Matisse and Picasso

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MAY 19, 1920

Matisse and Picasso


The names go together as do those of Shelley and Keats or Fortnum and Mason. Even to people who seldom or never look seriously at a picture they have stood, these ten years, as symbols of modernity. They are preeminent: and for this there is reason. Matisse and Picasso are the two immediate heirs to Cézanne. They are in the direct line: and through one of them a great part of the younger generation comes at its share of the patrimony. To their contemporaries they owe nothing: they came into the legacy and had to make what they could of it. They are the elder brothers of the movement, a fact which the movement occasionally resents by treating them as though they were its elder sisters.

Even to each other they owe nothing. Matisse, tobe sure, swept for one moment out of his course by the overwhelming significance of Picasso’s early abstract work, himself made a move in that direction. But this adventure he quickly, and wisely, abandoned; the problems of cubism could have helped him nothing to materialize his peculiar sensibility. And this sensibility—this peculiar emotional reaction to what he sees—is his great gift. No one ever felt for the visible universe just what Matisse feels; or, if one did, he could not create an equivalent. Because, in addition to this magic power of creation, Matisse has been blest with extraordinary sensibility both of reaction and touch, he is a great artist; because he trusts to it entirely he is not what for a moment apparently he wished to be—a chef d’école.

Picasso, on the other hand, who never tried to be anything of the sort, is the paramount influence in modern painting—subject, of course, to the supreme influence of Cézanne. All the world over are students and young painters to whom his mere name is thrilling; to whom Picasso is the liberator. His influence is ubiquitous: even in England it is immense. Not only those who for all their denials—denials that spring rather from ignorance thanbad faith—are mere apes of the inventor of cubism,but artists who float so far out of the mainstream as the Spensers and the Nashes, Mr. Lamband Mr. John, would all have painted differentlyhad Picasso never existed.

Picasso is a born chef d’école. His is one of the most inventive minds in Europe. Invention is as clearly his supreme gift as sensibility is that of Matisse. His career has been a series of discoveries, each of which he has rapidly developed. A highly original and extremely happy conception enters his head, suggested, probably, by some odd thing he has seen. Forthwith he sets himself to analyze it and disentangle those principles that account for its peculiar happiness. He proceeds by experiment, applying his hypotheses in the most unlikely places. The significant elements of Negro sculpture are found to repeat their success in the drawing of a lemon. Before long he has established what looks like an infallible method for producing an effect of which, a few months earlier, no one had so much as dreamed. This is one reason why Picasso is a born chef d’école. And this is why of each new phase in his art the earlier examples are apt to be the more vital and well nourished. At the end he is approaching that formula towards which his intellectual effort tends inevitably. It is time for a new discovery.

Meanwhile a pack of hungry followers has been eyeing the young master as he made clearer and ever clearer the nature of his last. To this pack he throws hint after hint. And still the wolves pursue. You see them in knots and clusters all along the road he has travelled, gnawing, tugging at some unpicked ideas. Worry! Worry I Worry! Here is a crowd of old laggards still lingering and snuffling over “the blue period.” A vaster concourse is scattered about the spot where the nigger’s head fell; and of these the strongest have carried off scraps for themselves, which they assimilate at leisure, lying apart. While, round the trunk of cubism, is a veritable sea of swaying, struggling, ravenous creatures. The howling is terrific. But Picasso, himself, is already far away, elaborating an idea that came to him one day as he contemplated a drawing by Ingres.

And, besides being extraordinarily inventive, Picasso is what they call “an intellectual artist.” Those who suppose that an intellectual artist is one who spends his time on his head mistake. Milton and Mantegna were intellectual artists: it may be doubted whether Caravaggio and Rostand were artists at all. An intellectual artist is one who feels first—a peculiar state of emotion being the point of departure for all works of art—and goes on to think. Obviously Picasso has a passionate sense of the significance of form; also, he can stand away from his passion and consider it; apparently in this detached mood it is that he works. In art the motive power is heat always: some drive their engines by means of boiling emotion, others by the incandescence of intellectual passion. These go forward by intense concentration on the problem; those swing with breathless precision from feeling to feeling. Sophocles, Masaccio and Bach are intellectuals in this sense, while Shakespeare, Correggio and Mozart trust their sensibility almost as a bird trusts its instinct. It never entered the head of a swallow to criticize its own methods; and if Mozart could not write a tune wrong that was not because he had first tested his idea at every point, but because he was Mozart. Yet no one ever thought of going to a swallow for lessons in aviation: or, rather, Daedalus did, and we all know what came ofit.

That is my point. I do not presume to judge between one method of creation and another; I shall not judge between Matisse and Picasso; but I do say that, as a rule, it is the intellectual artist who becomes, in spite of himself, schoolmaster to the rest. And there is a reason for this. By expressing themselves, intellectual artists appeal to us aesthetically; but, in addition, by making, or seeming tomake, some statement about the nature of the artistic problem, they set us thinking. We feel sure they have something to say about the very stuff of art which we, clumsily enough, can grasp intellectually. With purely aesthetic qualities the intellect can do nothing; but here, it seems, is something the brain can get hold of. Therefore we study them and they become our leaders; which does not make them our greatest artists. Matisse may yet be a better painter than Picasso.

Be that as it may, from Matisse there is little or nothing tobe learnt, since Matisse relies on his peculiar sensibility to bring him through. If you want to paint like him, feel what he feels, conduct it to the tips of your fingers, thence onto your canvas, and there you are. The counsel is not encouraging. These airy creatures try us too high. Indeed, it sometimes strikes me that even to appreciate them you must have a touch of their sensibility. A critic who is apt to be sensible was complaining the other day that Matisse had only one instrument in his orchestra. There are orchestras in which fifty instruments sound as one. Only it takes a musician to appreciate them. Also, one hears the others talking about “the pretty, tinkley stuff” of Mozart. Those who call the art of Matisse slight must either be insensitive or know little of it. Certainly Matisse is capable of recording, with an exquisite gesture and not much more, just the smell of something that looked as though it would be good to eat. These are notes. Notes are often slight—I make the critics a present of that. Also of this: it takes a more intense effort of the creative imagination to leave out what Tchekov leaves out of his short stories than to say what Meredith put into his long ones.

In the Plutarchian method there was ever a snare, and I have come near treading in it. The difference between Matisse and Picasso is not to be stated in those sharp antitheses that every journalist loves. Nothing could be more obtuse than to represent one as all feeling and the other all thought. The art of Picasso, as a matter of fact, is perhaps more personal even than that of Matisse, just because his sensibility is perhaps even more curious. Look at a cubist picture by him amongst other cubists. Here, if anywhere, amongst these abstractions, you would have supposed that there was small room for idiosyncrasy. Yet at M. Léonce Rosenberg’s gallery no amateur fails tospot the Picassos. His choice of colors, the appropriateness of his most astonishing audacities, the disconcerting yet delightful perfection of his taste, the unlooked for yet positive beauty of his harmonies, make Picasso one of the most personal artists alive.

And if Picasso is anything but a dry doctrinaire, Matisse is no singing bird with one little jet of spontaneous melody. I wish his sculpture were better known in England, for it disposes finely of the ridiculous notion that Matisse is a temperament without a head. Amongst his bronze and plaster figures you will find sometimes a series consisting of several versions of the same subject, in which the original superabundant conception has been reduced to bare essentials by a process which implies the severest intellectual effort. Nothing that Matisse has done gives a stronger sense of his genius, and, at the same time, makes one so sharply aware of a brilliant intelligence and of erudition even.

Amongst the hundred differences between Matisse and Picasso perhaps, after all, there is but one on which a critic can usefully insist. Even about that he can say little that is definite. Only, it does appear to be true that whereas Matisse is a pure artist, Picasso is an artist and something more—an involuntary preacher if you like. Neither, of course, falls into the habit of puffing out his pictures with literary stuff, though Picasso has, on occasions, allowed tofilter into his art a, to me most distasteful, dash of sentimentality. That is not the point, however. The point is that, whereas both create without commenting on life, Picasso, by some inexplicable quality in his statement, does, unmistakably, comment on art. That is why he, and not Matisse, is master of the modern movement.

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