Hyping hot-ticket artists

Time after time, art museums mount paintings of Matisse and Picasso together on the presumption that they were rivals - as if some tug-of-war were the big draw, as if museum goers need incentives to view their work. Silly, right? Yet consider the string of two-man shows of these painters, say, at the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth, Texas in 1999, the Tate Modern in London in 2002, MoMA in 2003, and last year at the Milwaukee #Art Museum. And this year not one but two books about rivalries in art history, both of which include the supposed clash between Matisse and Picasso: art critic Sebastian Smee’s The Art of Rivalry” and illustrator Nathan Gelgud’s “The Four Most Notorious Rivalries in Art History.” One can’t help wondering if this surmised antagonism hadn’t been proclaimed again and again to boost box office or book store receipts.

The art world’s Hatfield’s and McCoy’s

There is little evidence of a war of words between Matisse and Picasso that would rank them the art world’s Hatfield and McCoy’s (the Appalachian families in the late 1800’s whose feud reached all the way to the Supreme Court), but the brouhaha between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo would. Vasari, the art historian of their time, noted their “intense dislike for each other,” although he never explained  why. But it’s not hard to figure out why. Michelangelo preferred sculpture to painting and Leonardo didn’t think much of sculpture, writing that painting is the more beautiful, imaginative and copious, while sculpture is the more durable but nothing more. Michelangelo got his licks in when he mocked Leonardo for never finishing anything. His incomplet works including the “Mona Lisa.”

Picasso’s real enemy was himself

Next to the wrangle between Michelangelo and Da Vinci, the conjectural one between Matisse and Picasso is just that, a conjecture. An unwitting arbiter in this discussion is Arianna Huffington, whose 1998 biography “Picasso, Creator and Destroyer” annotated how Picasso was so egocentric that he had trouble in all of his relations, male or female. For instance, he was upset with Juan Gris, a fellow Spaniard and Cubist, because he got an Atta boy from Gertrude Stein. Picasso wasn’t much for sharing affection. And when Gris befriended Matisse, Picasso accused him of crossing enemy lines and fraternizing with the enemy - the French.

Where’s the beef?

But there was no significant rift between Matisse and Picasso.  As Huffington wisely pointed out, Picasso simply wished he could do what Matisse did, make order out of chaos. Picasso did the opposite. The serenity he saw in Matisse’ work was alien to his tortured art-makihng. Not that Matisse was always at peace. Before he died, he admitted that he chose to keep inside his angst so he could focus on the beauty of the world and the joy of painting. Clearly these two painters were different, but that didn’t make them antagonists. #Buzz