At the height of their contest for Cezanne’s mantle as the leader of the French avant-garde, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso agreed to swap pictures. Over the previous two years, Paris’ leading provocateur Matisse had steadily ceded ground to the newcomer Picasso, until the fall of 1907, when the two men were deadlocked.
Matisse selected Picasso’s still-life "Pitcher, Bowl and Lemon," a jagged composition of vertiginous angles, while Picasso opted for Matisse’s "Portrait of Marguerite," a seductively colored image of the artist’s eldest daughter. Picasso is said to have later used the canvas as a dartboard.
"Matisse and Picasso chose … the picture that was undoubtedly the least interesting either of them had done. Later each one used it as an example, the picture he had chosen, of the weaknesses of the other one," Gertrude Stein wrote in her memoir "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas."
Now, the two pictures have been reunited in the first gallery of the eagerly awaited blockbuster "Matisse Picasso," which recently opened at MoMA QNS. Their striking stylistic disparity sets the tone for a dazzling exhibition of 132 paintings, drawings and sculptures assembled by an international team of curators. This cascade of astute juxtapositions reduces the cacophony of 20th century art into a unique visual dialogue between two great masters.
The curators source much of the raison d’tre of the exhibition in Picasso’s retrospective words, "No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I, and no one has ever looked at mine more carefully than he." Though Matisse (1869-1954) and Picasso (1881-1973) ended up by the early 1950s as old friends living in the south of France, Stein might have objected to MoMA’s tendency to sugarcoat the fierceness of the early years of their relationship.
Gertrude Stein was one of the essential eyewitnesses of this intense period of modern art, when artists continually invented new styles and revolutions happened at breakneck speed. She is also the most famous member of two Jewish American families that made crucial contributions in supporting the artists just as their reputations were beginning to soar.
"It’s clear Gertrude Stein was enormously influential in the early years with the two of them," said John Elderfield, MoMA’s chief curator at large, who is organizing the exhibition with Kirk Varhedoe. "When Picasso first met her there were a great many Matisses already hanging on her walls, something that fueled this great relationship." Stein’s brother Leo, with whom she lived in their famous apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Montparnasse, was one of Matisse’s first supporters, purchasing "Woman with Hat" and other canvases in 1905. When the young Picasso first visited, at the invitation of Leo, the Steins’ Saturday evening salon, he confronted the daunting sight of several prized Matisses displayed alongside those of Cezanne.
The young upstart, recently arrived from Barcelona and not yet fluent in French, decided to paint Gertrude Stein’s portrait and win his place on their wall. And so the rivalry began before Matisse and Picasso had even met in person. Picasso’s "Portrait of Gertrude Stein" (1906) required dozens of challenging sittings over three months, until the frustrated artist erased Stein’s face and replaced it from memory in the form of an old Iberian mask, an important moment in his development of cubism. The portrait of the solid, self-confident Jewish lesbian writer also witnesses Stein’s role as spirited referee and instigator.
"Matisse and Picasso were competing for the Steins’ patronage and approbation, and for the avant-garde crown. Gertrude fanned the agon between them," writes Natasha Staller in her recent book "A Sum of Destructions: Picasso’s Cultures and the Creation of Cubism."
The exhibition, as an exploration of images, does not dwell on the provenance of the paintings. But many essential pictures from the first two decades were owned by either the Stein family or by a pair of sisters, Dr. Clarabel and Etta Cone. Several Matisses, including his introspective "Self-portrait" (1906) were once part of the collection of Gertrude’s brother Michael and sister-in-law Sarah. They had to sell off their paintings to a Danish collector when the First World War broke out and the works, on view in Germany, could not be returned to France.
The Cone sisters, at the behest of their friend Gertrude Stein, also purchased other key paintings by Picasso and Matisse, including the latter’s famously grotesque "Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra" (1907). The Cones donated their collection to their hometown Baltimore Museum of Art. And Stein formerly owned her portrait, now at the Metropolitan Museum, and Picasso’s cryptic "Boy Leading a Horse" (1906), now at MoMA.
"Matisse Picasso" arrives in New York in slightly altered form, smaller than its previous incarnations in London and Paris, but even more loaded with masterpieces. Neither Picasso’s groundbreaking "Les Demoiselles d’Avignon" (1907) nor Matisse’s satirical response "Bathers with a Turtle" (1908) appeared in the European shows, but here they are side-by-side, crystallizing the two artists’ strengths and differences. Picasso announced his turn to Cubism and fragmentation, while Matisse reiterated his commitment to preserving the contours of the body. After the "Demoiselles," Leo, Michael and Sarah Stein, as well as the Cone sisters, lost interest in the tempestuous Picasso and continued to support the more genteel Matisse. Only Gertrude favored the younger artist, comparing his prismatic style with the fractured prose of her own "word-portraits" of both Matisse and Picasso.
The factual accuracy of "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," composed in a clever narration that masks her authorship, is disputed, but based on the frequency with which it is quoted in art historical scholarship, the book fulfills Picasso’s famous prophecy about his portrait of Stein. "Everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will."
Overshadowed by his sister’s self-promotion, Leo Stein felt slighted and aimed to set the record straight with his own autobiography "Appreciation," published the year after her death in 1946. Picasso and Matisse were also upset at the inaccuracies and slights in the autobiography, says Elderfield. "They felt betrayed." But that was more a consequence of their three great egos. "How many can you have in one place?" Elderfield says.
Just two, it seems. In "Matisse Picasso," Gertrude Stein, along with other great writers and artists, like Georges Braque, AndrÈ Derain and Guillaume Apollinaire, who each exercised enormous influence on Picasso and Matisse, are excused from the dance floor, where only two can tango.
"Matisse Picasso" runs through May 19 at MoMA QNS, 33 Street at Queens Boulevard, Long Island City. (212) 708-9400. Mon., Thurs. and Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Fri. and Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. $20, $15.50.