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Matisse and Picasso: The Redemption and The Fall

We should give ourselves up to the lies of art to deliver ourselves from the lies of myth: it is by this very paradoxical and singular way of absorption into the framework of one of the “great works” of the Occident that Picasso belongs to myth. For if it is true that he always sought to combat myth, making him even more dependent on it, he only succeeded by turning myth’s own arms onto itself—that is, the “lie.”

The declaration he made to Marius de Zayas in 1923 is generally well known:

We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.1

But his ideas confided twelve years later to Christian Zervos are less remembered:

We have attached ourselves to myths instead of feeling what motivated the men who painted them. There should be an absolute dictatorship…a dictatorship of painters…the dictatorship of one painter to suppress all those who tricked us, to suppress the cheaters, to suppress the objects of trickery, to suppress customs, to suppress charms, to suppress history, to suppress a heap of still more things.2

Upon closer reading, these concepts would suggest that in Picasso’s eyes there existed two distinct kinds of lie, or two opposing types of lies. First, the lies that only trick, which would be nothing but surface and opacity, whereas the others would give access to the truth—a truth assuredly terrible, since it would be without attractiveness and having escaped from history.

Two famous works exemplify well these two notions of the lie—two works which themselves became mythic while clearly their constructions are each at the two poles that would magnetize the pictorial space of the twentieth century, as they establish themselves on the same elementary spatial structure that for a long time could not be distinguished from the function that our culture assigns to them. Undoubtedly Matisse’s Le Bonheur de vivre and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon first became mythic through their exemplary ability to embody two versions ordinarily difficult to reconcile with the power of art.

Figure 1. Henri Matisse, Le Bonheur de vivre, 1905-06 (Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA)

Matisse painted Le Bonheur in 1905–1906 (fig. 1). This painting of significant size was rather poorly received by the critics in the spring of 1906 upon its installation at the Salon des Indépendants: it was too abstract, too synthetic, too theoretical. “Emptiness” was a word that often appeared under the critic’s pen—a symptom of the pain the painting incites, while its title announces the opposite: is Bonheur not read as what Baudelaire read in Stendhal, that “beauty is a promise of happiness”? Louis Vauxcelles was one of those who warned Matisse: “There must be no confusion between simplification and insufficiency, design and emptiness,” he wrote, underlining here that even if the public seems ready to accept the structure of the image revealed by the schematic reduction, he cannot prevent the feeling of anxiety, a disagreeable feeling of “emptiness” produced by such a simplification.

Despite these proposed criticisms, Louis Vauxcelles did make an eloquent and actually praising description of the painting:

In lounging attitudes, creatures with lovely hips, dream: one, standing, stirs, crosses her hands behind her head; others play Pan’s flute; at the right, a slender girl throws her arms behind her, encircling her lover’s head like a necklace, in a fresh embrace…at the center of the composition, a wild round. There are great qualities here: the masses rhythmically balance themselves, the green of the trees, the blue of the ocean, the pink of the bodies, immediately enveloped in the halo of complementary violet, in a harmony and marriage, produces a painting that emanates a sensation of refreshing joy.3

Rhythmically balanced, harmony, marriage, refreshing joy: these are still the terms that resonate today and are commonly associated with the merest evocation of the painting, while we are no longer fearful of the “void” that still pained his contemporaries, conferring on the work an ambivalence which at present it seems to lack. With time, Matisse would win his wager to revive the myth, to find the forms and the colors capable of gently immersing the spectator into the Eden-like world of the canvas, a bit as Baudelaire, whom he so admired, had found through his words in his poem Invitation au voyage—words capable of bringing us to “there where there is but order and beauty, / Luxury, calm and voluptuousness.”

All of this is well known. And we also know that Matisse, two years later, sought to theorize and formalize this function that he attributed not only to all of painting, at the very least to his own: to tear the viewer from violence, chaos, and the perversion of reality to transport him to a utopia of a perfectly harmonious world, in which the painting serves as this miraculous passage. Or perhaps even better yet: in which his painting acts as an initiating outlet, permitting the viewer to reconnect with a primitive state of innocence and the plenitude that we have since lost. This is an old romantic theme: thanks to art, paradise is not lost; it is not only behind us, as Heinrich von Kleist claimed, but it is also in facing us, as long as we know to taste once more the fruit of the tree of knowledge. And Saint-Simon would soon after add that one must “displace terrestrial paradise and transport it from the past to the future,” and that the artists, at the forefront of society, need to present an attractive image, which would precipitate this realization.

But a century later, Matisse, who had first named his painting Arcadie, wanted for himself a painting that would bring the viewer not only to the promise of Paradise, but also a fragment of Paradise, here and now. One must recall the phrases published in 1908 in La Grande revue under the title of “Notes of a painter,” where he exposed his major ambition: “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter—a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”4 Remarks he seems to have literally illustrated in this much later work, Le Fauteuil rocaille(fig. 2)—the entire work is made up by the armchair, which extends towards the viewer with its open arms to better invite him to tranquility.

Figure 2. Matisse, The Rocaille Armchair, 1946
Figure 2. Henri Matisse, The Rocaille Armchair, 1946 (Musee Matisse, Nice)

It goes without saying that Matisse would pursue this unique dream for the rest of his life: it would be undoubtedly his biggest and primary obsession, up until the end. Then, in 1929, he confided to Florent Fels that “a picture [tableau] must be tranquil on the wall. It must not introduce an element of trouble and anxiety into the spectator’s home, but direct him peacefully into a physical state such that he doesn’t feel the need to divide or leave himself. A picture [tableau] must produce a deep satisfaction, the most pure repose and pleasure of the spirit fulfilled.”

Twenty years later, in 1949, he declared to an American journalist: “Anxiety? It is no worse today than it was for the Romantics. One must dominate all that. One must be calm; and art should not be worrying or disturbing—it should be balanced, pure, tranquil, restful.”5 And then to Gaston Diehl again, shortly before his death: “I chose to stay in the presence of my torments and worries in order to record only the world’s beauty and the joy of life.”

Where this position is at once the aesthetic and moral one Matisse sought, its symmetrical inverse is the one adopted by Picasso. Françoise Gilot had understood this so well that one day while arguing about Fauteuil rocaille with Picasso, who compared the painting to an oyster, she retorted: “While Matisse opens up, you close in.”6 Matisse was without a doubt one of the rare artists of his century to hold and to strongly lay claim to this aesthetic and moral position—for which he would pay dearly since he often suffered under the title of a good bourgeois painter, ignorant of history and human tragedy.

It is not an image of a good-hearted bourgeois that is offered to the viewer in Le Bonheur de vivre, but rather a road that initiates and guides towards utopia through a fragment of terrestrial paradise. And this road consists precisely through a schematic reduction which Louis Vauxcelles criticized: in a remarkable simplification of colors, the elementary spatial structure presents itself as an opening—vaguely triangular in shape—to protective vegetation, under which the nudes abandon themselves. This very simple structure evokes first a glimmering curtain, opening onto a scene where, in the most profound serenity, it unfolds, in infinite slow motion, a vision of nudes that have rediscovered purity—while in the background the circle symbolizes perfect social harmony. This paradise is therefore a theater: the curtain exercises its spellbinding charms to attract and include the viewer into the welcoming concavity which protects the Eden-like space, with its warm colors and sensual figures. At once an opening and a passage, this curtain draws and creates, literally, a setting for the utopia.

Figure 3. Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 (Museum of Modern Art, NY)

It is in using methods symmetrically opposed to those of Matisse that Picasso begins, at the end of the same year in 1906, his first preparatory studies for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (fig. 3)—a painting that, at least since the days of Alfred Barr, has been construed as a polemical response to Matisse’s Le Bonheur de vivre. A competition thereby engaged between the two painters—a competition that has often underlined the importance of one for the other. If it is true that few works of the twentieth century have been studied as much as these two, then no one has ever considered their shared theatricality or their similar qualities. While they demonstrate opposite working methods, they produce a new man with a shared conception of the role of the image as a way to transform the psyche of the viewer through physical means. Surely any initiation should, in due course, produce a new man. But with Picasso’s Demoiselles, the viewer is no more the recipient of an attractive and progressive “invitation au voyage” as with Matisse’s work: as Leo Steinberg suggested, we are permanently in a state of change, immediate and brutal, “the totality of our ways of being and thinking.” And yet, despite these two pedagogies rigorously opposed by the images themselves, it is this same theatricality that Picasso affirms, using also a curtain to open the scene of the painting. But here, there is no spellbinding vegetation offering the viewer protection and already sheltering the figures it is meant to invite. In truth the curtain here does not protect: it exposes the prostitutes to the gaze of the viewer, which in turn exposes the viewer to their gaze. If it concretizes a passage well, it is not in the same sense as Le Bonheur de vivre, guiding towards an ideal to appease as its goal, outside here of all horizon, into a quasi-mystical light. No, this passage is one of crossed looks: that of the menacing prostitutes to which we respond with our anxious gaze. Here, there is no escape or outlet to the infinite, but instead to a blocked space, opening a scene that lacks depth. Where Matisse built a welcoming space for the viewer, Picasso constructed a space so flat that its figures, projecting outward, on the contrary, seem to push the viewer away.

That these figures repulse the viewer was assumed by the first viewers who saw the work:7 Georges Braque affirmed that seeing the painting gave him the impression of having “drunk gasoline” and “eaten an enflamed tow.” Gelett Burgess saw “monolithic monsters,” “terrifying, frightening…creatures.” Kahnweiler, who found the faces “grotesque” and “hideous,” added that the canvas, which he qualified as “monstrous,” “horrified everyone.” “Good God, what filth!” wrote Leo Stein while his sister Gertrude Stein, rather more moderate, contained her judgment to an observation that the figures were “rather frightful.” With their cold and acidic color, their broken arabesques and the fragmented aspect of their barbaric forms, the figures display an aesthetic exactly opposite to that of Le Bonheur de vivre, whose figures are far more discrete in both their dimensions and their positions in the space.

Yet, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon also engage themselves in the initiation of the viewer; they also form the passage capable of making the viewer a new man. But why the sordid theater? Why make such an aggressive scene? To rediscover what innocence and to achieve what kind of utopia? At least two readings are possible; they overlap and, certainly, complete one another. The first, brilliantly given by Leo Steinberg in 1972, is enlightening in its demonstration. It is worth noting and summarizing his arguments, as the title of the essay of “Philosophical Brothel,” derives from the first name given to the work.

Figure 4. Pablo Picasso, Study for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, pencil and pastel (Basel Kunstmuseum)
Figure 5. Pablo Picasso, Study for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, watercolor (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

In examining the long suite of drawings and preparatory sketches (figs. 4 and 5), Steinberg reminds us that in the first study for Demoiselles, conserved in the Basel Museum and dated on the left to the months of March-April 1907, two male figures were depicted, which Picasso proceeded to eliminate. The first entered into the scene from the left, standing just at the edge of the curtain that exposes the salon of the brothel. It was, according to Picasso himself, a student of medicine, holding in his right hand first a skull then a book, and then in some later compositions, both at once—symbols of cold scientific knowledge and detached from the aim of knowing. Steinberg makes this character, who is “placed in transit in the plane of the curtain” and never looks at the nude women, the figure of the outsider, which does not participate in the scene and is the “excluded one in the ultimate game of inclusion.” The second character was, on the contrary, placed in the center of the brothel. This figure of insider was a sailor, a “timid candidate for sexual initiation” and “inundated by womankind.”8

But once the sailor disappeared and a prostitute replaced the medical student—as a watercolor from 1907, now in the Philadelphia Museum, demonstrates—that is to say once opposition between intellectual knowledge and initiative experience was eliminated, what remains, asks Steinberg, of this allegory of the encounter between man and woman? There is nothing left, he says, but our own experience as viewers: that of the encounter and shock of art. If we consent to deliver ourselves entirely to the aesthetic experience, if we let ourselves be swallowed up and “frightened” by the work (as said Gertrude Stein), then we penetrate the work and become insiders on our own. And, Steinberg adds by referring to Nietzsche, it is through the painting’s state—confusing subject and forms—that it “strives against educated detachment.”9 To the unified and Eden-like state of Matisse, Picasso counters with a chaotic space of the hunt where women are prey, but who themselves stalk their game—that is, the viewer. And Steinberg concludes this magnificent interpretation by making the observation that, “like those mystics of old who used sexual metaphor to express union with the divine, so Picasso will have used sexuality to make visible the immediacy of communion with art.”10 Far from the soft path of initiation that Matisse proposes, it is through the harsh (and metaphorical) test of the loss of sexual innocence that we access the immaculate kingdom of Art. This convincing first reading is succeeded by a second interpretation given rather late by Picasso himself. Leo Steinberg did not know of it while writing his essay, in 1972, as it was only published in André Malraux’s La Tête d’obsidienne in 1974.

It was in 1937, at the very hour he painted Guernica that Picasso confided to Malraux his sense of the activity of a painter. The “revelation,” as he called it, came to him in 1907 while visiting the Musée de Trocadéro, when resisted the violent repulsion that the masks and fetishes inspired in him:

The Negro pieces were intercesseurs, mediators….They were against everything—against unknown, threatening spirits. I always looked at fetishes. I understood; I too am against everything. I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy! Everything! Not the details—women, children, babies, tobacco, playing—but the whole of it! I understood what the Negroes used their sculpture for….All the fetishes were used for the same thing. They were weapons. To help people avoid coming under the influence of spirits again, to help them become independent. They’re tools. If we give spirits a form, we become independent. Spirits, the unconscious…, emotion—they’re all the same thing. I understood why I was a painter.11

In retelling the same story ten years later to Françoise Gilot, he underlined this time the non-aesthetic character of their process:

When I went for the first time…to the Trocadéro museum, the smell of dampness and rot there stuck in my throat [but…] I stayed and studied. Men had made those masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surround them, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and an image. At that moment I realized that this was what painting was all about. Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.12

The extreme lucidity of Picasso on the fundamentally apotropaic nature of an activity we insist in calling artistic should be emphasized: the artist, through his work, pulls away from danger, overcoming his fears and realizing his dreams by giving them form and color. But it should also be noted that Picasso’s experience at the Musée du Trocadéro represents itself a kind of initiation: the shock of his encounter with the African objects precedes the encounter of the viewer and les Demoiselles, which Steinberg interprets as the shock of our encounter with Art. As the painting was made later, the viewer therefore reproduces the initiating experience the painter had at Trocadéro.

But what kind of initiation occurs for the viewer? Does it really consist of recapturing innocence in the immaculate domain of Art, as Steinberg thinks? What the Demoiselles say “truthfully” is, on the complete contrary, that a return to innocence is impossible through Art as well as in Art—that we can no longer access Paradise through Art, as Matisse still wanted to believe and make others believe. The Demoiselles tell us that we have been definitively chased from Paradise, and that this fall is irreversible. I think it is furthermore exactly this Fall that Demoiselles is meant to make us see: the Fall in Art, which is also our fall in (or for) Art, for which Picasso expels us as God expelled Adam and Eve from Paradise.

Figure 6. Picasso, Landscape with Two Figures, 1908 (Musee Picasso, Paris)

A few works, executed during this same period by Picasso and Georges Braque, would permit further understanding the sense of this lesson in Demoiselles. A year after Les Demoiselles, Picasso painted, between the spring and autumn of 1908, La Dryade (Nu dans la forêt), a painting today conserved in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. In his essay, Steinberg notes that the first study for this large painting presented a figure having an air of “harlot slouching.” But in the finished work, he remarks, the right hand, with the palm open, and at the left, with the clenched fist, signify acceptance and rejection, respectively—Picasso reuses here a traditional Christian iconographic motif to signify the passage of grace to damnation (a motif found in the work of Giotto, Gaddi, and even the Last Judgment by Michelangelo). Behind the large figure of the dryad, the space opens onto the obscurity of the forest: is it a grotto? Or rather vegetation so dense that it just becomes unsettling? This obscurity has nothing to do, in any case, about a welcoming paradise. It is a little after this moment, at the end of 1908, that Picasso painted Paysage aux deux figures (fig. 6) where the trees, creating this time a more general structure in space, appear here to have once more adopted the function of curtains, opening onto a scene that has become chaotic. But this time the two figures are hamadryades, those nymphs that live in the forest and embody the souls of the trees. They meld with the trees, at least partially, making themselves almost part of the frame, or the curtain. If the structure of space is close to that of Le Bonheur de vivre, with this canopy made by vegetation, the ambivalence in contrast is far more radical: its hybrid character renders it welcoming at once menacing.

Figure 7. Georges Braque, The Viaduct at L’Estaque, 1908 (Centre Pompidou, Paris)

During this same period, Georges Braque, leaving Matisse’s Fauvism to move closer to Picasso, painted in 1907 Le Viaduc à l’Éstaque (fig. 7) with even more vibrant color and also using this same spatial structure built by vegetation. The descent moves progressively towards the valley, where we find houses that seem accessible and whose gates, windows, and chimneys indicate their use. But the following year, another version of the same Viaduc à l’Éstaque, painted in the summer of 1908, returned to the tightened structure: this one now resembles a medieval mandorla—this almond-shaped form that would soon end up in Cubist paintings in oval form, affirming the autonomy of the painting in relation to its self-referential, concrete space. But the most remarkable aspect here is the imposing rock formations that block all access to the valley, to the extent that the space seems to have become entirely uninhabitable.

Figure 8. Piero della Francesca, Madonna della Misercordia, c. 1445-60

One can illustrate the image’s “habitable” and “inviting” character, all like its “inhospitable” even terrifying character, by two images likely to reveal the nature of overwhelming that operates in painted representation at the beginning of the twentieth century. Opening also like a curtain, the protective coat in the famous Virgin of Mercy by Piero della Francesca (fig. 8) is a repetition of the architecture of edifice. But its merit is also as a metaphor for institution, even the Church: it is a place of refuge for the misled, for divine harmony, and above all for the Redemption by which the Fall is erased and access to paradise is once more accessible. All at once, this entire image accomplished a paradox of being a Utopia but also an uninhabitable utopia—and inhabited moreover by the faithful who are “insiders,” to reuse the expression given by Steinberg when describing the sailor in the studies of Demoiselles (that figure who is “inundated by womankind” as are here the faithful). It could be said that this Virgin of Mercy, like all others, is the archetype symbolizing the image’s Matissean function: a function of salvation by absorption, or by the inclusion of the viewer.

The second image is a caricature by Cham produced in a reaction against the Impressionists: “Bien féroce!” was the phrase published in Le Charivari on April 28, 1877 with this caption: “The Turks bought many canvases at the Exhibition of the Impressionists to use in case of war.” The image is used as a weapon, used to eliminate or repel the danger of the barbarians. It is evidently this “Picassoid” function of the image that is exposed here, since for him the image does not reveal an “aesthetic process” but constitutes a “weapon,” where “a kind of magic intervenes between us and the hostile universe.”

With Matisse, painting exercises bewitching charms that incorporate the viewer and absorb him into its eternity. With Picasso, painting is a weapon, it rejects and excludes, inhibiting or forbidding all access to its own space.

Throughout the twentieth century, the avant-gardes oscillated between these two approaches: the first making art a path capable of creating a rediscovered paradise, a road to Redemption possible; the second making art a constant reminder of the Fall, denouncing a world made uninhabitable and making it understandable by reminding the viewer that the image itself is uninhabitable.

This polarity of means specific to painting in order to exercise a force corresponds exactly to the distinction under which Sandor Ferenczi—the melancholy disciple of Freud—operates, between what he called paternal hypnosis and maternal hypnosis.13

The extreme form of paternal hypnosis, “hypnosis of terror,” is provoked, he said, “by screams, menace, and if necessary a severe tone of voice, grimacing expressions, a waving fist. This terror—as seen historically in the gaze of the head of Medusa—can train the individual to a predisposition towards immediate paralysis or catalepsy.” The inverse, maternal hypnosis wears away the dim light of a room, of silence, of “the yielding, friendly persuasion through monotone, melodious speech,” even of “caressing gestures over the hair, the forehead, and the hands.” Intimidation and tenderness: Ferenczi recognized in these two methods of hypnosis “the same modes of intimidation and softness […] which for millennia have been proven by the relationships between parents and children.”

But Ferenczi does not grant much importance to the rigorous distinction between these two paternal and maternal forms, since the parental roles are always interchangeable. The important aspect for him was to show that the situation produced by hypnosis awoke in the patient the same effects of love or fear that he had felt, as a child, towards his parents.

We still do not know how to clearly distinguish the two poles that magnetize painting: their effects often interfere. While clearly obvious are the differences between the art of Picasso and of Matisse, this polarity supports the evident of only a single kind of painting in the twentieth century. These remarks by Roger de Piles, for example, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, suffice in situating with enough certitude the classical tradition, that of the rhetoric of passions the painter disposes:

There are in the passions two manners of movement; the first are lively and violent, others are calm and moderate. Quintilian calls the first pathetic, and the other moral. The pathetic commands, the moral persuades; the first bears up under any trouble and powerfully stirs the heart, the other insinuates calm into the mind, and both require a good deal of art to be well expressed.14

But despite this classic polarity of violent commandment and subtle persuasion, which appears throughout art of the twentieth century, these two contradictory components often mix in a single work that the art of today has recapitulated by hurling us between the two poles, between Matisse and Picasso, that is to say between acceptance and expulsion, between the Redemption and the Fall, in a sort of impossible double bind. As it was understood, the “great narrative” of the West, into which I would suggest Picasso inserted himself in a singular way because it was contradictory, this great narrative was in fact Christianity itself. And his rivalry with Matisse, who said to him one day: “You are like me: what we both search for in art is the climate of our first communion,”15 this rivalry also served as his own explanation of Christianity and his theology on salvation through the image. Matisse still wanted to believe that the lie in art revealed the truth of myth—that is, more or less, Christianity. Picasso thought on the contrary that the lie of art could give access to that truth of myth as a lie. But to exorcize the lie of Salvation, the myth of the Fall must be conserved.

Translated by Alexandra Morrison


1. Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views, ed. Dore Ashton (New York: Da Capo, 1972), 3.
2. Ibid., 13.
3. Louis Vauxelles, “The Salon des Indépendants (March 20, 1906).”
4. Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter,” in Matisse on Art, trans. and ed. Jack Flam, rev. ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), 42.
5. Matisse, “Interview with R. W. Howe,” in Matisse on Art, 186–87.
6. Françoise Gilot, Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art (New York, London, et al.: Doubleday, 1990), 151.
7. Citations drawn from the catalog Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, ed. Hélène Seckel, vol. 2 (Paris: Musée Picasso, 1988), 650, 652, 665, 686 (note 2) and 683.
8. Leo Steinberg, “The Philosophical Brothel,” October 44 (Spring 1988): 37.
9. Ibid., 47.
10. Ibid., 64.
11. Picasso quoted in André Malraux, Picasso’s Mask, trans. June Guicharnaud and Jacques Guicharnaud (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976), 11.
12. Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964), 242.
13. Sandor Ferenczi, “Introjection and Transference,” in Sex in Psychoanalysis: Contributions to Psychoanalysis, trans. Ernest Jones (Boston: Gorham Press), 35–93.
14. Roger de Piles, Cours de peinture par principles (Paris: Gallimard, 1989), 92.
15. Matisse, “Propos sur la chapelle de Vence rapports par Marie-Alain Couturier,” in Écrits et propos sur l’art, ed. Dominique Fourcard (Paris: Hermann, 1972), 271.