Left: Henri Matisse, Le Luxe I, 1907, oil on canvas, 82 2/3 x 54 1/3“. Right: Pablo Picasso, Boy Leading a Horse, 1906, oil on canvas, 86 3/4 x 51 1/2”.

Left: Henri Matisse, Le Luxe I, 1907, oil on canvas, 82 2/3 x 54 1/3“. Right: Pablo Picasso, Boy Leading a Horse, 1906, oil on canvas, 86 3/4 x 51 1/2”.

“Matisse Picasso”

If the Kimbell Art Museum’s 1999 “Matisse and Picasso” had needed a complement, then “Matisse Picasso,” the touring exhibition organized by Tate Modern, the Grand Palais, and the Museum of Modern Art, would surely be it. But it didn’t, and it isn’t, not really. So what is it?

The answer will have to be comparative, at least as a start.

The Kimbell title, with its conspicuous conjunction, “Matisse and Picasso,” suggested a story. Jack and Jill went up the hill. And that is just what the show delivered, in four “acts,” from 1930 to 1954, with a prelude and a coda too. The curator, Yve-Alain Bois (an admired colleague, I should admit), told how two opposing spirits developed through a mutually essential combat.

The Tate title, on the other hand, proposes a stark contrast, one the catalogue cover conveys by jamming the names together in block capitals of different colors: MATISSEPICASSO. Organized by six distinguished curators from three countries, this exhibition is also chronological, stretching from 1906 to 1961, from the artists’ first meeting to Picasso’s postmortem on his departed rival. But there are plenty of holes and switchbacks in the road, places where the chronology skips or doubles back on itself. And it is a chronology that lacks a story.

What the Tate show offers instead is a series of groupings and pairings. The advantage of this approach over Bois’s is that it gives us more space to construct our own stories and arrive at our own conclusions. The risk is that it gives us too much space and we end up lost, looking for something to think about or against.

I’m not saying the Tate exhibition has no point. But judging from the catalogue introduction by John Golding, the point seems to be that Matisse and Picasso were really different. Matisse was “cultivated” and Picasso “elemental.” Matisse’s art was “pondered,” Picasso’s “instinctual and impulsive.” Matisse belonged to a “classical French tradition”; Picasso had a “universal atavism.” Matisse possessed an “inner serenity,” Picasso a “unique vibrancy and vitality.” Matisse’s art “sublimated” life; Picasso’s devoured it. These are clichés.

Bois too was interested in oppositions, but he found them where it was hardest to tell Matisse and Picasso apart. In his pairing of Matisse’s The Dream, 1940, with Picasso’s Woman with Yellow Hair, 1931, we could see Matisse trace the profile more sensitively and cut out the black plinth of skirt more crudely than had Picasso, but only because it was (almost) the same profile, the same skirt, the same pose, the same pink-yellow palette in both paintings.

The Tate show offers few such Patisse/Micasso moments. In general, its juxtapositions do not tease or tangle, they teach. Take the featured pair in the penultimate gallery, Matisse’s cutout Vegetation, ca. 1951, and Picasso’s painting Large Still Life on a Pedestal Table, 1931. They share the gross characteristics of size, shape, and subject matter, which underwrites the juxtaposition. But the point is the difference. Picasso centers, Matisse scatters. Picasso outlines, Matisse silhouettes. Picasso twists, Matisse flattens. This compare-and-contrast lesson is unobjectionable, but it has a textbook gratuitousness. And the paintings look absolutely hideous together.

But let’s put away the two catalogues for now (the pairings I’ve been discussing are the ones on the respective covers) and enter the Tate exhibition at the beginning.

A flying start: two self-portraits, both 1906. Picasso in his archaic Iberian mode, Matisse in full Fauve. They had just met through Gertrude Stein and were not yet looking over each other’s shoulder, but their balding patterns and lined eyebrows are weirdly alike, as if the two artists were already fascinated with their (non)identity, or they happened to be going to the same barber.

A series of breathtaking confrontations follows. Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse, 1906, is placed at right angles to Matisse’s Le Luxe I, 1907, two grand, myth-imbued paintings about barely touching and not touching. This is evident not only in the strange interactions of the figures depicted but in the quality of the artists’ touch. Both artists brush freely and lightly, but Matisse ends up with a surface that looks like hammered, tarnished copper, Picasso with a silvered or fogged mirror.

Then comes the pair of works the artists exchanged in fall 1907, a perfect potlatch. Matisse got Picasso’s Pitcher, Bowl, and Lemon, 1907, which laid out the semiotics of Cubism in the rhyme of lemon and jar lip. Picasso got Matisse’s faux-naive Portrait of Marguerite, 1906, which precociously declared the power of simple spread color. Picasso’s followers reportedly threw fake darts at it, no doubt to try to stun and disable it.

Even with the conspicuous absence of certain loans, there are plenty of consolations in the first rooms of the Tate show. Watch our two heroes struggle valiantly, in still life, figure, and landscape, with the example of Cézanne, who had died in 1906. The best face-off here is Matisse’s View of Collioure, 1907, and Picasso’s Landscape, 1908, both of which tackle Cézanne’s devilish scrim-of-trees theme. Picasso, having possibly seen this very Matisse, takes an almost identical set of branches and, with help from Georges Braque (remember him?) and Le Douanier Rousseau, sets about inventing Cubism.

The Tate hanging wisely gives this pair its own wall and, even more wisely, places Matisse’s Shaft of Sunlight, the Woods of Trivaux, 1917, on the adjoining wall. The jump ahead in time is justified, for it allows the later work to gaze back on its thesis and antithesis. Shaft of Sunlight may be the only painting in which Matisse successfully internalized and reworked Cubism. Its white-silver shaft has an achy dullness that reproductions can’t muster. It towers at three feet tall.

Let’s take stock. So far, the logic of the exhibition has basically been the same as Bois’s, that of close give-and-take, but transposed to a crucial era that he did not treat. But now the exhibition starts to falter, as if overwhelmed by its riches.

Enter the logic of theme or subject matter, often deadly as an approach to modern art. The subject in this case is woman, specifically the female portrait. (In other rooms it will be music, dance, interior, still life, artist and model, and odalisque.) Nine women in a big room. Plus one man, Matisse’s Portrait of Auguste Pellerin II, 1917, a pure patriarch in his black suit with one of those impressive little red pins on his lapel. He stares stiffly ahead while Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1905–1906, sizes him up with a sidelong glance.

That pair works beautifully. But, as is so often the case in this exhibition, the larger grouping does not. Along the left wall we find Picasso’s 1909 Woman with a Fan, Matisse’s 1913 Portrait of Madame Matisse, and Picasso’s 1914 Portrait of a Young Girl. Great and strange paintings, but what do they have to do with one another, aside from sex (and, on close inspection, broken wrists)? Aha! They’re all green. But the logic of interior design cannot save the logic of subject matter. By contrast, the next wall, which positions Picasso’s Woman with a Fan, 1908, between Matisse’s Italian Woman, 1916, and Portrait of Mlle Yvonne Landsberg, 1914, makes complete sense. Each painting works the territory of transparency and opacity in its own way.

The next room offers the sharp pang of a great pairing deferred. A blackly brooding duo, Matisse’s Goldfish and Palette, 1914, and Picasso’s Harlequin, 1915 (which Matisse rightly believed his painting had inspired), share a wall, but three examples of Picasso’s synthetic Cubism of 1913–14, a papier collé, painting, and assemblage, hang among them. They make the historical point that Matisse borrowed from Picasso too, but they spoil the principal visual confrontation by buffering it.

My peevishness dissolved in the next room with the unexpected conjunction of Matisse’s Interior with a Violin, 1917–18, and one of Picasso’s Guitar constructions (1924). It looked like the logic of subject matter was the guiding principle, but there was more to the coupling than that. Matisse displays the violin in its open case, a proto-Dufy-esque blue coffin in a black room, while light tries to pour through the half-closed shutters behind it, banding them black and yellow and blue (for the sea). They look like the washboard in a zydeco band and create an analogous visual rattle. Picasso’s Guitar uses the same striped patterns, but they spring from the instrument itself, as if the strings and frets had burst. Matisse surrounds his subject, Picasso turns it inside out. Hanging next to Interior with a Violin, his guitar could be called Guitar with Its Own Interior.

The roller coaster of the Tate exhibition reached bottom, at least for me, with the tight hanging of Picasso’s Three Women at the Spring, 1921, between two of Matisse’s large bronze relief Backs, from ca. 1916–17 and 1930. One critic has declared this “temple-like,” but it’s really a desecration. It turns Matisse’s great sculptures into the frame for a silly painting, and I don’t buy the excuse for the joining of the works, which is their allegedly similar simplification of the female form. Never has Picasso’s clunky neoclassicism looked dumber or Matisse’s backs more embarrassed. They turn away and hide their eyes in shame.

Let’s skip ahead to the very end (since this ride is getting too long, although we are only halfway through), where a gallery unites Matisse’s cutouts and related drawings from the ’50s with Picasso’s ’60s sculptures made from cut-and-folded sheet metal. The operational comparison is inspired. And the section almost makes up for the bias toward painting of the rest of the exhibition, drawings crowded into a couple of rooms and sculptures scattered between paintings like potted plants. This final space also makes the best of the Tate’s cold, towering white walls, scuffed by thousands of visitors. The central, unapologetic placement of the sculptures activates the volume of the room, and the lofty hanging of Matisse’s Acrobat drawings (all 1952) activates the container. Ahhh . . .

Like its catalogue, which is a kaleidoscope of information and some beautiful shards of analysis (especially by John Elderfield), this exhibition is made for browsing, not close reading. It does not hang together. Perhaps, with six curators, it could not have. Perhaps, postmodernly, it did not want to. Its logic is enumerative: How do they differ? Let us count the ways. But along the way, there are plenty of times when two great paintings strike each other and we can feel the heat and see the old sparks fly.

“Matisse Picasso” is on view at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, through Jan. 6, 2003; travels to MoMA QNS, New York, Feb. 13–May 20, 2003. The contents of the exhibition will be significantly different at each venue.

Harry Cooper is curator of modern art at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.