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A fine pair: Matiesse and Picasso

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They inspired each other, were at times jealous of each other and knew each other as friends later in life. Now, decades after their deaths, some of their finest works have been brought together for what is likely to be one of the most exciting exhibits to hit the city this year.

Previously exhibited at the Tate Gallery in London and the Galeries nationale du Grand Palais in Paris, “Matisse Picasso” has now arrived at the city’s premier modern art museum, right here in Queens, where it will remain until May 19.

The Museum of Modern Art, in its temporary Queens home while renovations are performed on the Manhattan building it usually occupies, has been working on the exhibit for more than five years. A total of 135 works from the two 20th century artists Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso are on display to tell the tale of how the pair of masters affected each other and the world of art.

“No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I, and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he,” Picasso once said.

Their career-long influences on each other come through boldly in their pieces, many of which are displayed in pairs — one from each artist. Other groupings may show how four or five pieces Matisse was working on in a theme were emulated by a single Picasso work, and vice versa.

“We didn’t want it to be solely pairs,” said MoMA Curator-at-large John Elderfield. “That would be too trite.”

Instead, many of the groupings show confrontation with a concept and how both artists were working, obviously aware of what the other was producing.

“It is very unusual,” Elderfield said of the way the two modern masters seemed to bounce ideas off each other through whatever medium they were using.

“There was a more-than-50-year period when they had this reciprocal relationship — each working in their own style, though there are a few works when people will stop and think to try to figure, ‘Which one is Picasso? Which one is Matisse?’” Elderfield said.

Since the exhibition was planned to make its way through three museums, each museum offered up two curators, creating a group of six art historians who met over a five-year period with postcard-sized reproductions of the pieces on enormous tables, trying to figure out what works the exhibit should include.

“There were some groupings that were immediately self-evident that we all hoped would be in the exhibit,” Elderfield said. Anything that seemed to make a point about the relationship between Matisse and Picasso was considered, but not everything with each artist’s portfolio applies to the theme.

“We didn’t feel we had to put in masterpieces just because they were well known,” Elderfield said. “We didn’t want this to be just a Matisse exhibition and a Picasso exhibition.

With a list prepared, there were still challenges ahead. After all, now that the museum triumvirate wanted the pieces, it was now time for the tough task of acquiring them.

“There inevitably were ones we were unable to get,” Elderfield said. ““If there was one, we’d have to give up the other one it matched. Also, some pieces were too fragile too travel.”

Having worked on the project in the two other museums, Elderfield is keenly aware of the differences between the galleries in London and Paris and the one in Queens.

“Tate has smaller units, and the effect was more linear — like you were going from point A to point B,” Elderfield said. “It looks less didactic here than it did in London. Here it is more of a process of discovering. “

MoMA QNS is located in a restored warehouse on 33rd Street at Queens Boulevard. The completely open floor plan lends itself to unique ways of grouping works such as adding walls and making curious teases peek out from across a room.

As for Elderfield, perhaps the most telling pairing in the works by these two world-renowned artists is Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and Matisse’s “Bathers with a Turtle.”

“‘Demoiselles’ changed 20th century art,” Elderfield said. “Up to this point (1907), Matisse was the leader. That all switched. Matisse hated the painting at first, but then responded with ‘Bathers.’”

Picasso’s work of a group of bathers was nearly completed, but then he drastically changed the right side of the painting, giving the bathers a disfigured look, incorporating African tribal art influences.

“At first, Matisse thought that the picture was a hoax — that Picasso had taken the approach of ‘Blue Nude’ and made a travesty of it,” the exhibit’s audio tour tells you. “But soon, and unlike almost everyone else, he acknowledged that the art of painting would not, henceforth, be the same.”

These two works are in the second room of the exhibit, and just a few of the well- and not-so-well-known pieces that make this an exhibit to enjoy. This rare an exhibit comes around once in a generation, and is a true highlight of MoMA’s welcome presence in western Queens.

The exhibit is on display through May 19. Throughout the duration, there are special planned programs associated with the exhibit.

“Matisse Picasso: A Symposium” will be held March 12 from 10 a.. to 6 p.m. at the Gramercy Theatre, 127 E. 23 St., in Manhattan. The day-long symposium will focus on the pairs of paintings, questions of influence and inspiration, the installation in New York and more.

On April 1, “Matisse Picasso: Poetry, Prose, Letters and Film” will be shown at 6:30 p.m. at the Gramercy Theatre, focusing on the relationship between the artists.

Mornings With Matisse Picasso, a family program exploring the artists’ relationship, for ages 5-10 with a parent, will be held every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Tour for Fours are special tours of the exhibit for 4-year-olds (and a parent) from 9:15 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Saturdays Feb. 22, March 8, March 22, April 5, April 19 and May 3.

Fourth Annual MoMA Family Festival will be held March 1 from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

For more information about the events, the exhibit or anything else at MoMA QNS, call 212-708-9400 or go to www.moma.org.

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