How competition makes you better: 4 lessons from Picasso & Matisse

Pablo Picasso couldn’t have created his masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907 if it weren’t for the looming presence of Henri Matisse.

Picasso was angered, frustrated and inspired by the French artist’s revolutionary style and the way he deserted classical artistic norms. He was angered because he wanted to be the one to break the mold Matisse was hammering away at, frustrated because he struggled to find his own, unique voice in what was to become modern art, and inspired by Matisse’s monumental courage. It was Matisse, after all, who was one of the first modern artists to put his chin out and produce “ugly” art, to the chagrin and bemusement of critics and audiences.

Matisse pushed Picasso to break completely from an earlier artistic legacy to create new, exciting, challenging, and maddening works of art.

It cut both ways. Picasso commented, “No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.” Matisse acknowledged Picasso as a partner on his march toward modernity, and borrowed from Picasso’s style. He even went so far as to incorporate Picasso’s use of tribal African masks into a paining of his wife, Madame Amélie Matisse.

There are a number of ways leaders can learn from Picasso and Matisse’s complicated, tumultuous, and inspiring rivalry.

1. Competition mutes critics and builds courage

Talking to Gertrude Stein, Matisse said that he and Picasso were “as different as the North Pole is from the South Pole.”

Though different, they were both plagued by critics from the beginning.

One critic wrote of Matisse’s artistic group, “the wild beasts” that, “All they give us in the way of sunlight is trouble with the retina.” Another critic went on to say the Matisse’s figures were “reptilian.”

Picasso wasn’t spared either. After he finished Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, his closet friends were shocked and even laughed. Horrified, Picasso put the painting aside without exhibiting the work. Little did he know that the painting would come to define modern art.

Picasso and Matisse had to shoulder criticisms form colleagues, critics, and the larger public, yet they persisted and kept trying their best to exemplify an art free from the chains of tradition.

Picasso and Matisse looked to each other’s works for inspiration and courage. They didn’t let the chorus of critics alter their direction.

Lesson for leaders: Rivalries need not be petty and wear on one’s energy and creativity. They can be instruments of focus and daring. Matisse said, “Another word for creative is courage.” Rivalries supply people with focus and the audacity to try new daring things.

2. Competition helps us find faults

Picasso said, “It is a well-known fact that we see the faults in other’s works more readily than we do in our own.”

Both Matisse and Picasso studied each other’s work carefully. While they admired each other’s departure from artistic norms, each found problems with the other’s approach. While contemplating the weaknesses of each other’s work, they were able to improve on their own.

Lesson for leaders: By studying the work of a rival, one can easily see flaws, missteps, and errors. Smart leaders learn from these mistakes and take care not to replicate them.

3. Competition increases productivity and encourages new ideas

Though Picasso and Matisse differed in many ways, they were in lockstep when it came to their feelings on productivity. “Whoever wishes to devote himself to painting,” Matisse said, “should begin by cutting out his own tongue.” Picasso said the same thing, though in different words: “What one does is what counts and not what one had the intention of doing.”

While both artists had a strong work ethic, they were both more productive and creative by attempting to improve on each other’s techniques. When Picasso saw Matisse’s Blue Nude, he commented with frustration, “If he wants to make a woman, let him make a woman. If he wants to make a design, let him make a design. This is between the two.”

That same year, Picasso finished Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—a painting of four prostitutes in odd, geometric shapes. He was painting not just women, but the concept of women. Moreover, the shapes were jaded and harsh and weren’t collected into a pleasing, comprehensible design. Clearly he was trying to step further from tradition than Matisse had done in Blue Nude.

Lesson for leaders: Rivalries, though frustrating, raise the bar and make you work harder, smarter, and faster.

4. Competition can end in respect, not anger

Picasso and Matisse didn’t dress alike. Picasso preferred a factory worker’s uniform; Matisse, a simple tweed suit. Picasso shrank in Paris salons and avoided talking because he wasn’t comfortable expressing complex ideas in his poor French; Matisse enjoyed artistic discussions and always managed to captivate a room.

The differences abound, yet the men did manage to form an unusual friendship. They collected each other’s works and Picasso went so far as to look after Matisse’s paintings by putting them in a bank vault. Matisse returned the favor and was always a firm advocate of Picasso in the public sphere.

Though they had a stormy relationship, Matisse once said, “Only one person has the right to criticize me. It’s Picasso.”

Picasso felt the same. At the end of his life he said, “All things considered, there is only Matisse.”

Lesson for leaders: Rivalries aren’t necessarily grudge matches that end with one winner or loser. Most of the time, rivalries make winners of both parties. Rivalries can create contention, frustration, and anger, but they don’t need to devolve into outright hatred. As Matisse said, “Hatred is a parasite that devours all. One doesn’t build upon hatred, but upon love.”