Maxwell believes Matisse misinterpreted Picasso’s intent, thinking he was somehow doing Cezanne a great disservice. Yet they admired each other’s work – a shifting admiration that ebbed and flowed throughout their parallel careers, mixed with jealousy, rivalry and the inevitable clash of big, strong personalities. Yet they always collected each other’s work – and the exhibition features 60 paintings and sculptures, plus dozens more prints and drawings, that chart their interchanges and the significant effects this relationship had on the development of modern art.

Pablo Picasso, Still life [Nature mort], 1924.

Pablo Picasso, Still life [Nature mort], 1924.Credit:Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency

The men most likely met at the salons held by America-born siblings Leo and Gertrude Stein, intellectuals and art collectors who would invite thinkers and artists to their apartment for evenings of drinking and discourse. Matisse was a known commodity at these gatherings – but the young Picasso was the new, intriguing figure.

They were, says Maxwell, initially disapproving of each other’s approach. At the time, the ambitious Picasso was drawing on the heritage of the area of Paris where he was living – Toulouse Lautrec and Degas had preceded him in this – and he was exuberantly painting figures in bars, cabaret culture and scenes in brothels. Matisse, by contrast, was revelling in Fauvism – experimental use of colour and playing around with post-impressionism – evidenced in works such as The joy of life [Le Bonheur de vivre] 1905–06.

“Matisse is someone who was quite vocal,” Maxwell says. “He would write a lot of letters, write articles and was engaged in telling people what he thought on particular subjects – whereas, oddly, Picasso was quite the reverse.” While the Spaniard is often quoted as saying this or that, such thoughts were rarely recorded by the artist himself.

Matisse's 'Le torse de plâtre, bouquet de fleurs' (1919) (detail).

Matisse’s ‘Le torse de plâtre, bouquet de fleurs’ (1919) (detail). Credit:© Succession H. Matisse/Copyright Agency

Bringing the two men into conversation based on their work, but decades after their deaths, seemed a natural thing to Kinsman and Maxwell – and it follows a trend for curatorially inspired pairings (some unexpected) such as Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei or Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, both at the National Gallery of Victoria.

“It felt strange this story had never been told in Australia,” Maxwell says. “This is actually about a relationship that really happened. There have been plenty of Matisse and Picasso shows but this one is about a really important story that shapes the course of art history. This is the story of two artists and how they made each other better through the way they intersected.”

Kinsman writes in the catalogue that while the pair saw each other regularly after their first meeting – at the Steins’ apartment and at each other’s studios – Matisse considered that he and Picasso were “poles apart”  and that his role as a leading figure in radical French art was in jeopardy. But after their initial battle for supremacy, followed by “a period of intense borrowing”, the two artists began to respond to and feed off each other.

“Matisse felt he should reconsider what his talented rival had achieved and how Picasso’s radical approach could be applied to his own work,” Kinsman writes. “Picasso recognised Matisse’s power as a stellar colourist, whose layered forms were rich in textures.”

Maxwell says the exhibition charts these developments, showing how Picasso’s use of a very monotone palette changed as he introduced colour in response to Matisse. And Matisse, who had derisively referred to Picasso’s cubes, began to integrate more geometry into his work. “You can see how those two things grow,” Maxwell says.

“Sometimes they were critical to each other or behind each other’s backs, but they always appreciated each other and, in doing that, they always swapped paintings.” One way in which visitors will see both the distinctions and crossovers of influence between the two men is in their approach to portraiture, especially in the way it changes over their careers.

Pablo Picasso's Woman from Arles (Lee Miller) 1937.

Pablo Picasso’s Woman from Arles (Lee Miller) 1937.Credit:Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency 2019

Matisse was known for his more refined approach while Picasso is famed for rendering the faces of his models in a fractured, disjointed way – notably the 1939 portraits of Dora Maar. “He dissects his women, pulls their faces apart and puts them back together,” Maxwell says.

While Matisse was more likely to paint hired models or studio assistants (sometimes they had both roles), Picasso tended to paint his lovers. Much has been written about Picasso’s attitudes to women, but Maxwell says the portraits were at least consistent in their aesthetic approach. “He didn’t present women thinking it was an ugly image.”

One example was his painting of American photojournalist Lee Miller, which Maxwell describes as one of the exhibition’s showstoppers. When Picasso met her in 1937, he had come straight from an emotionally fraught time painting his anti-war masterpiece Guernica. But seeing Miller, described by Maxwell as not only a great photographer but a beautiful woman with an effervescent personality, Picasso was inspired. In Woman from Arles (Lee Miller), he painted her as he saw her; it is a brilliantly engaging portrait, but not the image of classical beauty most other artists would have produced.

Henri Matisse, Seated odalisque, 1926.

Henri Matisse, Seated odalisque, 1926.Credit:Succession H. Matisse/Copyright Agency  

While Maxwell says there may be misgivings about “another dead white male(s) show”, many women played pivotal roles in the lives of both Matisse and Picasso, influencing not only their lives but their artmaking.

And the way they were portrayed by these colossal figures in the art world was unlike anything that had been seen before. Gone were the passive, decorative and reclining figures of centuries past.

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As Maxwell notes, between them, Picasso and Matisse changed representations of the entire psychology of the relationship between artist and model.

Matisse & Picasso is at National Gallery of Australia, December 13 – April 13, 2020. nga.gov.au

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