Matisse wanted to express an affirmative vision of the world… Picasso dared to question everything. Matisse was generous… Picasso had a flair for the new, the unexpected. Matisse intensified the interplay of color, while Picasso’s revolt was aimed at structure and form. Their polarity was mutually invigorating… they needed each other as a permanent challenge.

—Françoise Gilot

matisse cone odalisque

I think they are both interested— and know that the other is interested —in what the other is unable to do. Picasso sends Matisse something that he knows is very, very different from what Matisse is doing. And it’s a very powerful portrait (of Dora Maar). And Picasso chooses, because Matisse gives Picasso a choice, Seated Young Woman in a Persian Dress, which in its innocence is completely removed from what Picasso would do.

Picasso knew that Matisse was fantastic with color — he knew that right from the start. Matisse always admired Picasso’s facility as a draftsman, and Matisse knew that he had to go to endless lengths to achieve the same kind of fluency.

In other words, they each recognized the special talent and facility of the other, and each knew that it was not theirs. So, when they dialogued in their world, they tried to address or to combat, to circumvent the facility. And so, that became their goal. Picasso became an incredibly good colorist because Matisse was there as a competitor. He knew that he would never be able to really compete with Matisse, but nevertheless, he worked very hard.

Matisse became an incredible draftsman, especially at the end of his life. His drawings are just masterpieces. They look effortless. They’re not effortless at all, but they look it. And I think it had a lot to do with the way in which each tried to surpass the other’s achievements. Each was obliged to apply his talents in more diverse and more powerful ways.

—Yves-Alain Bois, Matisse/Picasso

Matisse, La Bonheur de Livre

You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.

If I were not making the paintings I make, I would paint like Matisse.

—Pablo Picasso



A CONVERSATION OF JANUARY 1950, reported by Staël’s friend Pierre Lecuire, does something to attenuate, or at least to account for, the seemingly paradoxical character of Staël’s commitment to abstraction. ‘Look,’ he said, pointing to a glue-pot and an ashtray, ‘here are objects, and this is just what I don’t represent.’ Then, picking up a pencil, he made it pass backwards and forwards from the glue-pot to the ashtray. ‘Now, look, that’s painting. L’entre-deux, what lies between the two. Braque paints what is around the objects, then he represents the objects. As for myself, objects, they don’t interest me any longer. I no longer paint them.’ Pressed as to what was left of the object in his painting, Staël said: ‘Rapport. Rapport. Rapport.’ These are the words of what we might call a holistic realist. Scorning perspective and resemblance as means to achieving figuration, Staël edged his way into figuration by first training himself to respect the painting as a wall, then by learning how to create an overall represented space. The depiction of objects came third. Objects could be depicted only when the space into which they were to fit was complete, and this was the point Staël felt he had reached by February 1952. The year that followed showed him his instincts were right. He ended the year by writing: ‘I do not contrast abstract painting with figurative painting.’

The preceding paragraph is from Richard Wollheim’s review of the catalogue* for the Nicholas de Staël exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 2003.

SOME HAVE TAKEN Staël’s statement about the gluepot and ashtray to mean he believed his work occupied a conceptual territory “in between” abstraction and figuration. Actually, as Wollheim eloquently explains, l’entre deux refers to the negative space or interstice between objects; the subject of Staël’s pictures, therefore, is the spatial and representational ether in which objects may be placed and arranged, but the objects themselves are accidents in the Aristotelian sense. Mistaking painting’s purpose for the representation of things on a table would be to lapse into vulgar depiction.** The l’entre deux distinction, which Staël says he learned from Braque, makes his claim to being a non-figurative artist who pictures contain landscapes, still lives, and figures perfectly logical and enlightening, in terms of his own work and Cubism as well.

* Richard Wollheim, “Yellow Sky, Red Sea, Violet Sands,” London Review of Books, 24 July 2003.

** The inclination to pursue the void is not unlike John Keats’ concept of negative capability.


RENATO GUTTUSO (1912 – 1987) is best known for his social-realist paintings of working- and middle-class daily life in the post-war Mezzogiorno. While his pictures are clearly politicized, they are rarely straightforward polemics, just as his naturalistic pictorial mode is qualified and shaped by a shadow modernism. Being Sicilian, Guttuso is reticent and rarely sentimental and living in the exquisite degrado of Palermo and its environs, he is immune to the picturesque. This detached position is seen best in his series of paintings of Italian roof-scapes, gritty urban topographies observed from above, rather than at street-level. While they are emptied of the torrents of humanity churning through the cramped piazze and markets of his other works, these paintings are not impersonal aerial views seen from on high; the point of view is a window, much like the ones arrayed before us, embedded within the fabric of the city, available to, and commonly seen, by all its denizens. As one would expect of a painter of politicized naturalism, Guttuso scrupulously records the material and historical realities of rooves, omitting no crack and effacing no grime. However, the limited palette of flat colors applied to building-block forms generally diffused across the picture plane clearly registers an engagement with Cézanne and Braque. These traces of high-modernist and formalism remind us that that even in aggressively local pictures by a painter living on lawless island on the margins of Europe, international modernism was close to, if not, the default artistic way of seeing.

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