even horrific, as well as sensual about the work? This transformation of the female body into a Möbius strip?

YAB: Well, I don’t know if it’s horrific, but there is definitely something unusual in the clash of crudeness and delicacy. Paul Rosenberg supposedly refused to show the painting, which he found obscene. And indeed it’s very rare to have such a frontal representation of the anus in a painting of the nude. The body is twisted in such a way that all her sexual parts are displayed at once. That’s obvious. But she’s also made compact and approachable. And it’s gorgeously painted—the textures are unbelievable. And there’s something tender at the same time. Yet it is also disturbing because of the harsh lighting. One might use the term “pornography.” At any rate, I think it’s intended to be—

LN: Shocking?

YAB: Well. . .

LN: Sexy.

YAB: Sexy, I guess. And probably it was intended to be shocking—it’s hard to know. But it departs from the code.

LN: I may find some of Matisse’s nudes banal—but I never find them disturbing.

YAB: I think generally speaking there is a clear aggressivity on the part of Picasso—not necessarily toward the woman’s body but toward us, the beholder. In this work there’s not a lot of space between you and the nude. There’s a kind of acceleration to the confrontation with the beholder.

LN: Then you go on to the drawings by Matisse, the Reclining Nude and the Reclining Nude in the Studio of 1935, which clearly have some rapport with Picasso’s nudes of the period. The whole figure is never pulled in. Unless you see the figure in the mirror, of course.

YAB: Here you have a clear demonstration of the capacity of the decorative. Those works by Matisse are very lively, but you don’t focus, your gaze doesn’t get arrested at any point. In the Picasso that’s not the way it goes. You notice the little arrow for the female sex; you notice the breast; you notice the belly button. They are little knots that stop your meandering, the circulation of your gaze around the Möbius strip. There was a funny incident involving the Matisse drawings. When the female nudes were shown in London in 1936, they were generally well received, but the press was scandalized by the pubic hair. Matisse was totally flabbergasted. He wrote to his son something to the effect that next time he’d do it with male nudes, thinking that would solve matters. His son’s reply was something like: “I’m not sure you understand the problem.” (Laughs)

LN: I’m interested in the fact that Matisse actually copies Picasso in the late ’40s, and that what he makes sketches of are the most Cubist of Picasso’s works at the time.

YAB: The sketches were made by Matisse after Picasso’s paintings at the Palais Grimaldi in Antibes, which Matisse goes to see several times, in 1948 and 1949. It’s hard to know exactly why an artist who is nearly eighty is going to make sketches after an artist who is, after all, an old friend. I think there was an element of testifying to his real interests. He actually shows Picasso his sketches. So there’s an element of seduction there.

LN: Yes, indeed: “Look, I’m copying you.”

YAB: There’s an element of that. But Matisse is also very curious about the way Picasso continued to be inventive in the Cubist idiom after so many years. He’s also working on the Vence Chapel at this moment and having difficulty with the Stations of the Cross. I mean, he has to express pain, etc., and he doesn’t quite know how to do so. I think he knows that Picasso is a master of the expression of sorrow and pain. Matisse had been given a portrait of Dora Maar by Picasso during the war in exchange for a painting that he gave Picasso. He gets this painting out of its cupboard during the time he’s working on the Vence Chapel, because he was very impressed by Dora Maar’s expression.

LN: Did he look at Guernica?

YAB: Yes. He didn’t say anything about it but we know he went to see it, and it’s quite possible that he even saw it unfinished in Picasso’s studio.

LN: It’s so interesting to put the Picasso Reclining Nude on Blue Bed next to the Matisse copies. It’s mind-boggling. It’s also interesting what a big role color plays in the rapport between the two. I’m looking at The Chinese Chest of Drawers [I953] by Picasso, which you relate to Matisse’s Interior In Yellow and Blue [1946]. They’re totally different yet at the same time structurally related.

YAB: Yes, despite the complete diversity of technique. The Picasso is on wood, and so it’s very opaque, whereas the Matisse is very fluent—

LN: Almost transparent.

YAB: Almost transparent. Almost watercolor-like.

LN: You assert that Picasso’s series of Studios at “La Californie” constitutes a kind of mourning process after Matisse’s death. Could you explain this?

YAB: In the Studio series, for example, The Studio at “La Californie” of April 2, 1956, or the related Woman in a Rocking Chair of March 26, 1956, there’s a lot connected to Matisse, on various levels: color, for instance, and—though not in all of the paintings—texture. There is this very brushy, almost transparent way of applying the color and the pervasive use of the unpainted area of the canvas. There’s even the scratching of the paint surface. These are very much Matisse’s techniques, techniques that Picasso had used before, but never to this extent, and never without an element of pastiche or some element, however slight, of distancing—which I don’t see in these paintings. I see this series as a kind of acceptance, as though Picasso were saying: “OK, I’m going to do my paintings in the vein of Matisse for better or worse. I’m going to accept him wholly at this point.” I think he had to wait for Matisse to die to be able to do that.

LN: To incorporate him, in a sense—

YAB: Well, the pressure of rivalry was gone.

LN: So it could be an elegy instead of a competition.

YAB: Exactly. And at the beginning of the catalogue I quote this idea of Bakhtin’s that for an utterance to elicit a response, it has to have ended. After an artist has died, his whole oeuvre becomes a single utterance and the “reply” will take on larger dimensions. And so, basically, Matisse’s entire production can be taken as a big utterance in itself, which is now finished. And Picasso can really, truly answer, and truly understand.

LN: How would you differentiate the relationship between Picasso and Matisse from the standpoint of pastiche—pastiche as articulated by Rosalind Krauss in The Picasso Papers? What differentiates pastiche from other kinds of formal relationships in the case of Picasso/Matisse?

YAB: I think that there are some instances of what Bloom calls “demonization” that are closer to pastiche. When Picasso is critical of Matisse, for whatever reason, he often has a pastiching tendency.

LN: For instance. . .

YAB: You know, his pastiches sometimes go a bit overboard. That is, they are often too critical to really function as pastiche—they verge on caricature. This is precisely what happens in the Large Nude in a Red Armchair of 1929, which is so completely related to Matisse’s Odalisque with a Tambourine, 1926. But Picasso does not engage in that with Matisse very often, because he doesn’t want to attack Matisse, though when he does, it really has a kind of critical edge. But pastiche is not necessarily negative; it is also a way to learn a language (Proust’s famous pastiches of Flaubert, Stendhal, etc. are exactly that). And I think that some of the Marie-Thérese paintings of 1931 and 1932 have this dimension: In order to pastiche something you have first to understand it, to master it on some level.

LN: I want to ask a related question: Is there a general difference between Picasso’s reaction to Matisse and Matisse’s reaction to Picasso? Or Is it always contextual? You have already partially answered the question by saying that there is sometimes an element of satire and pastiche or caricature in Picasso’s borrowings.

YAB: Sometimes—but rarely. Yes, they have different reactions—absolutely. Matisse is someone who lets things seep in very slowly, and this seepage is related to his system of painting, his characteristic diffraction of the gaze and of sensation. Matisse himself says he can’t really paint when he travels, for example, as things go too fast then. And so he doesn’t have this very swift reactive mode, which Picasso always has. Picasso is the fastest eye in the West, except for Rosalind. (Laughter) You know, he takes in things very quickly. So, because of that difference, they also have different modes of rivalry. Picasso is always anxious that some territory is going to be occupied without his being there. The psychology of the two is vastly different. Also the two are half a generation apart, which means that Matisse is not frequently in the position of feeling he is the pupil. He does sometimes, as when he’s trying to learn Cubism. But, you know, Matisse likes to play the grand old man, and the professor. All his friends, even when he was a student, called him The Professor.

LN: And Picasso’s sort of the feisty kid.

YAB: Yes. So they had roles that were more or less cast for them fairly, early in their lives, roles they continued to play. So there is a difference in the relationship. But, on the whole, I’d say they knew fairly well how to tell each other: “We can play,” “We can dialogue,” “We can use each other’s tricks.” And that’s fine—

LN: Neither one is going to sink the other.

YAB: No, that’s right. I think they felt that fairly early on.

LN: I have one more question: about biography. Do you consider the Picasso-Matisse relationship biographically at times? This seems to be a big question these days.

YAB: But, you know, the idea is that it’s a dialogue of paintings or, at some point, of sculptures, but not a dialogue between subjects. Of course, you cannot prevent the biography from being part of the story. I try to show that it was an odd dialogue. The elements of biography, little snippets, function as part of this interchange, too. But I don’t want to make it a central issue.

LN: After all, biography is a kind of history. I mean, It’s the history of certain individuals.

YAB: Well, when I say that Matisse did see that Picasso show, I want to make sure it’s true. But I’m just covering myself here, I’m being cautious because I don’t want people to think that I’m just inventing things. For me the real evidence is in the works themselves. I’d chosen the works for this show before working in the archives and seeing my intuitions confirmed by what I was finding. On top of this, it’s not necessary that Matisse should have seen any articular work of Picasso to have an interaction with what Picasso was doing at the time—because he knew it from other sources. He could imagine it from his past experience: That’s actually what happened to both of them during the war, when they were almost entirely cut off from each other.

LN: But we know, for example, that Matisse saw those Picassos hanging on the wall, because he copied them. It's a biographical fact that they had contact.

YAB: Still, that’s not the main point. Even in that particular case, it’s interesting to know: What is it that drew him to these works? Why did he copy them?

LN: And that’s harder to figure.

YAB: Yes . . .