This week Flavia Frigeri, assistant curator of our Matisse cut-outs exhibition, takes a closer look at the honest friendship and open rivalry between the two masters of modern art, Matisse and Picasso

Matisse holding photo of Picasso
Henri Matisse holding a photo of Pablo Picasso

Remarking on the fact that Picasso did not visit often enough, Matisse once said: “ ‘We’ve got to see each other often, because when one of us goes, there are things the other will no longer be able to say to anyone.’ But he never comes.” Picasso did come, and he did so more regularly than Matisse’s words would seem imply.

Francoise Gilot, who was Picasso’s partner at the time when Matisse was making the cut-outs, recalled how ‘no one meant quite as much to him (Picasso) as Matisse.’ Both friends and rivals, the two enjoyed each other’s company and especially the many heated conversations they often entertained when Picasso and Gilot visited Matisse at his Villa le Rêve studio in Vence, an inland town on the French Riviera, and at the Hôtel Régina in Cimiez, a hilltop suburb of Nice. On one such occasion Picasso emphatically criticised Matisse’s choice to decorate the Vence Chapel.

Matisse wall design Vence chapel
The Chapel of the Rosary of the Dominicans at Vence as designed by Matisse

An atheist and outspoken supporter of the Communist Party, Picasso found Matisse’s temporary allegiance with the church unacceptable – he said to Matisse: ‘You’re crazy to make a chapel for those people. Do you believe in that stuff or not? If not, do you think you ought to do something for an idea that you don’t believe in?’ And Picasso went on to say that instead of a chapel Matisse should have designed a market and so on. The debate was fierce, but not enough to end their friendship. Matisse like many others succumbed to Picasso’s sarcastic remarks and always maintained a paternal attitude towards the younger and more ill-tempered artist. As Gilot put it: ‘In their meetings, the active side was Pablo; the passive, Matisse. Pablo always sought to charm Matisse, like a dancer, but in the end it was Matisse who conquered Pablo.’

1 of 6
  • Henri Matisse's Chasubles for the Vence chapel with Picasso's painting Vallauris Landscape, 1951
    Henri Matisse's chasuble designs for the Vence chapel with Picasso's painting Vallauris Landscape, 1951 in the centre
  • Henri Matisse Vence Chapel font
    The Vence Chapel with stained-glass designed by Matisse
  • Henri Matisse Vence Chapel Chasuble white
    One of the Matisse-designed chasubles being worn at the Vence Chapel
  • Henri Matisse vence chapel wall painting
    Henri Matisse working on designs for the Vence Chapel
  • Henri Matisse with sunglasses
    Henri Matisse
  • Matisse in his studio, Vence, 1946
    Matisse at his Vence studio with his birds and plants in 1946

And although Picasso once compared Matisse’s designs for the chapel to a bathroom, he was moved by the beauty of the chasuble cut-out designs. Significantly one of Picasso’s paintings - Vallauris Landscape (1951) – is portrayed amongst Matisse’s chasubles in Hélène Adant’s photograph. Vallauris Landscape was one of many paintings and drawings that Picasso would bring over to show Matisse.

One day Matisse said to Pablo, ‘I ought to give these to you because they look like some you’ve already painted.’ By these he meant four pigeons, part of his large aviary collection. Picasso and Gilot accepted the gift and brought the birds back home with them. As Gilot recalls one of the pigeons went on to have a ‘very distinguished artistic and political career.’ A black and white lithograph depicting the pigeon in a dove-like guise was in fact soon chosen for the poster advertising the Communist-sponsored World Peace Congress, becoming the utmost symbol of peace till this day.  

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is on display at Tate Modern until 7 September

The documentary With Matisse in Tangier is being screened on Sundays 3, 10, 17, 24 and 31 August 2014 15.00 – 16.00 at Tate Modern, Starr Auditorium, Free

Discover more on Matisse and Picasso’s relationship in BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week, In Montmartre, by Sue Roe