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Spanish lessons

Two New York exhibitions make plain the debt that Modern French painting owes the artists of Spain.

May 11, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

New York — For art, everyone knows that France was modernity's launching pad.

Now consider this: Modern French painting would have been nowhere without Spain. Absolutely nowhere.

That is the provocative lesson -- partly intended, partly inadvertent -- offered by two ambitious museum exhibitions in New York that just happen to coincide this spring. French painting, absent a massive injection of artistic input from the Iberian Peninsula, would likely have withered on the vine somewhere around 1842, mired in tired academic arguments. The work of Spanish painters offered something new, pertinent and vivifying, and its impact was felt right through World War I.

"Manet/Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting" is the show that tackles the subject head-on. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 226 paintings and works on paper have been gathered in one of the most richly satisfying exhibitions of recent memory. If you love painting, see "Manet/Velazquez" -- or live to regret it.

At the Museum of Modern Art's temporary outpost in Queens, meanwhile, "Matisse Picasso" charts the fitful interaction between two titans of 20th century painting -- one French, the other Spanish. It starts in 1906, when the two artists began to meet with some regularity, and it examines 34 pairs (or larger groups) of works arranged in a loose chronology. (Matisse died in 1954, Picasso not for another 19 years.) The exhibition doesn't have the broad aim of the Met show, restricting itself instead to an influential artistic dialogue. But together the exhibitions suggest that the transformational impact of Spanish art in 19th century France partly paved the way for Picasso's profound impact on 20th century Paris.


Not surprisingly, given the protagonists, there's a lot of great painting to be seen in "Matisse Picasso" -- that is, presuming you can get past the crush of visitors crowding the galleries. Oddly, it may be the thinnest exhibition with the fattest retinue of great paintings ever mounted. Halfway through, the show feels less like a probing dialogue between gifted, and hugely ambitious, artists than like a celebrity smackdown. "Who won the competition?" is an inevitable, if not very productive, question to find yourself pondering.

Matisse and Picasso were certainly competitive -- "They were friends but enemies," wrote the poet, collector and salon diva Gertrude Stein, wielding a typically incisive oxymoron -- and nowhere more than in the first decade of their prickly mutual regard. Matisse, 12 years Picasso's senior, was a newly established art star when they met. The leading painter of the Fauve movement, considered art's cutting edge, he had just finished "The Joy of Life." The vividly chromatic, voluptuous vision of a lush Arcadia upped the ante of Cezanne's revered paintings of bathers.

Young Picasso was nonplused. He soon embarked on a painting whose subject was also voluptuous nudes, but of a rougher, less Edenic sort. His pleasure grove consisted of dames in a brothel -- "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," the young ladies of a red-light district in Barcelona.

Matisse's "Joy of Life" isn't in the show (Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation does not lend), but his wild 1907 "Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra" is. Its chunky reclining nude under a palm has a roller-coaster contour, bluntly carved from color and outlined in indigo-black. She possesses a ferocity hitherto unseen in Matisse.

Picasso flipped.

Introduced to African sculpture by Matisse, Picasso repainted his demoiselles and added African masks and lozenge-shaped heads derived from ancient Iberian sculpture. The prostitutes glare out at a viewer -- cast in the role of customer or madam -- in an audacious confrontation. Picasso was tearing Western painting down to its foundations to rebuild from scratch. Matisse saw the painting in Picasso's studio. He hated it.

The show's knockout moment comes early. "Les Demoiselles" hangs next to Matisse's brilliant retort, "Bathers With a Turtle." Actually, the moment makes the entire show worth seeing, though the pairing is closer to a draw than a knockout for either artist. Picasso's painting unlocked the door to Cubism, which sent art off into a whole new direction, and it deserves its status as liftoff for the 20th century. But Matisse's picture is an enigmatic marvel, an unprecedented tour de force.

And it sure is weird. Matisse had just returned from Italy, where he'd been mesmerized by Giotto's frescoes at Padua's Arena Chapel, and the new work features mottled color and Giotto-like simplicity. On a strip of grass by the sea, three monumental bathers stop to feed a turtle. Strongly vertical, the three figures are woven against three horizontal bands of color -- earth, ocean, sky. No figure touches any other. They're like notes on a musical staff.

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