MoMA Extravaganza of Matisse-Picasso A Great Exhibition

Reviewing an exhibition of the Paul Guillaume Collection in Paris in July 1929, the critic Adolph Basler offered the following observations: “It was a bad day for this Iberian genius [Picasso] …. The unanimous opinion of the visitors condemned out of hand metamorphoses of such a prolific form of aestheticism. The pictures of the Spanish prodigy shrank back into the walls. Picasso’s disaster was worsened by the siting of Derain’s work opposite and by the Matisses scattered in the vicinity. In reality, the contest was between the latter two artists. Picasso had been knocked out. ‘Victory for the French!,’ cried artists and critics to their hearts’ content.”

Today, of course, we know better. We know that “the contest” for artistic supremacy in the heyday of the 20th-century Paris avant-garde was between Matisse and Picasso, and we may be inclined to smile at this curious dismissal of “the Spanish prodigy” some two decades after the completion of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the birth of Cubism. Yet, as we now observe what is bound to be a record turnout for the mammoth Matisse Picasso exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Queens, it’s important to recall that the French weren’t always receptive to Picasso’s audacities, even as late as the 1920′s. In June 1929, to cite another observation, the art dealer René Gimpel noted in his diary, “At the Louvre, at the Luxembourg, no one in the official world wants to understand Picasso. He is a marked man.”

One of the people who did have a profound understanding of what Picasso was up to, however, was Matisse, who had every reason to feel challenged-and somewhat shocked-when Picasso seized the leadership of the avant-garde with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. Prior to that moment, the scandal that erupted over Matisse’s Fauvist paintings in 1905 had made him the undisputed sovereign of Parisian modernism. Thereafter, a vivid sense of rivalry, later to be combined with mutual respect and driving ambition, did much to determine the future course of 20th-century painting.

In New York, this remarkably productive rivalry also did much to determine something else as well: the future course of the Museum of Modern Art, which, under the intellectual leadership of its founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., early on elevated Matisse and Picasso to a special status, both in the works acquired for the museum’s collection and in its exhibition and publication programs. For my own generation, certainly, there’s hardly been a time when some of their most celebrated achievements were not on public view at MoMA. Which is why, when I went to Paris for the first time in the 1950′s, it was such a shock to discover how few major works by Matisse and Picasso were to be found in the museums.

It was at MoMA, too, that Alfred Barr set a high standard for the study of these modern masters with the publication of two major monographs: Picasso, Fifty Years of His Art (1946) and Matisse: His Art and His Public (1951). Then, too, there were the many monographic exhibitions devoted to Matisse and Picasso at MoMA-a brilliant succession of shows that culminated in huge retrospectives of Picasso (organized by William Rubin in 1980) and Matisse (organized by John Elderfield in 1993). It is, I believe, a record without parallel in the history of modern museology.

And now, with the Matisse Picasso extravaganza organized by John Golding, John Elderfield and colleagues in London, Paris and New York, the record has been capped by what is surely the most astonishing of all the Matisse and Picasso shows we have seen. It takes the study of “influence,” which so easily lends itself to the deadliest forms of pedantry, and elevates it to a level of comparative aesthetics seldom attempted in large-scale exhibitions. One of the immediate consequences of the exhibition’s comparative installation is that it compels us to see even in the most familiar masterpieces-Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1905-6), for example, and Matisse’s View of Notre-Dame (1914)-certain things we may not have given sufficient attention to on previous encounters. Getting to see Matisse through Picasso’s eyes and Picasso through Matisse’s can be a fairly heady experience, and it’s on offer in this exhibition at almost every turn.

Are some of the juxtaposed examples of Matisse and Picasso a little forced, perhaps? Well, yes. Most of the time the failed comparisons hardly matter, but sometimes they do. A more appropriate Matisse to hang beside Picasso’s Les Demoiselles would have been Le Bonheur de Vivre (1905-6), which is in the collection of the Barnes Foundation. Unfortunately, the Barnes does not rent. The work selected for that position, Bathers with a Turtle (1908), is a wonderful painting, but it doesn’t tell us anything about Picasso’s shocked response to Le Bonheur de Vivre -the shock that prompted the creation of Les Demoiselles .

It has to be said, too, that the final wall in the show closes Matisse Picasso on a rather grim note. Picasso’s The Shadow (1953) is one of the artist’s feeblest late paintings. Matisse’s Violinist at the Window (1918) is no masterpiece, either, though it’s vastly superior to the Picasso. All they have in common is the feeling of melancholy they evoke-an odd way to end such a triumphant exhibition.

Never mind. This is a great exhibition, and if only for the marvelous section devoted to portraits-which includes, besides Picasso’s Gertrude Stein , Matisse’s Portrait of Auguste Pellerin II (1917), Portrait of Greta Prozor (1916) and Portrait of Madame Matisse (1913), among other masterpieces-I would happily visit this show every day of the week. The voluminous catalog is itself a masterwork of critical scholarship. You can learn more about the art history of the period covered in this show from certain extended “notes” in the catalog than from some of the standard reference books.

Matisse Picasso remains on view at the Museum of Modern Art in Queens, 33rd Street at Queens Boulevard in Long Island City, through May 19. The show is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. For information on hours and tickets, call 212-708-9431 or consult the museum Web site at http://www.moma.org.