Mouthwatering Perspectives

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Review of exhibition 'Matisse Picasso' at Tate Modern, London

This exhibition has been acclaimed as 'momentous' and 'tremendous' and 'the first major exhibition of the 21st century'. For once, it is an event that lives up to the hype. The masterpieces are worth the pricey £10 entrance fee by themselves. But seeing Matisse and Picasso's works placed next to each other, seeing how they learnt from and fed off each other across the decades, is a revelation.

The paintings and sculptures are exhibited as though they are in conversation, and sometimes argument, with each other. Matisse commented that the two men were as 'different as the North Pole is from the South Pole'. Matisse was neat and careful while Picasso was wild and unruly. Their art is usually seen as just as divergent as their personalities--Picasso, the master drawer, an artist of fragmentation and new perspectives; Matisse, the artist of colour and decoration, whose paintings are full of life and harmony.

When they first met in Paris in 1906, Matisse was leader of the avant-garde Fauve movement while Picasso had not long arrived from his native Spain and was just establishing his reputation. A period of intense rivalry and artistic innovation opened up. Both men revisited the classical nudes painted by the great French classical painter Ingres in the early 19th century. He painted women in exotic, eastern settings and Matisse's reworking of them became known as the 'Odalisques'. They were a perfect subject through which Matisse could explore the decorative Islamic styles that influenced him so heavily.

In contrast, Picasso was influenced by African art and his nudes, situated in brothels, became increasingly aggressive, confrontational figures. At other times his nudes adopt classical poses and are sensuous and erotic.

Their still-life paintings also show their differences. Matisse delighted in painting serene and joyful pictures, based on the use of bright and beautiful colours. His work does not expose details of his own life. His lemons are lemons, oysters are oysters, goldfish are goldfish.

Picasso's still-life paintings are full of skulls that remind us of our mortality and overt images of sexuality. They tell you about the artist, his state of mind, his desires. One extraordinary painting called 'Large Still Life on a Pedestal Table' is full of erotic curves and phallic shapes. It was painted soon after Picasso met a new, young lover.

In the years before the First World War, Matisse developed from outrageous fauvist to respected leader of his own academy. He used colour and space to great effect creating vibrant, exciting paintings. Picasso, on the other hand, worked with his great friend Georges Braque to break new ground. Together, they developed cubism. Cubism was characterised by muted colours and fragmented images. It developed a way of presenting an object or a person from many different perspectives at the same time. Matisse commented, 'Picasso shatters forms, I am their servant.'

Yet even though they were exploring different styles, Picasso's canvases show the patterns and decorative shapes that were strongly identified with Matisse. And Matisse, in his portraits of Yvonne Landsberg and Madame Matisse, showed that he was influenced by cubist ideas of shape and structure. The two artists were in a creative dialogue with each other. The relationship between the two men is shown in two pictures painted in 1941. Both men are responding to the Nazi occupation of France. Picasso lived through what he called these 'dark and dismal days' in Paris, under constant surveillance, painting dark still life pictures that constantly alluded to death and disaster. The 'Still Life with a Sausage', for example, shows a simple meal that is actually deeply sinister, full of threatening violence and disembodied limbs.

Matisse lived in the south of France, but his wife worked for the Resistance in Paris. He responded to the Nazis and his own cancer, diagnosed in 1941, with ever more exuberant celebrations of the joys of flowers and fruits and above all of colour. His 'Still Life with a Magnolia' is a luscious reaffirmation of life. In their very different ways, both these paintings contain a sense of resistance and hunger for freedom.

In old age, their rivalry turned into a friendship, albeit a grumbling, cantankerous one. They must have been a bit like the odd couple. When Matisse died, Picasso was devastated. He lost both a friend and a source of the inspiration that helped him develop his wonderful art.

Picasso's 'Studio at La Californie' was painted in 1955, months after Matisse's death. It is a painting of loss and grief, full of references to Matisse, with open windows looking out onto a garden. But they are painted in the dark shades of mourning rather than Matisse's characteristic bright colours.

Picasso once said, 'You've got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse's paintings more closely than I and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.' This exhibition is worth looking at very, very carefully. It is exuberant, mouth watering, beautiful and challenging.