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An eye for an eye

Matisse and Picasso: The Story of Their Rivalry and Friendship, Jack Flam, Westview Press: 276 pp., $27.50

March 09, 2003|Barbara Probst Solomon | Barbara Probst Solomon is the cultural correspondent for El Pais in the United States and is the author of numerous books, including "Smart Hearts in the City."

In "Matisse and Picasso," Jack Flam, the international authority on Matisse, writes with marvelous ease about the most productive and celebrated art volley of the 20th century. In this elegant account, he examines the artists' different ideas about painting, their attitudes toward their wives and mistresses, and the intense eroticism that informed their work.

Flam gets the essential story right, which museums, limited by what work is available and their overly creative curating, frequently do not. He correctly identifies the beginning of this extraordinary relationship as 1905, when Gertrude and Leo Stein bought Matisse's "The Woman With the Hat" after discovering it at the Salon d'Automne's progressive art show. But as the painting isn't in the current Museum of Modern Art "Matisse Picasso" exhibit, this crucial moment, when the young Picasso was overwhelmed by the older artist's transgression, is omitted from its explanation of how things began.

At the Salon d'Automne's show, "The Woman With the Hat" shocked Paris. The work seemed wild, fragmented, the paint applied in a savage way. "A new and undiscovered territory was opening up -- a vast terrain in the Land of the Ugly, in which traditional aesthetic values seemed to be reversed, and in which ugliness seemed to be replacing beauty as the most essential element in art," Flam points out. "Or maybe it was that from within the depths of this apparent ugliness, a terrible new beauty was being born."

Picasso at 24 wasn't yet part of "the new ugliness." The "savage" Matisse painting occupying the place of honor at the Steins' (Picasso had met Leo through Henri-Pierre Roche, the author of "Jules et Jim") stunned him -- he was still painting his dreamy acrobats. Matisse suffered the humiliation of genteel poverty. Amelie Matisse supported the family by making hats, and one wonders if the emotional "savagery" of "The Woman With the Hat" portrait of her, in which the ungainly hat dominates the woman's face, wasn't in part his rage at being poor. "Le Bonheur de Vivre" was still more daring. Flam writes: "It seems at once to be not only a summation and synthesis of the whole of Western painting, but also a sustained attack on it.... The painting largely deconstructs its nominally pastoral subject matter -- a garden of earthly delights.... [Matisse] was now using color in an important new way, as an equivalent for the sensation of light."

When the abstract expressionists of the New York School were riding high in the mid-20th century, Flam took the unfashionable view that painting was far from dead, and the human form was not to be so easily jettisoned. Instead he found a new vocabulary, a new way of looking at painting's place in modernist art. The ultimate painting problem would focus on ways in which the human figure could be represented in a subjective, nearly abstract way and still have its human content be convincing. In "Matisse and Picasso," he backs up this point of view with a quote from Gertrude Stein: "If you do not solve your painting problem in painting human beings you do not solve it at all."

Stimulated by Matisse's land-of-the-ugly wake-up call, Picasso went to Gosol, a mountain town in Catalonia, to rethink in a more complicated way his portrait of Gertrude Stein. Then, swiftly, by 1907, Picasso and Braque became the Wright brothers of Cubism; Picasso triumphed in his own Land of the Ugly with "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon."

Flam has a roomy mind -- he pays attention to details that myriad writers have neglected, such as the sounds Picasso heard. He makes a point of Picasso's extreme difficulty with language -- he had to switch from Andalusian (very southern) Spanish, to Catalan, to French. In addition, during his formative years, the family moved to Galicia, where he had to learn to communicate in the Galician dialect. He was also drawn to women who had foreign accents. Olga Koklova, his first wife, was Russian; Gertrude Stein's French was as mangled as his own. One might add that Dora Maar, his longtime mistress, was raised in Argentina, and Jacqueline, his second wife, had the comforting accent of the Midi.

By 1910 Picasso, not Matisse, was occupying the place of honor at the Steins'. In the modern art world, only Matisse seemed able to resist Picasso's stunning leap into Cubism -- the Cubists were being hailed as the sole heirs to Cezanne. What's more, Matisse's marriage was on the rocks; to save it he had to give up his adored Russian mistress, Olga Merson. In that bleak frame of mind, Matisse left Collioure, where he had been painting. He spent part of the year in Andalusia, and the following one in Tangier.

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