Sunday, December 14, 2008

Matisse, Picasso, Steve Martin, and the Lapin Agile

Last weekend we saw a play written by American comedian Steve Martin at the Delaware Theatre Company called Picasso at the Lapin Agile. It's a fictional story of Picasso meeting Einstein at a local Parisian cafe in 1904, before either was famous. In the dialogue, Picasso took a few swipes at his rival Matisse. It was hilarious and we really enjoyed it.

I've been reading a two volume biography of Henri Matisse, who gave up law to be an artist, written by Hilary Spurling. Volume one is The Unknown Matisse, A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908. Volume two is Matisse The Master, A Life of Henri Matisse, The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954.

After spending the summer of 1905 painting in Collioure on the French Mediterranean near the border with Spain, Matisse submitted several paintings the the Salon d'Automne in Paris, notably "Woman in a Hat" and "The Open Window, Collioure." Matisse and his experimental friends Derain, Vlaminck, Marquet, Manguin, and Camoin, had their paintings shown in what became known as the notorious room or gallery Salle VII. Spurling writes that while Matisse was inspecting the installation of the paintings before the opening with writer Louis Vauxcelles, "Vauxcelles noticed a couple of academic sculptures placed incongruously in the middle of Salle VII and made what became a famous wisecrack to Matisse: 'a Donatello among the wild beasts [fauves].'" Vauxcelles then published his quip in a magazine article and Matisse's group got its name, Fauves.

The critics had little good to say about the Fauves at the time of the Salon d'Automne. Spurling reports, "Even young artists eager to identify themselves with everything that was new and forward-looking found this latest work [Matisse's "Woman in a Hat"] hard to take. One of them was the writer Francis Carco, a friend of the twenty-four-year-old Pablo Picasso, whose reputation was already gaining ground in Montmartre in spite of the fact that hardly anyone had seen his work. Carco, hanging out at Picasso's local, the Lapin Agile, could make no sense at all of the Spaniard's pronouncements on modern art: 'And I was starting to ask myself if, in spite of his astonishing powers of persuasion, Picasso was not getting more pleasure from mystifying us than he was from actually painting, when the notorious "Woman in a Hat" [by Matisse] taught me more in an instant than all his [Picasso's] paradoxes.... there emanated from this singular work ... such an evidently conscious fixity of purpose that, after an interval of more than thirty years, I still have not forgotten it.'"

Spurling continues, "Certainly, the regulars at the Lapin Agile, like Francis Carco, were powerfully impressed. Picasso (who had not yet met Matisse) felt he had been decisively outflanked."

Well, Steve Martin knows his art history and was aware of Picasso's local cafe, the Lapin Agile. It seems that in 1904 Matisse, who was 35 and married, while Picasso was 24 and single, was more experimental and more of a leader of art movements than Picasso.

I find the interplay between Matisse and Picasso fascinating. You can view some of my 3-D paintings at

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