Matisse and Picasso: artistic rivals at National Gallery of Australia's summer blockbuster

National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich, head of international art Jane Kinsman, and Musee National Picasso-Paris director Laurent Le Bon standing in front of Large nude on a red chair, 1929, by Pablo Picasso. Picture: Jamila Toderas
National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich, head of international art Jane Kinsman, and Musee National Picasso-Paris director Laurent Le Bon standing in front of Large nude on a red chair, 1929, by Pablo Picasso. Picture: Jamila Toderas

Years after Henri Matisse's death, Pablo Picasso said: "Nobody ever looked at Matisse's work as thoroughly as I did. And he at mine."

It is this 50-year relationship between the two artists that is explored in the National Gallery of Australia's summer blockbuster Matisse & Picasso, which opens on Friday.

"In 1906 Matisse and Picasso meet for the first time, and for the proceeding five decades a fabulous and intriguing relationship played out," National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich said.

"Each used the other as an artistic foil and drew inspiration from their rivalry, which spurred their creative brilliance to even greater heights. This creative friction - over half a century of artistic rivalry - turned the art world as we knew it on its head.

"What you see here is two artists that influenced the 20th century in such different ways.

"Matisse building on and meditating on a subject, or Picasso being immediate. In the end, they both produced works of art that changed how we saw art."

Seated odalisque, 1926, by Henri Matisse. Picture: Supplied

Seated odalisque, 1926, by Henri Matisse. Picture: Supplied

With more than 200 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, illustrated books and costumes, the exhibition traces how the turbulent and intriguing relationship between Picasso and Matisse not only influenced their careers but also the evolution of art in the 20th century.

The gallery's head of international art, Jane Kinsmen, spent three years curating the exhibition, however, the journey to Matisse & Picasso began long before that.

Continuing on from former gallery director James Mollison's legacy of building the institution's collection, Ms Kinsmen added to the holdings of both Matisse and Picasso.

That provided a solid base to then borrow 63 works for the exhibition from 22 private and public collections around the world. These included works from the Tate in London, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Musee National Picasso-Paris.

"We don't see shows like this every day and we're so pleased to be like a garden dwarf among all of these lenders and to have this opportunity to display some of the masterpieces of the Musee National Picasso-Paris," Musee National Picasso-Paris director Laurent Le Bon said.

Musee National Picasso-Paris director Laurent Le Bon in front of Nude in a rocking chair, 1956, by Pablo Picasso. Picture: Jamila Toderas

Musee National Picasso-Paris director Laurent Le Bon in front of Nude in a rocking chair, 1956, by Pablo Picasso. Picture: Jamila Toderas

"When we began to open again, the museum in Paris in 2014 - it was closed for five years - we put [as our name] the term Musee National Picasso-Paris.

"It has got nothing to do with nationalism. It only has something to do with universal. We wanted to say again that the collection is for everyone and especially for your country."

The exhibition depicts Matisse and Picasso's relationship in three stages. The first depicts the artists - and their differences - when they first met The second explores the "boxing match" between their approaches to cubism, while the third looks at the years surrounding Matisse's death in 1954.

"The artists came from different worlds - they were worlds apart," Ms Kinsmen said.

"The artist Picasso was a child prodigy, much younger than Matisse, who comes from Spain and is determined to make a name for himself.

"Matisse has been struggling to become a radical artist and is just about to make it to the leadership of avant-garde in France when Picasso turns up. That began a relationship [of] about 50 years.

"Initially, it was one of contention - Matisse did not like Picasso turning up and undermining his own role. Whereas Picasso was determined to make a name for himself and make his own style of art."

Still life with sleeping woman [Nature morte à la dormeuse], 1940, by Henri Matisse. Picture: Supplied

Still life with sleeping woman [Nature morte à la dormeuse], 1940, by Henri Matisse. Picture: Supplied

The exhibition also examines the role which French post-impressionist artist Paul Cezanne played in the "battle" between the two artists.

While Cezanne died in 1906, both were influenced by the artist and aimed to be his heir.

"Picasso took the ideas of Cezanne - that great master of French art - his notions of forms and cubes and the idea of arranging work in a multifaceted way, whereas Matisse took the notion of depicting space with colour," Ms Kinsmen said.

"First of all they were at odds with each other, but then they started to borrow from each other and you can see in the second stage of cubism just how that happens."

This enduring symbiosis continued after Matisse's death in 1954, as Picasso's remembrance for his peer continued to reveal itself in his art. This remembrance, however, took some time.

"Picasso, after Matisse's death, didn't do anything," Ms Kinsmen said.

"He didn't go to the funeral, he ignored Matisse's family and then suddenly, a little while after the funeral, Picasso started doing these wonderful painted homages to Matisse.

"That's in the last room where you see him taking the subjects and the content of Matisse and then adding a twist of his own interpretation, to leave a lasting, lingering memory of the relationship of Matisse and Picasso."

  • Matisse & Picasso is at the National Gallery of Australia from December 13 until April 13. Tickets are $28 from Ticketek.
This story Matisse and Picasso: artistic rivals at National Gallery of Australia first appeared on The Canberra Times.