It must have been tempting to call this exhibition Matisse v. Picasso, a bit like Batman v. Superman. The Australian public responds well to healthy competition, as demonstrated by the perennial mania for art prizes. Instead the National Gallery of Australia settled on the more dignified Matisse & Picasso as the title of its summer blockbuster.
Matisse and Picasso had a complex relationship. They were friends but also rivals who spurred each other on to new discoveries and innovations. Along with undeniable mutual respect there was also a degree of suspicion – an anxiety that one artist might steal the other’s good idea. Both men idolised Cézanne, and saw themselves as building upon his legacy.
Picasso was often scathing about other artists but could never dismiss Matisse. When the older man died in 1954, Picasso was visibly shaken, leading some critics to argue that his painting suffered an immediate decline. Nowadays we are less willing to write off those late Picassos but it’s true that the loss of his great foil and rival hit him hard.
The idea of pairing the two greatest artists of the modern era is not especially original. The definitive version – Matisse Picasso, was a joint production of Tate Modern, London; the Grand Palais, Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, between 2002-03. The idea has been revisited many times in books and smaller exhibitions.
It would be absurd to expect the NGA to match the standards set by that magisterial first show. The display is built around the gallery’s own holdings of Matisse and Picasso: mostly prints and drawings, plus costumes from the Ballet Russes collection. The NGA owns only a single painting by Matisse, The abduction of Europa (1929), and a small constructed picture by Picasso, Still life with mask (1937). Those works have been supplemented by loans from public and private collections.
From the Art Gallery of NSW comes Picasso’s Nude in a rocking chair (1956). The National Gallery of Victoria has been tapped for Matisse’s ever-popular, Reclining nude on a pink couch (1919). The Queensland Art Gallery has been generous in allowing Picasso’s Woman with parasol on the beach (1933), and arguably the masterpiece of its collection – Picasso’s La belle Hollandaise (1905) – to travel to Canberra. Kerry Stokes beats all the local lenders, having contributed three works by Picasso and one by Matisse.
The most impressive loans have been drawn from international museums such as the Musée Nationale Picasso in Paris; Tate Modern; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and other venues in the United States, Europe and Brazil. Some of these pieces are new to Australia, some have been seen before.
The obvious stand-outs are four works from the Musée National Picasso. The earliest is Still life with pitcher and apples (1916), a much celebrated work. The NGA has maximized the impact of two key pictures: Picasso’s savage portrait of his wife, Olga – Large nude on a red chair (1929) – is juxtaposed with Reading (1932) – one of his most luscious portrayals of Marie-Thérèse Walter, with whom he was having an affair as his marriage disintegrated.
The fourth work from the Musée National Picasso is possibly the greatest Matisse painting in the show, Still life with oranges (1912). One can imagine even Picasso being dazzled by this picture which takes amazing liberties with colour and form.
The obvious stand-outs are four works from the Musée National Picasso. The NGA has maximized the impact of two key pictures: Picasso’s savage portrait of his wife, Olga – Large nude on a red chair (1929) – is juxtaposed with Reading (1932) – one of his most luscious portrayals of Marie-Thérèse Walter, with whom he was having an affair as his marriage disintegrated.
Possibly the greatest Matisse painting in the show is Still life with oranges (1912), which now resides in the Musée National Picasso. One can imagine even Picasso being dazzled by this picture which takes amazing liberties with colour and form.
Director Nick Mitzevich has a reputation as a skilful hanger of exhibitions and this is an area where Matisse & Picasso excels. The walls have been painted in pale, unusual shades of pink and blue. It’s unorthodox but works brilliantly. Curator, Jane Kinsman, who is retiring after this exhibition, has arranged images in a way that teases out many unexpected relationships.
As we saw with the NGV’s successful Van Gogh show of 2017, intelligent exhibition design can compensate for a shortage of indubitable masterpieces. If visitors to this show are willing to accept a large percentage of works on paper, they’ll find plenty to like.
Ultimately this is one art event in which content is not make-or-break. For the NGA the appeal of this exhibition will be predicated on two magic words: “Matisse” and “Picasso”.
Matisse & Picasso
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
13 December, 2019 – 13 April, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 December, 2019