The title of the mondo exclusive show at the Kimbell is disconcerting: Matisse and Picasso: A Gentle Rivalry. "Gentle" isn't the best word to pair with "rivalry," and even less of a match for the temperament of these artists, but how else can the Kimbell get the point across? These two masters played off one another for decades, sometimes viciously, sometimes playfully, ofttimes grudgingly, and the resulting visual dialogue is extraordinary. Perhaps a better title would be Look at What I Just Painted, You Bastard.

Picasso was a caustic, ambitious scrapper when he first met Matisse, 12 years his senior, early in the century. The two didn't exactly hit it off: Picasso was busy re-inventing perspective while Matisse was enjoying his stint as a favorite of the avant-garde. Though they began scrutinizing each other at that time, occasionally responding to the other's achievements in visual-skirmish form, their real exchange didn't pick up until the late 1920s, which is when the Kimbell show kicks in. And what you see when glancing from Picasso's nudes, still lifes, and landscapes to Matisse's is clearly adversarial, competitive prodding.

On a personal level, it's not so much a Jerry Springer-style conflict we're talking about. No account of Pablo bitch-slapping Henri at an opening; no record of Henri leaving a pile of burning dog feces on Pablo's front porch. They didn't steal each other's mistresses or deface each other's canvases (oh, perhaps one drunk night someone picked up a straight razor and lunged toward Dancer in Repose, but only in jest, n'est-ce pas?). Nor was this a Salieri-Mozart thing, with one artist always striving to match the greater genius.

This is, in pop-culture terms, a Beatles-Beach Boys conflict--the kind of tag-team respect and challenge that spawned such masterpieces as Pet Sounds (the album Brian Wilson slaved over after being blown away by Rubber Soul) and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (which Lennon-McCartney slaved over after hearing Pet Sounds). These artistic rivalries are purely creative, and from the ricochet tension between Matisse and Picasso--the Spaniard always stunned by Henri's color sense, the Frenchman staggered by Pablo's mastery of form--grew an amazingly inspirational and satisfying friendship. They hung out. They showed together. They bad-mouthed each other. And they loved every minute of it.

In the late 1920s, Matisse was suffering massive painter's block. He had been living in Nice since before World War I and couldn't shake his rut. Back in Paris, Picasso was on fire, half-mocking Matisse's early work through images of dancers and acrobats. When Matisse got wind of Pablo's antics, he woke up and bit back, mostly by re-animating his earlier aesthetic and taking high-profile commissions. Then Picasso fell for Matisse's bronze sculptures of nudes and started using these to form his own new twisted bronzes, drawings, and paintings of whores and half-humans. So it goes from there: Picasso started playing with Matisse's decorative bent, Matisse re-explored Cubism; Picasso tried out Matisse's odd way with composition, Matisse painted works that evoked Picasso's earlier portraits of women. From the late 1930s to the mid-'40s, although they lived in different towns and suffered separation through World War II, they continued to exchange ideas, canvases, and drawings. After the war, they again exhibited their works together.

All this is chronologically laid out in the Kimbell exhibition. More than a hundred works--not just paintings but plenty of sculpture and drawings--document this burgeoning relationship. Most fascinating is how even the most recognizable pieces and images, from Picasso's seascapes to Matisse's "Blue Nude," suddenly take on a whole new dimension given the exchange context.

Case in point: Here's Matisse's busy and decorative 1925 seated nude woman, there's Picasso's 1930 abstracted and color-muted seated bather (same position), here's Matisse's even more abstracted and atonal "Blue Nude" of 1952. Suddenly, the focus and direction of two modern masters fall into place. Granted, much great art is inspired by other great art, but in art school we learn about these two artists as totally separate and self-invented entities. Nice to know that they helped build, albeit reluctantly, each other's greatness.

A few years before his death, when he was on the backside of his health and knew it, Matisse said to Picasso: "We must talk to each other as much as we can...When one of us dies there will be some things the other will never be able to talk of with anyone else." And Picasso said of his rival and companion: "No one has ever looked at Matisse's painting more carefully than I, and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he." As you, the viewer, reach the far end of the exhibition and the late-era paintings, you finally see those poignant sentiments manifest themselves in the imagery. Matisse died in 1954, and while Picasso initially threw himself into blind denial and even skipped the funeral, he emerged from this to produce a series of works more Matisse-like than Matisse himself. It's the ultimate mourning-homage, completely unexpected from one so brash and unsentimental as Picasso, and while his Women of Algiers paintings pay respect to Matisse aesthetically (the flat shapes, the color, the patterns), it's the series titled The Studio at La Californie that fully betrays Picasso's turmoil over his friend's death. These few paintings show a dark, empty artist's workspace, abandoned by its dead master and choked with shadows and unfinished canvases. It is a tangible void, touchable grief--Picasso's quiet, one-sided conversation with a sorely missed colleague.

It's so easy to blow off the big shows when we think we already know what's what. How much Picasso and Matisse must we view in one lifetime? We complain: The big money-maker shows at the Kimbell and the DMA are just too crowded; I've already seen those works during art-class slide shows. This may sound preachy, but nothing beats the real thing, up close and personal. You can yawn at Picasso's legacy all you want as you extol the virtues of more contemporary fare, but once you're face to face with "The Studio," with the very sadness that produced such a wrenching scene, you have to step back a few feet in the face of its power. You have to remind yourself to breathe. You can't grasp Matisse's and Picasso's genius or sense their connection from any book; you have to go stand before the canvases. It's the difference between watching National Geographic on a 13-inch, black-and-white TV and actually going on a deluxe safari in East Africa. (Only, if you go see the show on a weekend, you may feel as though your safari jeep is a bit overcrowded.)

Once you've witnessed this staggering and prolific "rivalry," don't be surprised if you find yourself looking for a good fight.

Matisse and Picasso: A Gentle Rivalry is at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth through May 2. For information call (817) 654-1034.


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