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Matisse In Colour, Picasso In Form: Two Different Tasks Serve The Same Job

Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, though distinct in style, both revolutionised modern art through their innovative use of colour and form.

The art world has been profoundly shaped by myriad styles and movements, each contributing uniquely to the view of cultural history. Among the most influential and revolutionary figures are Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, two artists whose approaches, though distinct, have left indelible marks on visual art. Picasso, known for his innovative use of form, and Matisse, celebrated for his vibrant use of colour, pursued a common goal: to transform and redefine artistic expression. This article explores the contrasting yet complementary methods employed by these two masters of modern art, going through how their distinct philosophies and techniques helped to forge new paths and leave a lasting legacy.

Getting Through Henri Matisse’s Colourful Imagination

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Matisse came to painting in adulthood – as a law clerk, he took advantage of drawing lessons early in the morning and at night after work. He was only determined to become a painter at the age of 22 and moved to Paris, studying at the Paris Academy of Fine Arts under instructors who emphasised classical art.

Not being suitable for academic studies with realistic drawings of still lifes and landscapes, Matisse was passionate about the Post-Impressionism works of Seurat or Van Gogh. From there, he discovered his own brilliant use of pure colour. However, for Matisse, in painting there are no shortcuts – the artist must first master basic knowledge and techniques. Encouraged by his teacher Gustave Moreau – a Symbolist painter, Matisse went to the Louvre and copied paintings by Raphael, Chardin or Poussin, classical masters.

Matisse’s career can be divided into many periods and many stylistic changes, but his basic goal is still to “discover the beauty of all things” and create “balanced, pure” works of art, and “serenity” as he himself put it. During his early years, Matisse tried to create his own artistic revolutions. He ignores opinions and influences, rejects the boundaries between strokes and colours. He tried to overthrow what had been accepted in the West for centuries.

Matisse strode into the world of avant-garde art in the early years of the new decade. He surveyed contemporary art of the time by visiting and interacting with the works of Paul Ceanne, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh. Along with Albert Marquet, Henri Matisse focused on pure colour and tried to develop a new, innovative method of using colour structurally rather than descriptively.

Henri Matisse began painting the exterior landscape of the Luxembourg gardens in Paris, of the Arcueil suburb and also from the window of his rented room, number 19 Quai Saint Michel, overlooking the Seine River. Henri Matisse’s paintings of this period were bold and unusual, using flat, pure colours, which dissatisfied French art critics.

“The Wild Beast Has Turned Into Bonnard’s Little Cat” 

The poet Jean Cocteau predicted as early as 1919 about Henri Matisse’s tendency of pushing the boundaries of taste and credulity as “The wild beast has turned into Bonnard’s little cat”. Like Picasso, Matisse’s training was superficial but, unlike Picasso he had far fewer artistic gifts to make up for it. He worked with paint a bit clumsily, and his grasp of form was often overshadowed by a youthful craving for novelty. However, the enthusiasm he displayed for colour and pattern is something that will likely always be appreciated.

Henri Matisse’s fearless exploration of colour culminated in his central role in developing the Fauvist movement. Alongside artists like André Derain, Matisse pursued an approach characterised by its radical use of vibrant, unmixed colours directly from the tube to the canvas. This period, often referred to as Fauvism, embodied a break from traditional representational art, emphasising emotional expression through dramatic colour schemes. Matisse’s works like “Woman with a Hat” and “The Joy of Life” exemplify this technique, showcasing his ability to transform everyday scenes into vivid, almost otherworldly experiences. The Fauves faced considerable criticism, earning the nickname “Wild Beasts” due to their perceived abandonment of conventional aesthetics, yet Matisse remained unfazed. His dedication to the power of colour as an autonomous force in art solidified his status as a pioneer, shifting the paradigm for future generations of artists.

Pablo Picasso: An Artist Defining a Cubism Art Style

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Both Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque progressed towards abstraction, intentionally leaving just enough recognizable elements to create a tension between the external world and their intricate explorations of visual language within the paintings. This approach is exemplified in masterpieces like Picasso’s “Ma Jolie” (1911) and Braque’s “The Portuguese” (1911). The technique of faceting was pioneered by Georges Braque as his method to depict natural objects through fragmented geometry. Picasso, on the other hand, didn’t facet natural objects to the same extent but instead utilised the geometric style evident in Braque’s faceted works to cultivate a form of art that was fundamentally abstract. Thus, Cubism encompasses the artistic styles of both Braque and Picasso, with Braque’s Cubism maintaining identifiable figurative elements, while Picasso’s interpretation served as a bridge towards the pure abstraction that emerged from Cubism.

The Distraction of Colour Gave Picasso More Spaces

Picasso’s “Guernica,” created in 1937, showcases a dramatic shift in his artistic style towards intense expressionism filled with emotional tension. This painting, a response to the brutal bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, stands out with its use of only three colours: grey, black, and white, which amplify the oppressive and horrifying atmosphere. Through disjointed, almost speaking figures, Picasso portrays anguish, chaos, and despair, including a grieving mother, a pleading victim, and a suffering horse. The bull’s head, symbolising brutality and evil, underscores the triumph of cruelty over goodness and beauty. This profound and innovative approach makes “Guernica” not only one of Picasso’s most iconic works but also a significant piece in 20th-century art, reflecting his deep-seated emotions and revolutionary vision.

By stripping away the distraction of colour, Picasso compels the audience to engage with the distorted, anguished forms that populate the canvas—the twisted bodies, anguished faces, and fragmented objects. This deliberate choice elevates the role of form in communicating the chaotic and brutal reality of war, showcasing Picasso’s mastery in using shapes and geometric elements to evoke profound emotion and narrative.

Two Different Masters Implemented The Same Art Mission

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The early 20th century witnessed a fierce competition for dominance in the world of modern painting between Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Both artists were not just contemporaries but also rivals who pushed each other to new creative heights. Renowned for his restless spirit and insatiable curiosity, Picasso continually explored and developed new painting techniques. 

Matisse and Picasso, despite their differing strengths in art, both made significant contributions to the diversity of the art world. Matisse’s mastery of colour created vibrant and emotionally charged canvases that captivated viewers with their boldness and simplicity. His use of colour as a form of expression redefined how artists perceive and utilise hues in their work. On the other hand, Picasso’s profound understanding of form and structure allowed him to revolutionise art through his exploration of cubism and abstract representation. His ability to break down and recombine forms introduced new dimensions to artistic expression. Together, Matisse and Picasso expanded the boundaries of art, each complementing the other’s approach and collectively enriching the artistic landscape with their unique visions. Their contributions highlight how varied techniques and perspectives can coexist within the realm of art, offering a richer tapestry of creativity and innovation for audiences to appreciate.

The artistic legacies of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso are inextricably linked, both through their individual contributions to the Fauvist and Cubist movements and their dynamic rivalry that spurred the evolution of modern art. The combined impact of their work has left an indelible mark on the art world, resonating through the decades and continuing to inspire and captivate audiences around the globe. This enduring legacy serves as an evidence to their genius, ensuring that the names Matisse and Picasso remain synonymous with revolutionary art and boundless creativity.

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