Picasso and Matisse in two London shows

One is endlessly inventive, a seeker of novelty, and furiously competitive. The other is serene, above it all, apparently rather traditional but in fact stubbornly independent. No prizes for identifying Picasso and Matisse. But the type-casting also defines the tone of London’s two richest commercial galleries, showy Gagosian at King’s Cross and stately Helly Nahmad in Mayfair, which this summer outshine all other London spaces with shimmering shows of the great contrasting duo of 20th-century art.

Gagosian’s Picasso: The Mediterranean Years, 1945-62 is a canny riposte to Tate Liverpool’s current clumsyPeace and Freedom, taking on the same period of Picasso’s oeuvre and convincingly recasting the emphasis from political to personal. Nahmad answers with Matisse: Rêve de Bonheur, celebrating the artist’s odalisques, nudes and depictions of the female form made in Nice from 1919. Exquisitely hung and lit, both are lofty reproaches to this season’s theory-drenched, aesthetically numb offerings by London’s museums – from Tate’s dire photography show to the National Gallery’s forthcoming study of fakes.

Gagosian’s haul comes from the Picasso family – the rarely seen so-called “Picasso’s Picassos” – chosen and curated by John Richardson. As Richardson is 86 and years off completing his definitive Picasso biography, this presentation is as close as we may get to a final volume. Combining major paintings and sculptures with ephemera – cardboard masks on string, paper cut-out animals, tiny terracotta figures, pencil sketches – it is animated by the scholarship, insight, wit and gossip that distinguishes Richardson’s writing.

Casual assemblages – such as a female figure constructed from a paint-can lid and paintbrush or the palm leaf and wood “Femme portant un enfant” – stand alongside the decisive, geometrically simplified portrait of Jacqueline Roque early in her relationship with Picasso, “Femme à la robe verte”, and a superb series showing Picasso grappling with childlike depictions of childhood: “Femme et enfants: le dessin”, “Les jeux”. The range conveys both Picasso’s unceasing compulsion to create, and the easy virtuosity that he repeatedly resisted, by pushing representation to its limits, and by taking on the challenge of new media.

“Anatomie féminine”, the opening piece, is a tall white wooden door still on its hinges, covered in sensuous India ink outlines depicting Picasso’s new girlfriend Françoise Gilot, with whom he left Paris to move south in 1946. With the keyhole as sexual symbol, the piece typifies the mix of aesthetic and biographical revelation here. “Femme au collier jaune” stylises Gilot’s flowing hair and column-like neck. Two toy cars given by the dealer Kahnweiler to the couple’s son Claude are used to construct “The baboon and her young”, cast in bronze.

Bottom-to-bottom, the vehicles form the ape’s head, the gap between them becoming the slit of the mouth. The radiator is the whiskers, the roof the forehead, the front windows the eyes. It is a wonderful piece – funny, intellectually satisfying, sophisticated in detail, pinpointing how Picasso reworked the surrealist objet trouvé, and also how different his art of construction was from Duchamp’s conceptual ready-made.

Pleasure – in the creative process, in sexual and domestic happiness, above all in a fresh engagement with the Mediterranean and its classical motifs – is the theme throughout. The Greek god Pan – monumental in white terracotta, feather-light in thin metal – is prevalent. So are ceramics – a jug painted with “Quatres femmes en ronde”, a vase shaped around a faun’s head: the ancient “art of the earth” that Picasso explored at Vallauris. Demonstrating how every aspect of Picasso’s daily life at home at La Californie in the 1950s and at the castle of Vauvenargues in the 1960s – both depicted – fed his art, this show is also a powerful evocation of a time and place when the Mediterranean as a classical site of order, unity and playful escape exerted a widespread pull on artists.

A generation before, the same yearnings had emerged towards the end of the first world war. This was when Matisse moved to Nice, fleeing not only bleak northern France but also the shock of his own radical inventions between 1913 and 1917.

Paintings such as “The Piano Lesson”, “French Window at Collioure”, “Bathers by a River”, characterised by severe linearity and large, flat areas of muted war-time greys and blacks, had brought him to the brink of abstraction. Now he termed it “a question of hygiene” to seek change: “When you have achieved what you want in a certain area ... you must, when the time comes, change course, search for something new.” The Côte d’Azur, where he felt he could achieve a calm inner state impossible elsewhere, inspired the luminous images of contemplative women in interiors which dominated his oeuvre for the next two decades. A dozen examples at Helly Nahmad compellingly demonstrate their evolution.

The motif is a staple 19th-century northern romantic one, which Matisse adapted to a Mediterranean setting. In “Femme au balcon, fauteuil noir” (1919) the balcony is a border between southern heat and light and a cool, ordered interior. Although Matisse appears to return to tradition, the clarity of design and equilibrium of flat planes denoting sky, sea, door, studio floor set against a black, tilting chair, depends on lessons incorporated from his recent experiments in abstraction. “Sur la chaise longue” (1920), less successful but fascinating in its lack of resolution, confirms this: abstract blocks of muddy brown-greys never quite cohere to suggest an interior, and the model – an ungainly descendant of “Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra)”, which the critic Bernard Berenson compared to a toad – occupies the space uneasily. The only air breathing through the canvas comes from the open window affording a narrow glimpse of the sea.

“Do you remember the light we had through the shutters? Everything was fake, absurd, amazing, delicious,” Matisse recalled of 1920s Nice. The best paintings here capture that first enchantment: the combination of intimacy and fashion, private and public realms, in “Nu au peignoir”, the nude clad in only a necklace and dressing gown; the erotic lassitude of the distracted girl in “La liseuse distraite”. Another lazy reader features in “Jeune fille sur un divan, ruban noir”, her luscious black ribbon trailing downward in echo of her ebbing concentration.

By the mid-1930s, although the motif is constant, the style is starker, more simplified. The voluptuous “Nu au jambes croisées”, with a tropical plant echoing the curvaceous body of Lydia Delectorskaya, indispensable model of Matisse’s final years, shows the artist composing in colour – a mode he would perfect in his cut-outs. In “Le repos de la danseuse”, the geometrically patterned floor rears up vertiginously and the model’s blank face is blank to turn attention to the overall composition, its harmonies and dissonances of form and colour.

Loans of all four versions of the massive sculpture “Nu de dos”, progressing from representational vigour in 1909 to monolithic austerity in 1930, add intellectual ballast to this seductive show. Matisse kept a version of “Nu de dos IV” in his studio until his death; its smoothness gives no idea of the struggles of the earlier states.

Invisibly hard-won grace here, or mercurial dazzle at Gagosian: these complementary exhibitions enhance one another as Picasso and Matisse fuelled each other’s brilliance in life. In grey times on Bankside and Trafalgar Square, thank goodness for the flair of London’s commercial galleries.

‘Picasso: The Mediterranean Years (1945-62)’, Gagosian Gallery, London WC1 to August 28; www.gagosian.com

‘Matisse: Rêve de Bonheur’, Helly Nahmad Gallery, London W1, to July 23; www.hellynahmad.com

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