Milestones: Picasso vs Matisse

Conflict breeds creativity. Some of the most famous cultural achievements throughout history have been borne out of life-long rivalries. Although undoubtedly geniuses in their own right, James Hunt may never have won Formula 1 were it not for Niki Lauda; Mozart may never have composed The Magic Flute were it not for Salieri; Steve Jobs may never have come up with the iPad were it not for Bill Gates.

One such creative rivalry was that betweenthe two painters, HenriMatisse and Pablo Picasso. Both of them lived in Paris in the early 20thcentury, members of a wide network of highly creative personalities, including Surrealist figures such as the poet André Breton and the painter Salvador Dalí. Both were trying to forge the new cultural direction in the plastic arts, revolutionising artistic practices.

Matisse, eleven years Picasso’s senior, was the first painter to create ‘ugly’ art. This inspired Picasso to break completely from artistic prec- edent and paint works that were disjointed, challenging, and far from aesthetically pleas- ing. The same year that Matisse painted hisBlue Nude, Picasso produced one of his most famous paintings, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,both of which were radical departures from traditional European painting in their portrayal of women as grotesque, confrontational and menacing. Matisse in turn borrowed from Picasso, incor- porating African artefacts in his paintings, for example in the portrait of his wife, Madame Amélie Matisse, in which she wears a tribal African mask.

That is not to say that Matisse and Picasso were similar as men. For one thing, Matisse  was a Frenchman and Picasso, a Spaniard. In addition, Matisse normally wore a simple tweed suit, whereas Picasso preferred a worker’s uni- form; Matisse had one wife for 41 years, while Picasso had scores of mistresses; Matisse liked to launch into conceptual discussions about art that would captivate the room, whereas Picasso shied away from speaking, self- conscious about his spoken French. Matisse once said of him and his rival that they were “as different as the North Pole is from the South Pole”.

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What they did have in common was the hatred they received from contemporaries. Critics accused Matisse of painting “reptilian” figures and one said of him and his fellow Fauvists: “All they give us in the way of sun- light is trouble with the retina.” Picasso was not spared either: his friends were so dismissive of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon that he decided not to exhibit it, little knowing that it would come to define modern art. However, their rivalry gave them a means with which to take encouragement from one another and shoulder the negative public recep- tion of their paintings: they were each other’s main critics.

Despite their turbulent relationship, Matisse had great respect for his counterpart, saying, “Only one person has the right to criticize me. It’s Picasso.” Picasso had similar heart-warming words to say about Matisse: at the end of his life he told the world, “All things considered, there is only Matisse.” Rivalries can be frustrating and all-consuming, but they can also be the big- gest spark for creativity. So maybe it’s healthy to have a Trotsky to your Stalin, a Pepsi to your Coke, a Cambridge to your Oxford.