The ideal of Modernism was that it was a sort of return to the Renaissance, but the Renaissance was a loosening of rules, while Modernism was a closing down. Gursky’s nihilism begins in Seurat. To see Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as the high-point of 20th century painting is to imagine a century beginning with the Carracci and Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas and fading into mannerism. The idealism of Modernism is always the idealism of a church, or the equally strict, fearful, ironic mockery of the same church.
The odd man out here is Matisse, who reached neither Picasso’s heights nor lows. His great ugly paintings were never as graceless as the best Picasso. To stand with an open mind in front of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon at MoMA in New York the question still comes up of how something so broken can function, can be an order and not an absence of order. I imagine it as the tastes of an Ortolan in reverse order: first you get the bones and shit. It manages to be the worst of the most vulgar pornographic early Cezanne, and his best. Matisse never reached that level of dissonance, and Picasso never reached when he tried, more that he was able briefly to manage it when it wouldn’t go away.
Picasso’s best works were anti-formalist; Matisse knew he had to make formalism rich enough to be more. His works come closer to what I’ve called design -his closest imitators were designers- if only because he fit the model of an ideal Renaissance art that Modernists claimed for themselves, in his case a cross between Andrea della Robbia and Fred Astaire. "Why not a brothel, Matisse?" "Because nobody asked me, Picasso.” Blasphemy was common in Modernism; casual blasphemy was common mostly among the unserious. Matisse’s response to Picasso’s glib, ersatz communism carried the weight of a commitment that Picasso lacked, not a commitment to revolution or dreams of utopia but to the social itself, to the world around him, including the world of other people. There’s a way in which Eliot’s wry comments on James fit Matisse as well, because there’s always a mimetic power to his work. Figures and plants are never simply an excuse; there’s always a sympathy, even if it’s a physical rather than psychological or intellectual sympathy. There’s still in Matisse the warmth of other’s bodies.