Pushing modern art

Wednesday 17 March 2004

The intense rivalry between two of the greatest painters of the twentieth century, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, was examined in detail by an expert in French culture last week (Wednesday 17th March 2004).

Professor Peter Read of the University of St Andrews delivered a public lecture on the relationships that both artists had with the most important art critic of the period, Guillaume Apollinaire. He focussed on the correspondence between them and the gifts – including paintings – regularly sent by the artists to the famous critic.

Apollinaire, the French writer who is credited for inventing the word ‘surrealism’, was a fan of both painters, but so important was his praise that the rivals regularly wrote to him and sent him gifts including valuable paintings and drawings.

Professor Read examined in detail those gifts and letters, some of which are unpublished, as well as documents related to the first Matisse and Picasso joint exhibition, organised by Apollinaire in Paris in 1918, at the lecture in St Andrews.

Picasso generously gave over 100 works to Apollinaire, including major oil paintings, drawings and handpainted objects, such as a cigarette case. When Apollinaire died in 1918, aged 38, he had 50 francs in the bank, but owned all those pictures, including works by many other artist friends. However, his rival was less friendly to the critic – Matisse gave Apollinaire only two drawings, which was symptomatic of their cooler relationship.

In one 1910 letter, Matisse wrote to a friend, that everybody absolutely hates his recent work, except one person: “but as he disgusts me, I’d rather have an enemy. It’s Apollinaire.”

Apollinaire was one of the twentieth century’s most important art critics and poets. A prolific writer, he was also a playwright and novelist. Apollinaire spent much of his efforts before and during the First World War promoting and explaining the work of Matisse and Picasso. He recognised Matisse and Picasso as the greatest artists of his day, and was unusual in his defence of them both at a time when most critics were hostile, while others took sides, inclining towards either one artist or the other. “From 1906 onwards, Matisse and Picasso were great rivals, at the cutting edge of the European avant- garde, each watching the other’s every move,” said Professor Read.

“Their work places them among the greatest figures in Western art, but this status has not always been widely recognised. Before the First World War, they encountered widespread hostility and incomprehension, particularly in the French press. The few dealers, collectors and critics who supported them at that time tended to take sides, promoting either Matisse or Picasso. Mainly, however, they just attracted flak. They were considered a lot more scandalous than, say, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst in Britain today.

“Apollinaire organised and wrote the catalogue for the first Matisse-Picasso exhibition, in Paris in 1918 – in a fierce battle over aesthetic values, he courageously defined and promoted the individual genius of both Matisse and Picasso.

“They have since become mythical figures, and it was Apollinaire’s writings which established the images of Matisse and Picasso that would be propagated by later writers and the mass media,” he said.

The relationship between Matisse and Picasso was fully explored for the first time by a major exhibition on the two artists, at London’s Tate Modern and the Grand Palais in Paris in 2002.

Professor Read, Head of the University’s Department of French, is an expert in 19th and 20th Century French literature and Modern Art, and he has an international reputation as a lecturer and writer on Apollinaire and Picasso, Cubism and Surrealism; he has lectured extensively in this country and in France on the subject. He is particularly interested in the ways in which literature and art interconnect, and the relationships between artists and writers.

His most recent publication is a translation and critical edition of Apollinaire’s The Cubist Painters, published in 2002, almost 100 years after it first appeared. Shortly after publication, Professor Read was invited to Paris by the French Ministry of Culture to give a public lecture at the Grand Palais to explain the early relationship and rivalry between Matisse and Picasso, and Apollinaire’s role defending and promoting their work.

Last week’s lecture was Professor Read’s inaugural lecture as a Professor of French.


Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, mobile 07900 050103, or email [email protected] Ref: View the latest University news at http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk

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