11 MAY 2002, Page 48

Criss-crossing ideas and influences

Martin Gaylord on the Tate's astonishing new exhibition, Matisse Picasso

The late David Sylvester once told me that in the great artistic race between Matisse and Picasso — just the kind of question he loved to ruminate over — he had finally concluded that Picasso finished about two laps ahead. It would be fascinating to hear his reaction to the astonishing exhibition Matisse Picasso that has just opened at Tate Modern (until 18 August). And Sylvester would have been enthralled not least because part of the argument of this show is that there wasn't really anything so straightforward as a race between those two towering figures in 20th-century art at all. It seems more like a relay, each man taking the baton in turn from the other, and running with it.

It has long been the intellectual fashion to think in terms of Picasso or Matisse (which was the greater). The painter and critic Patrick Heron, for example, was a devout Matisse man (as was Sylvester for much of his life). Of late, perhaps the majority has favoured Picasso. But the curators of this exhibition argue that — although in some ways temperamentally, as Matisse himself put it, they were as widely separated as the North Pole is from the South — they were something much more complicated than simple opposites and rivals. At times in their careers and especially as they grew older they were more like secret collaborators.

inventiveness. Consequently, as they grew older they became, so to speak, slightly surreptitious friends.

Both of them are held to have remarked that, 'We must speak to each other as much as we can. When one of us dies, there will be some things that the other will never be able to talk of with anyone else.' Picasso once remarked that, 'All things considered, there is only Matisse.' And Matisse that, 'Only one person has the right to criticise me . . . it's Picasso.'

The argument of the exhibition is that each looked hard and productively at the work of his opposite and equal from very early on, perhaps from even before Gertrude Stein claimed to have introduced the two men in 1906 (at which point Picasso was 25, Matisse 37). At periods, the trajectories of their individual developments — fuelled by diverse and hugely powerful artistic temperaments — seemed very far apart. But even at such moments, each might be able to borrow something vital from the other.

Matisse, for example, had little interest in the early stages of Cubism; as a more or less monochrome idiom devoted to the fragmentation and rearrangement of three dimensional form, it had little appeal to an artist who was above all a colourist. Then, in the last phase of Cubism — in which objects are reduced to flat patches laid on a geometric armature of straight lines — he saw a possibility to move his own work on.

The result was a painting such as 'Goldfish and Palette' of 1914, in which the picture is arranged in exactly that way. But you would never have noticed, because the image is translated into unCubist colour, and seen in terms of the Matisse motifs of goldfish bowl and fruit (or, at any rate, you wouldn't have noticed until the whole thing was laid out in front of you by this exhibition). Then, Picasso, seeing what Matisse had made of his Cubist invention, used Matisse's painting as a springboard to leap onward to a new idiom himself — as is seen in his 'Harlequin' of 1915.

Of course, there were fundamental differences between the two. Picasso, as was demonstrated by an earlier exhibition, Picasso Painter/Sculptor — dreamed up by the same pair of curators, John Golding and Elizabeth Cowling, who came up with this — thought in plastic, sculptural terms. Quite often his paintings could be pictures of a sculpture, arranged against a less important backdrop. Whereas Matisse thought in areas of colour (Picasso is supposed to have remarked, 'You've mastered colour and are looking for drawing; I've mastered drawing and am looking for colour).

But having acknowledged this, the exhibition underlines that Matisse, too, was a painter who sculpted. Indeed, Matisse's sculptures are one of the glories of the show.

The above are just two examples of crisscrossing ideas and influences from dozens displayed in the exhibition. This is one of those shows that turn around everybody's ideas about art history in a way that could only be accomplished by an exhibition, that is by actually putting these works — often great and astonishingly valuable — side-by-side on the wall.

This, in turn, has consequences. One is that this exhibition is destined, deservedly, to be hugely popular. And it could of course be enjoyed simply as an enormous array of marvellous Picassos and Matisses. But to grasp its argument requires close attention and concentration (ideally, several visits with readings of the catalogue in between).

This is plainly one of the most spectacular exhibitions any of us will see in our lifetimes (for that very reason a few may be tempted to attack it). It is in sheer number of great works and beauty of hanging simply staggering and hugely exhilarating. It seems unlikely that anything like this — gathering supreme works from New York, Paris, St Petersburg and elsewhere — will ever happen again. Indeed, Matisse Picasso could probably only have been organised at this very moment, while the Museum of Modern Art in New York is closed for rebuilding. Otherwise it is hard to imagine that so many of that institution's finest works would have been allowed off the premises, It is understandable, though a shame, that MoMA's very greatest work, Picasso's 'Demoiselles d'Avignon' was not permitted to appear in this leg of the tour (it will be included when the show reaches New York).

In fact, we British are lucky to have this exhibition at all; Paris, where it will also be shown, is the other major lender. The Tate, and Britain in general of course, have comparatively meagre holdings of great modern art (the result of past miserliness and philistinism). But for the moment Tate Modern is not only a famous museum of modern art, it also contains a large number of the most important modernist works of art in the world, The galleries at TM, widely regarded as unsatisfactory, look better than ever before — much having been done to improve the lighting, which started off pretty horrible. It scarcely needs saying that this is a show that everybody should see, but book ahead and watch out for seething crowds.