March 2013

Picasso and Matisse

A Contrarian Reappraisal

by Louis Torres

Recent exhibitions have called attention to two of modernism's most celebrated figures--Picasso and Matisse: Picasso Black and White [more] at the Guggenheim Museum (October 25, 2012 - January 23, 2013); and Matisse: In Search of True Painting , at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 4, 2012 - March 17, 2013). Not surprisingly, given the artworld's unabashed reverence for the two, both shows received uncritical, at times gushing, reviews. (1) What follows is not so much a review of the exhibitions as a sober reappraisal they prompted regarding their subjects--in particular, the cultural colossus that is Picasso, with whom I begin.

Picasso--the Apple that Fell Far, Very Far, from the Tree

On the first day of the new year, I checked (as I often do) to see what Judith Dobrzynski had to say on her weblog, Real Clear Arts. Her post that day, "'Ask Me About the Art' at the Guggenheim," was about her visit to the museum's Picasso exhibition--the first ever devoted exclusively to his use of black and white throughout his long career.

The museum had been "delightful, full of people," she reported, and clearly she had had a good time, even pausing to chat with museum security guards on two occasions:

I stopped to talk with [one] guard because I was taken by the big button he was wearing. . . . "Ask Me About the Art," it says. I'd not noticed them before, and he told me they were "pretty new," though he didn't recall when they were passed out. He loved the buttons. An art history major, he said until he got a button, most people asked where the rest rooms were. Now, some people do ask him real questions about the art on view.

Then this downer:

All in all, there was only one discouraging moment during my visit. One young man, eyeing a painting, couldn't resist saying, so that all could hear. "Or, it's a ''Woman in a Chair''--I thought it was a spider" to one of his mates, who snickered. He should have found the nice young guard I spoke to--who might have helped him out."

A discouraging moment? Not to my mind. I found the spontaneous remark rather refreshing, a sign of an independent mind unafraid to voice an opinion contrary to that of the big cheeses at the Guggenheim, not to mention that of virtually every art critic and writer--one of whom, unbeknownst to the young man, happened to be within earshot. In any case, he apparently had sufficient interest in Picasso to have paid a hefty admission fee to gain entrance to the exhibition. Perhaps a student, he may have just wanted to know what all the buzz was about. Sure, he might have violated museum etiquette by uttering his remark too loudly, but that doesn't seem to be what most offended Dobrzynski.

Though I hadn't yet seen the exhibition myself, I couldn't resist commenting on her remarks. A quick bit of research led me to an image that seemed to be the painting in question (she had not provided one). Its title was Woman Sitting in a Chair (Dora), and it did somewhat resemble a spider! In defense of the young man, who seemed to me to personify the proverbial "ordinary person," I suggested that his response to the work was perfectly reasonable, and that asking the guard, an official representative of the museum, would not have helped at all.

Dobrzynski replied that the image I linked to was not of the work in question (it might just as well have been, however, as the actual work, Seated Woman in an Armchair (Dora) [1938], also resembles a many-legged spider). She then added that she didn't think the guard would have given an "official" explanation--because he had said (as she put it) "that he had a degree in art history, not that he was parroting some guidelines given to him"--yet she was "sure the museum provided those as well."

Possession of a recent degree in art history, however, almost guaranteed that the guard's views would be consistent with the museum's official guidelines. Moreover, even if he held a contrary opinion, how likely is it that he would have dared express it while on the job? In any case, what sort of "explanation" could he have offered that would change the mind of anyone who thinks of a spider when they see the painting, and finds its effect (as I do) either comical or disturbing? More than a few of the works on view struck me in this manner.

To be sure, there were a few works in the exhibition that even a dissenter like me could admire--among them, Seated Nude (Winter 1922-23) and Woman Ironing (1904), paintings that reflect Picasso's early mastery of drawing (though the degree of that mastery has been questioned by at least one discriminating critic (2)).

As a precociously talented youth, Picasso received his earliest training [more] from his father, José Ruiz y Blasco, a professor of academic painting, whose teaching was based on the practice of making copies after the Old Masters and drawing from both plaster casts and live models. (3) Such information is conspicuously absent from the Guggenheim's official Introduction to the exhibition, which mentions only Picasso's "neoclassical" figurative paintings and characterizes his father merely as an "art teacher" who "encouraged" his astoundingly talented son to become an artist.

How precocious was the young Picasso? A newly discovered charcoal drawing [more] of a man smoking a pipe--found hidden behind the Portrait of the Artist's Mother [more ] (1896) at the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, painted when Picasso was fifteen years old--is presumed to have been made even earlier. Precocious indeed.

Regrettably, Picasso Black and White included none of his academic drawings--works such as Study of a Torso, After a Plaster Cast (1893/1894), Study of a Torso (1895), Naked Man (1895), or Academic Study From Life, Male Nude, from the Side, with a Pole (1895-97). (4) An oversight? Perhaps not. Even more than works like Seated Nude and Woman Ironing, familiar to many Picasso admirers and appealing to the general public, the drawings might have prompted some viewers to glance from them to works like the "spider" painting and wonder how and why such a radical transformation ever took place.

Why, for another example, would an artist who could paint the striking Olga Picasso [more] like this (Portrait of Olga Picasso, 1923) [more] come a decade later to paint her like this (Head of a Woman [Olga Picasso ], 1935) and this (Woman with Hat (Olga), 1935)? And why should he be admired for doing so? Such questions arise even more urgently with respect to Maternity (1905), whose theme Picasso would treat like this (Maternity with an Apple, 30th August 1971) six decades later. How can one avoid the monstrous implications of the latter interpretation?

Too often at the Guggenheim show, moreover, one could only look at a work and wonder, What's this? before glancing at the label to find out. Can you tell, for example, what the subject of this is, or this ? (5) Given their utter unintelligibility, works like these should not be considered art.

The renowned Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung (1875-1961) briefly explores the psychological implications of what he termed Picasso's "strange art," in an article published in 1932. Jung cautions the reader that he has "nothing to say on the question of Picasso's 'art' but only on its psychology." He therefore restricts himself to a discussion of Picasso's "psychic problems, so far as they find expression in his work, [which] are strictly analogous to those of my patients," and leaves the "aesthetic problem" to art critics. Jung says nothing further regarding what he means by this, but he may be alluding to the questionable status of Picasso's post-academic (Cubist) work as art, as he seems to have implied by calling it "strange" and later using what may be scare quotes around the term art on one occasion. What a tantalizing thought!

Regarding the "pictorial representations" made by his patients, Jung observes:

One . . . has the feeling of strangeness and of a confusing, incomprehensible jumble. One does not know what is actually meant or what is being represented.

Here again he seems to be troubled, if only implicitly, by the bizarre nature of Picasso's work. He further observes that the pictures of his patients "are generally clearer and simpler, and therefore easier to understand, than those of modern artists." Not something that Picasso apologists will want to hear, to be sure! Finally, in a note added to a 1934 version of the article, Jung explains that he had not meant to suggest (as some seem to have thought) that Picasso was actually "schizophrenic," but rather that he exhibited "schizoid" tendencies.

A more recent discussion of schizophrenia and schizoid personality that sheds further light on Picasso is found in Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought (1992) by clinical psychologist Louis Sass (6) --essential reading (as I never tire of repeating) for anyone concerned with avant-garde work, from abstraction and Cubism [more ] to today's "contemporary art."

Sass cites the "multiperspectivism of analytic cubism in portraits by Picasso" only in passing, but provides a more substantive discussion of "that most influential innovation of early modernism (and a major inspiration of so-called postmodernism): the cubist . . . collage." He finds there

an intermingling . . . not just of disparate objects but of the motley contexts from which they derive, and an incorporation of planes that may obtrude either as figure or as ground--creating heteroclites and perspectival fluctuations similar to what occurs with schizophrenia; Picasso's still life with violin and fruit is a good example. (7)
[Consequently, there is] the loss of any single overarching perspective, any selective principle of hierarchy of significance, which results in the conjuring of a world where anything can stand for anything.

Apparently, Sass fails to recognize that such a hierarchy is essential to art. It is as if, mirroring the schizoid Picasso, he assumes that in a world "where anything can stand for anything," anything can be art. That the absurdity of this notion, though obvious to many ordinary people, eludes otherwise astute thinkers such as Sass suggests that the prevailing critical and scholarly view of Picasso will not change any time soon. Still one can hope. (8)

Matisse--A "Color Genius"?

What do most people, including art critics, first think of when they think of Henri Matisse? Color. David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale who moonlights as an art critic, certainly does. (9) In "Better with Age" (Weekly Standard, March 4, 2013), his review of the Matisse exhibition, he writes of "the sheer loveliness of its best pieces" and their "profoundly original color harmonies." Matisse, he proclaims, "is a color artist, one of the very greatest," ranking with such Old Masters as Fra Angelico [more] and Titian [more]. While thus enthusing, Gelernter acknowledges that Matisse "struggled with drawing," yet he "eventually achieved a lovely, lyrical, wholly original way of doing it." Color, however, "was his native language."

Indeed, for Gelernter, Matisse is a "color genius"--whose "greatest virtuosity is reserved for green . . . plain, bright, kindergarten green." Is this the sort of green he means? Or this? Or one of these? Whatever. Matisse, he asserts, is "one of the few painters in history who uses this color effectively." The others include Stuart Davis (The Mellow Pad, 1945-1951), and Willem de Kooning (Woman with a Green and Beige Background, 1966)--the examples are mine. If true, does such an achievement really qualify Matisse as a genius, or even a near-genius?

Matisse's Interior with an Egyptian Curtain (1948), Large Blue Dress (1937), and Bowl of Apples on a Table (1916) are all "masterpieces" in Gelernter's view. What makes them so?

They fill their canvases right to the edges and press against them. The borders between color zones are crisp and clear. Each separate zone of color is relatively uniform and unmodulated.

As if such trivial considerations were what made works by the likes of Fra Angelico or Titian masterpieces.

A wall label at the Met observed that by the late 1940s Matisse "may have felt that he had achieved all he could with easel painting." He devoted the last fourteen years of his life mostly to making paper cut outs, as he is seen doing in a rare film fragment [slides : click on "full screen" icon to view]. To my mind there is something rather poignant about Matisse's spending much of his final years cutting out and arranging shapes, however colorful and whimsical, from sheets of paper painted by assistants. Gelernter nonetheless opines that the cut outs are among his "greatest pieces." Matisse himself regarded his stained-glass windows for the chapel [video ] of the Dominican nuns at Vence, the designs for which were based on cut outs, as "the crowning achievement" of his life.

As Michelle Kamhi and I suggested in another context, (10) the chief effect of much of Matisse's work, including his most colorful paintings, is mainly decorative in nature, which excludes it from the realm of fine art, as that term is properly understood. (11) That is not to deny the genuine pleasure it can provide, however, I hasten to add.


1. See, for example, Daniel Goodman, "Monochrome Picasso," Weekly Standard, March 4, 2013; and Jed Perl, "Stripped to Two Colors, Picasso Is at His Best," New Republic, October 19, 2012. On Matisse, see Roberta Smith, "Evolving Toward Ecstasy," New York Times, November 29, 2912; and Jerry Saltz, "The Met's Matisse Exhibit Is Intoxicating, Possibly Dangerous," Vulture (a weblog of New York Magazine).

2. Catesby Leigh, "Could Picasso Draw Better than Raphael?," Standpoint , June 2012.

3. For a discussion of the academic method of teaching in our own era, see Stephen Gjertson, "The Ateliers of R. H. Ives Gammell and Richard Lack: Tradition and the Training of Painters in the Second Half of the 20th Century," Stephen Gjertson Galleries, May 7, 2010. Also Richard Lack, On the Training of Painters, and the drawing and painting programs of the Florence Academy of Art.

4. Regarding Picasso's Academic Study From Life, see Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute website page for the exhibition Picasso Looks at Degas (point cursor at the image for further information).

5. The first work is The Kitchen (1948); the second, The Accordionist (1911).

6. Sass deals with "Art and "Schizophrenia" in a 2009 radio interview.

7. The black-and-white illustration of this 1913 painting in Sass's book is captioned The Violin (Violin and Fruit). The Philadelphia Museum of Art, which owns the work, gives it this more descriptive title: Bowl with Fruit, Violin, and Wineglass.

8. For an archive of 1,954 Picasso images, covering the entire range of his oeuvre--from the academic to the bizarre--see the Bridgeman Art Library. Needless to say there are many surprises in store, some quite wonderful, for anyone who has the patience to browse through the collection. (Click on images for information and options. To just view the image, click on "download preview image" then "open" to utilize the zoom function.)

9. Gelernter is also a painter--whose works (according to the website [more] he shares with his son) include "a combination of abstraction and portraiture, as well as neo-realist paintings influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's cinematography."

10. See our Response to critic Roger Kimball's review of What Art Is [search for "Matisse"].

11. On this point, see Chapter 11, "Decorative Art and Craft," in What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand.