Saturday, October 25, 2008


"Judith Beheading Holofernes," by Caravaggio, 1599

We usually look at art in nearly church-like settings--hushed, respectful museums and galleries--but some of the greatest artists were far from polite. In fact, some were outright thugs--Caravaggio springs to mind, painting brilliantly between drunken brawls and swordfights, finally fleeing Rome to escape murder charges with a price on his head. It would be hard to imagine the brooding master thriving in our current art scene, chatting up suburbanites over cheese platters on First Thursday. You just know someone would get skewered.

"Caravaggio," from Simon Schama's BBC series, Power of Art

Other artists had their battles on canvas. They didn't paint to pacify us with beauty, but to strong-arm us into seeing the world in a new way. In the last century, Pablo Picasso punched us in the nose and rearranged our faces. Henri Matisse did the same thing, albeit more gently, lyrically, with a few brushstrokes or paper cut-outs.

"Bull Skull, Fruit, and Pitcher," by Pablo Picasso, 1939

To some, "The Fight of the Century" will always be Ali vs. Frazier at the Garden in 1971, and to others the Kennedy/Nixon presidential debate, or maybe Hemingway walloping F. Scott Fitzgerald outside Les Deux Magots. Some say it was a battle of the bands, when the Stones followed James Brown on the TAMI Show, or when the Clash opened for the Who in 1980. My vote would be the clash between the two best artists of the twentieth century, Picasso and Matisse, who shook hands and came out painting.

Picasso and Matisse were the heavyweights, the undisputed masters of modern art. In 2003, their lifelong dialog was celebrated at the Museum of Modern Art. In this clip, Charlie Rose discusses the "Matisse Picasso" show with the MoMa curators, Kirk Varnedoe and John Elderfield.

"Icarus," by Henri Matisse, 1947

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