Matisse and Picasso achieved extraordinary prominence during their lifetimes. They have become cultural icons, standing not only for different kinds of art but also for different ways of living. Matisse, known for his restraint and intense sense of privacy, for his decorum and discretion, created an art that transcended daily life and conveyed a sensuality that inhabited an abstract and ethereal realm of being. In contrast, Picasso became the exemplar of intense emotionality, of theatricality, of art as a kind of autobiographical confession that was often charged with violence and explosive eroticism. In Matisse and Picasso, Jack Flam explores the compelling, competitive, parallel lives of these two artists and their very different attitudes toward the idea of artistic greatness, toward the women they loved, and ultimately toward their confrontations with death.
Timed to coincide roughly with the opening of the blockbuster Matisse-Picasso exhibition's third and final stop, at New York's MoMA QNS , this volume examines the enmity and amity between the 20th century's two greatest painters, mostly as evidenced by their art. Despite the subtitle, Flam, who brilliantly edited Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, is much less interested in the endlessly chronicled lives of his subjects than in the work; sentences like "When Matisse returned from Morocco that spring, he was full of turbulent emotions, and he created some of his most memorable and original works" simply serve as transitions to the next phase of work on which Flam is terrific. In one passage, he finds the word "NON" ("a symmetrical word that asserts its negation in both directions") painted into the window grillwork between the husband-and-wife of Matisse's 1912 Conversation a word that had been showing up in Picasso's work for the previous year. Flam locates similarly productive appropriations and reappropriations between the two painters over the years, so that anyone standing in line for the exhibition in Queens will profit from at least flipping through this direct, jargon-free study.