Through May 19, 2003
What seems to upset some critics about the blockbuster exhibition Matisse Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art's temporary Long Island City space is the very fact that it's a blockbuster. The crowds are thick with people roaming the halls and saying all sorts of naïve and astonishing things about the paintings.
They are being drawn not just by the paintings themselves, but by the premise of the show. That premise is that the friendship and rivalry between the two artists produced inspiration, and that this inspiration can be seen by comparing how each artist approached similar subjects: the still life, the artist's studio, the portrait, and so on.
I admit that it's a silly premise on which to hang an appreciation of works of art by two of the world's modern masters. Shouldn't it be enough to hang the paintings and let the public come and appreciate the works of art as art, without having to pin all this drama - the hint of jealously, the odor of competition - on the work? That's what I thought when I first saw the show last year, at the Tate Modern in London.
The Tate Modern is an imposing modern structure, and its high ceilings gave the show a majestic feeling that seems missing at MOMA's relatively gritty post-industrial space. At the Tate Modern, you really did get a sense of the aura that Walter Benjamin talks about with regard to works of art, this sense that you are in the presence of unique, original works, unreproducable and without peer. That sense doesn't exactly leave you at MOMA, but it's different. The ceilings seem lower, which gives a sense of intimacy with the art that was missing in London.
This intimacy helps inspire a certain relaxed atmosphere in this version of the exhibition, allowing the public to approach the paintings in a way that seems more relaxing than in the London version. One can argue with the preachy element of this show, but it is based on the fact that Picasso and Matisse were friends, their relationship having stretched over half a century. You can get a good glimpse of the quality of this friendship from reading Life with Picasso by Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964). I'm all for whatever circus tricks get the public into museums to see modern art, and the legendary lives of these artists are as much an attraction for many people as is the art itself. Besides, when we're dealing with artists of this stature, whose works sell for millions of dollars, all the carping about the song-and-dance element behind a show like this seems like posturing. If the complaint has something to do with the crassness of marketing, let's get this straight: in the contest between modern art and the market, the market has won. The purpose of the blockbuster show is to get as many people into the museum as possible. They're selling tickets to Matisse Picasso in half-hour slots. You can ignore the preachy wall signs, forget the little hand-held audio tour gadgets, and just look at the paintings. That will be work enough.
At the Tate Modern, I was exhausted at this show half-way through, but I trudged on. Despite the sensory overload, the pure sensuality and beauty at work was nearly overwhelming. There are 132 works in this show, including some seventy-eight paintings, twenty-three sculptures, twenty-nine works on paper, and two woodcuts, all spread through five galleries of the museum.
I came away from this show with even more confirmed in my appreciation of Matisse as a great colorist, and of Picasso as a great, an outstanding draftsman. But this is axiomatic. Everybody will have his or her standout, memorable paintings and sculptures from this show. It's hard not to. And any listing done here will be incomplete. Famous paintings, like Picasso's Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1905-1906), Matisse's The Piano Lesson (1916), stand along many paintings rarely seen in New York. Among the paintings I was delighted to see in this show were the Picasso's Three Dancers (1921), with its sheer magnificence. It is a portrait that evokes the sense of watching a syncopated ballet of the sort that Picasso was designing sets for in the years around World War I. The Studio, quai Saint Michel (1914-1915) by Matisse, is a mysterious commentary on the artist's quest to capture what he or she sees. And Matisse's intriguing bronze, Two Women (Two Negresses) (1908), evokes the theme of exoticism which is one of the basic ones of this show. One of the problems with trying to digest an exhibition as rich as this one is that all the themes of modernist art are on display here. If you want to explore how notions of"primitivism," the myths of late colonialism, and the awakening interest in the cultures of Africa Asia in the first half of the twentieth century among European artists all figured in the creation of modern culture, this is one place where you'll find many of the canonical works involved in that discussion.
Many of the other themes of modern art are here as well, and you can have fun rehearsing each and every one of them as you wander through this exhibition. At the same time, you can simply forget all that and just look at the paintings, at the sheer verve with which these two masters applied their artistic conceptions. One of the ideas the curators seem interested in here is that of the heroic artist. It is an idea that endures, no matter how sharply it comes under the critical gaze of scholars and art writers. I suspect it endures because we need some heroes who are such for reasons having nothing to do with violence. In that sense, the artist remains the most enduring (anti) hero of our age. Picasso, whose violence was limited to his art and to his mean personality, and Matisse, who seems never to have expressed a violent thought in his life, seem like a perfect duo for this purpose.
Matisse Picasso is a good place to get your basic primer on the history of modern art, and the themes the curators chose to focus on really are popular ones. We should, by now, get used to the idea that art exhibitions like this one have become grand spectator events, like sports competitions. Whatever our justified complaints about this - how it helps some rich people become richer, and all that - should be tempered by the idea that the leveling effect of such blockbuster shows has a beneficial effect as well. For one thing, it makes it easier to have intelligent conversations about art with a wider range of people. And that can't but be a good thing.