An eye for an eye

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.

Flam quite sensibly ignores the exaggerated claims MoMA made some years back in its rather kitschy "Matisse in Morocco" show, which emphasized place as the reason for the imaginative leap that led Matisse to synthesize the reality of nature into the unfinished look of his abstracts. Picasso's view was: "In the end, the only thing that counts is what comes from yourself. It's the sun in the belly with a thousand rays.... Matisse is Matisse. Because he's got this sun in his belly." Apropos of Matisse's travels, he skeptically remarked to an interviewer that the essential elements of landscape and light could be found right on the banks of the Marne.

Having spent the summers of my youth on the conch-shaped beach at Collioure with its famed amazing blazing light, and chunks of my life in Spain and Morocco, I also find it hard to believe that Matisse, who was used to working in Collioure (and already had spent considerable time in the south of Spain the previous year) would be so overwhelmed by the light in Morocco, which, anyway, he never got to see. There were violent insurrections going on, and Matisse was stuck in a Tangier hotel during most of his stay. (The day after he left, an entire European colony was slaughtered.) Matisse wrote to friends: "Ah, Tanger, Tanger! Je voudrais bien avoir le courage de foutre mon camp" (I would really like to have the courage to get the hell out of here).

More to the point, in Matisse's Andalusian-Tangier period, he was circling Picasso's home territory. Tangier, Seville, Cordoba and Malaga are within spitting distance, in the part of the world once known as Al Andalus. Picasso always claimed that Matisse's luminous "Basket of Oranges," which he bought, was his. He meant on the profoundest level it belonged to him. Artistically, the painting unifies as the holy trinity of modern art the achievements of Cezanne with those of Picasso and Matisse.

Picasso, with his canny intelligence, had to be delighted that Matisse spent a good part of two years sniffing around his turf -- he painted "Oranges" in his Tangier hotel room, just a ferry ride away from Malaga. The tablecloth in the painting evokes equally a Malaga or Tangier kitchen. Matisse always mixed elements from here and there -- his draped Seville shmattes pop up as an idea in his later work. When I look at Matisse's "Moroccan Cafe," painted four years later, its multiple arches remind me of the Mezquita at Cordoba, with its breathtaking run of arches and brilliant patio of orange trees. Alfred H. Barr Jr., in "Matisse: His Art and His Public," remarks that Matisse blotted out the lines of slippers originally in the work. In my mind, slippers left at the door have to do with a mosque, not a cafe. It had to have crossed Matisse's mind that a "Spanish or Andalusian period" so rooted in Picasso's home territory at a time when Picasso was riding so high might be awkward; a Moroccan one was OK. We can never know exactly why Picasso and Matisse felt so emotional about Matisse's annual New Year's gift of oranges to Picasso. But the gesture, like Picasso's total appropriation of "Oranges," was part of the creative, often verbally mute, volley between the two men, spurring each to make greater art.

By the early 1930s, Picasso and Matisse were again in high volley form, stealing magnificently from each other, this time vying in depicting outrageous erotic content and the wounds of desire, as though sotto voce stealing each other's mistresses, lovemaking and identity. Picasso's ferocious concentration on seeing, peeking and viewing (he was besotted with Marie-Therese Walter) found expression in his daring erotic sculptures of her and engravings for Ovid's "Metamorphoses" and Balzac's "The Unknown Masterpiece." Flam, whose church was never pure abstraction, is tremendously smart about this period.

In Hemingway's own manuscript for "The Garden of Eden" (which I examined at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston), not the truncated version that was published, Picasso (called Picasso in the manuscript) is part of the continuous chain of collaboration existing between artist, artist's model, the studio and real-life lovemaking; the thread then passes on to the writer. Even when Picasso did collaborate, he remained in his interior being -- "Yo soy yo" -- the minotaur who could devour art and mistresses and still dance in the sun. Hemingway's shock at Picasso's blunt eroticism reminds us that, until relatively recently, these drawings were considered obscene and were not allowed to be shown. Braque remarked of him (there are various versions of the quote): "He wants to make us drink gasoline and swallow rope." Yet at the end of the day, when the returns are in, Picasso and Matisse both won the volley; their extraordinary game made 20th century art dance in the sun.


From Matisse and Picasso

Picasso worked by night, Matisse by day. This pattern, which each man maintained throughout most of his life, reflects essential aspects of their being. Picasso reveled in the darkness he sensed within himself, and he was fascinated by the abyss. Matisse, who was also constantly tormented by anxiety, sought light as an antidote to the darkness within himself and had a horror of the abyss.

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