Matisse and Picasso: the mistress's eyewitness account

A perceptive woman had insight into an intense relationship, writes Sue Smith

December 3, 2011 ─ March 4, 2012

Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

Over nearly half a century, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso inspired, challenged and continually surprised each other with powerful and inventive paintings and sculptures. 

Memories of the intense friendship and rivalry between the two titans of 20th century art have been revived by two superb exhibitions now in their last weeks in Australia.  Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) is presenting Matisse: Drawing Life until 4 March 2012, while Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales has almost filled its ground floor with some 150 paintings, drawing and sculptures in Picasso: masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, continuing until 25 March.

Henri Matisse Blue Nude 1907The friendship began in 1905 in Paris, where just two years later Matisse shocked the art world with his Blue Nude, its twisted, contorted form expressing a kind of brute force as it also departed from tradition in colour.  Soon afterwards, Picasso responded with the equally brutal Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The work challenged Matisse, and laid down the gauntlet for a lifetime of competitive taunting and prodding which eventually deepened into respectful acknowledgement and a lifelong exchange of ideas.

Crucially, writes Jack Flam, ‘both Matisse and Picasso were primarily painters of women, and the erotic plays an important part in the work of both artists.’  During the years between 1925 and 1940, Flam adds, ‘part of the artistic rivalry between Matisse and Picasso was acted out as a kind of duel that revolved around the depictions of some of these women. 

One woman who was drawn into the duelling, but became more than a subject, writing her own astute observations on the two artists was Picasso’s companion from 1946 to 1954.  The mother of their two children, Claude and Paloma, the artist and author, Francoise Gilot records the relationship in her book Matisse and Picasso: a Friendship in Art 1992. 

Matisse sought to unite, to re-create the idea of an earthly Eden, says Gilot.  Picasso, by contrast, was consumed with the need to know and analyse - even if this led to destruction.  ‘They were in fact as complementary as red and green,’ writes Gilot, ‘as opposed as white and black…. Matisse’s high-tension electricity corresponded to Picasso’s magnetism, and their presence in the same room created an extraordinary field of force.’

As a young art student in Paris, Francoise Gilot recalled: ‘I was crazy about Matisse, about the portrayal of sensuousness and joy in art’.  She was less impressed by Picasso, but in early 1943 her relationship with the artist began at a restaurant, Le Catalan.  She was invited the following day to visit Picasso’s studios at 7 rue des Grands-Augustions on the Left Bank of Paris, where she was enthusiastic about a Still life with oranges, painted by Matisse in Morocco in 1912, earning a rebuke from Picasso’s secretary, Sabartés, for whom only the boss could arouse adulation.  Yet Picasso greatly admired and always held tightly the Matisse work, which he had acquired from a dealer in exchange for one of his own early paintings in 1942. 

After the war,Matisse and Picasso settled into one of the closest phases of their up-and-down relationship.  In February 1946, Picasso took Gilot to meet Matisse, who by this time was often bedridden after surving complications from an operation for duodenal cancer in 1941.

‘When we arrived, Picasso introduced me to Matisse, and Matisse answered right away that he would be pleased to make my portrait,’ Gilot has recalled. ‘That shocked Picasso, because Picasso had not made any portrait of me as yet.  And Matisse added, ‘Yes, I would make her skin a pale blue, and her reddish hair would have to be ble green.”  That was amusing: they like to provoke each other a little bit.  It was a competition as well as a friendship.’  The meeting stimulated Picasso to use a palette of greens and cool blues to make The woman flower, his quintessential portrait of Gilot, later that year.

Picasso sulked when Matisse later sent Francoise presents.  The bearded, buttoned-up Matisse looked, says Gilot, like a famous surgeon.  But for Picasso, he served as surrogate father.  Knowing their friendship would not last forever, Picasso once commented: ‘When one of us dies, there are things that the other will not be able to say to anyone else ever again.’ 

Shortly before his death, Matisse said, ‘I have chosen to keep inside me torments and anguish so as to transcribe only the beauty of the world and the joy of painting.’  Picasso said, simply: ‘In the end, there’s only Matisse.’

‘When Matisse died,’ Picasso told Roland Penrose, ‘he left his odalisques to me as a legacy.’  As a tribute, the artist created a a series of 15 canvases and two lithograph’s of odalisques, all evoking Delacroix’s The women of Algiers, but which Picasso called ‘an inheritance from Matisse’.

Gilot was in her early thirties when she left Picasso: ‘I didn’t stay because I had a right to have my own experiences.  You can’t live somebody else’s life,’ she later explained.  Picasso responded by laying a curse on her: ‘Even if you think people like you, it will only be a kind of curiosity they will have about a person whose life has touched mine so intimately,” Picasso told her. ‘For you, reality is finished ... you’re headed straight for the desert.’

The artist was outraged when Gilot’s memoir Life with Picasso was published in 1964. Though it portrayed a great artist at work, insightfully documenting his work on cavases, in sculpture and etchings, it also presented his human flaws: at times monstrously difficult, Picasso could be childish, egotistical and was perhaps at heart a misogynist.  Gilot at one point says he had ‘a kind of Bluebeard complex that made him want to cut off the heads of all the women he had collected in his little private museum.’  Picasso tried unsuccessfully to prevent the publication of the book in France, and later avenged himself on Gilot by banishing their children from his sight.

Gilot later married Dr Jonas Salk, who discovered the polio vaccine, and in her eighties was living in an apartment in Manhattan decorated with many of her own colourful canvases, as well as a painting by Georges Braque, with whom Picasso pioneered Cubism.