"Matisse Picasso," the exhibition that has now arrived at the Museum of Modern Art after packing in the crowds at Tate Modern in London and the Grand Palais in Paris, begins as a sort of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for culture vultures, a study in male bonding in the artistic stratosphere that features the somewhat older, more formal Matisse and the younger, unabashedly bohemian Picasso. Later on, when the show really gets going, museumgoers are supposed to be agog at what amounts to a clash of the titans with avant-gardist sparks flying, a High Modernist love-hate-love kind of thing. You can see that John Elderfield and Kirk Varnedoe, curators with the Museum of Modern Art, and the four other curators from England and France who collaborated on "Matisse Picasso" were delighted with their vision of psychodrama among artistic giants.

Indeed, the organizers were so excited about bringing together some of the grandest monuments of modern art that they seem to have overlooked the awkward fact that Matisse and Picasso were by and large going their separate ways. This can't-miss show misses by a mile. While there are a few points in "Matisse Picasso" where things do begin to click, most of the juxtapositions feel tenuous and arbitrary. When you shove Picasso's genius, which is perhaps best described as a kind of transcendent ingenuity, against Matisse's Apollonian lucidity, both artists have a way of looking their worst. And yet people are going through the show all smiles, wrapped in the brand-name sophistication of "Matisse Picasso" the way they might be wrapped in their Armani or their Prada.

This exhibition, which is at MoMA QNS through May 19, is engineered to lock up contemporary taste. We do want the show to work. We want to be transported to High Modern heaven. There are some beautiful moments, of course. At the beginning, when Picasso and Matisse are both reacting to Czanne, their work does harmonize. A little later, when Matisse is experimenting with a Cubist grammar, he quite naturally strikes us as being in sync with Picasso. At the very end of the show, the juxtaposition of Matisse's paper cutouts and Picasso's cut metal sculptures creates an atmosphere of empyrean elegance. And even though much of the rest of the exhibition is forced or silly or dishonest, the public is determined to leave with a satisfied feeling. The museumgoers who have bought their tickets through Ticketmaster are unlikely to imagine that the Museum of Modern Art, of all places, doesn't know what to do with Picasso and Matisse. The artists and the critics who see themselves as defenders of quality and tradition are aware that "Matisse Picasso" looks a lot like the sort of classic show that they say they want, and so they are reluctant to ask for more. As for the faddists who control the art world and would not know a good painting from a bad one, they are glad to salute some golden oldies, which they probably regard as the visual equivalent of easy listening and in any event are quite sure have nothing any longer to do with the making of art.

The story of the long and frequently wary friendship between these two men is not enough to hold this show together, but it is the story that pulls people in, and it is what they will remember long after the visual dissonance has faded. The friendship began in 1906, when Picasso was in his mid-twenties and Matisse was moving into his late thirties. They were both receiving much-needed support from the adventuresome American clan of collectors that consisted of Leo and Gertrude Stein and their older brother Michael and his wife Sarah. The story ends nearly half a century later, in the years leading up to Matisse's death in 1954, when both Matisse and Picasso were living in the south of France, and they may well have enjoyed looking into each other's eyes and knowing that they, and they alone, had achieved the sort of international fame that in their youth had belonged to literary figures such as Hugo and Tolstoy. In those mid- century years, when Picasso was visiting the aged Matisse, both artists were glad to believe that they were the two giants left standing, and they might have given the nod to an exhibition such as "Matisse Picasso."

There were in fact occasions that brought their work together, including side-by-side shows at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1945. The prospect of that London event provoked a fascinating prediction from Matisse regarding the effect that their paintings would have when seen in close proximity. (Hilary Spurling, who is at work on the second volume of her biography of Matisse, quotes the passage in an article in the February issue of Art in America.) Contemplating a face-off with Picasso that was not entirely unlike the one that we now have in "Matisse Picasso," Matisse worried in a letter to his son that the show would be like "being shut up with an epileptic. How solemn (if not stuffy--at any rate to some) I'm going to look alongside his pyrotechnics." That hellish mismatch is not precisely what you get in "Matisse Picasso," but this show is no prettier. Matisse would probably be glad to know that Picasso gets the worse of the bargain; his work does indeed look hyperactive, too anxious to please.

Anyway, Matisse went on to say that he would "have to go through with" the Victoria and Albert show. He probably knew that however he fared in this competition with Picasso, they would together dominate the School of Paris; and although the urge to knock off the competition, if indeed that was what they intended, is just about the least interesting aspect of Matisse and Picasso, it is a side of their personalities that makes them perfect subjects for the star- system art world of our day. "Matisse Picasso" is a show in which many of the things that make the work of the two artists convincing--the tug with tradition; the wide-ranging curiosity about the work of their contemporaries; the incremental developments that provoke startling, evolutionary leaps--are downplayed in favor of shows of bravado and egotism, of face-offs and rip-offs. Reflecting on the exhibition during an appearance on Charlie Rose, Pierre Schneider, the author of what is probably the finest of all studies of Matisse, wondered how we could "reduce the richness of these two brilliant minds to an obsession with each other." How, indeed.

"Matisse Picasso" has a blowhard, Masterpiece Theatre aura. The curators are too much in love with the kind of complicated-friendship-that-survives- everything plot that Hollywood used to adore, and too quick to locate artistic motivations not in the artists' working processes but in the outer conditions of the artists' lives, and too clever when it comes to squeezing the artists' admittedly contrasting personalities for an attraction-of-opposites excitement that rapidly degenerates into clich. I know that there are some serious theories of artistic development that put a good deal of emphasis on psychological drives, on the need to exceed your father or to grab the attention that you were denied as a child. And there is no doubt that since ancient times students of the arts have been fascinated by what can seem to be the almost fable-like quality of certain artistic rivalries. I do not doubt that psychological dynamics were at work in the first decade of the twentieth century, when Picasso and Matisse watched with bated breath to see what the other guy was doing with the lessons of Czanne. Yes, Picasso was tempestuous and nihilistic and Matisse was circumspect and methodical. When all is said and done, however, the desire to paint a better painting surely precedes the desire to paint a painting that is better than your friend's painting. The theme of "Matisse Picasso" really has nothing much to do with art; we could just as easily be talking about athletes or politicians.

This exhibition has been in the planning stages for a long while, and it may be that the organizers found themselves pumping up the psychodynamics as they made their pitch to all the lenders and funders and marketing people that such a project must have on its side. At MoMA QNS, the everything-comes-in-pairs conceit seems in danger of getting a bit wacky. On the audio tour, John Elderfield, the Modern's chief curator at large, is joined by Kirk Varnedoe, the former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the museum, who exchange their impressions under the guidance of Glenn Lowry, the museum's director. A chat among friends, I suppose; or among rival talking heads. A symposium that is planned for MoMA features an entire day of lectures done by art historians appearing in pairs. Of all the people involved in this project, it is John Golding, the English artist and art historian who is credited with originating the conception, who seems to have kept his head. In his best work in the catalogue--especially a discussion of several still lifes, including the Matisse Still Life with Basket of Oranges (1912) that was one of Picasso's treasured possessions--Golding emerges as a highly civilized guide who makes a few telling observations about some works of art that he loves and leaves it at that. Golding's British colleague on this project is Elizabeth Cowling, an art historian. The French third of the team consists of Anne Baldassari, a curator at the Muse Picasso, and Isabelle Monod-Fontaine, who is deputy director of the Muse Nationale d'Art Moderne. So we have six curators in search of two artists, a multinational curatorial entity that, it should probably be pointed out, was in some sense pre-empted by the art historian Yve-Alain Bois, who organized "Matisse and Picasso," a show with a very similar theme that made an equally sour impression, at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth in 1999.

There is no denying that "Matisse Picasso" raises more questions about the nature of inspiration and influence than any exhibition could hope to answer. These two artists took on the challenges of so many different media and operated so close to the edge of what is possible in the arts that even the most lucidly focused effort to understand their work can itself feel like an exercise in brinkmanship. The questions that Picasso and Matisse ask themselves (and perhaps each other) do not yield easy or definitive answers. To what extent can distortion have an emotional impact? How far can you go in intensifying the character of a form through simplification before you lose the form entirely? No two artists have put the fluid relationship between art and nature to more varied tests. And few artists, in their efforts to continuously re-imagine the eye-filling and mind-filling experience that a work of art can be, have looked so long and so hard at the art of other cultures and at the art of their predecessors and at the work of their contemporaries.

The thunderous juxtapositions in "Matisse Picasso" are meant to give us a heightened dramatic sense of what these two artists were thinking when they looked at their own earlier work, as well as the work of their predecessors, their contemporaries, and each other. When the curators hang Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), with its exaggeratedly angular figures and its shattered, fractured space, next to Matisse's Bathers With a Turtle (1908), in which the boldly yet gently abbreviated modeling of the figures is set against expanses of the most luminous, penetrating greens and blues, we do see two ways of giving the monumental figure, that most venerable subject, a modern weight and intensity and speed. We recognize that Matisse and Picasso both want to achieve an unequivocal full-out power, and we can see that Picasso identifies that power with ferocity while Matisse aims for an impacted repose. Both artists understand that ambiguity, whether spatial or anatomical, can be an essential rhetorical device.

These two paintings are grand performances, summing-up achievements--and that is where the trouble with their juxtaposition begins. While similar modes of thinking may have been involved in their creation, these paintings finally persuade us through their singularity; and when they are hung together, although they speak to us, they do not speak to each other. The face-off produces no vibrations, except in some kind of bland, interior-decorator way. Time and time again in this exhibition, I wished that I could spend a little more time with Picasso or Matisse, and a little less time with the two of them together. On a long wall where the curators have hung portraits that range in date from 1907 to 1916, the back-and-forth between Picasso's tough, angular expression and Matisse's more curvaceous play can almost make you seasick.

The show is ruled by a maddening one-from-column-A-one-from-column-B mentality. We begin with two beautiful self-portraits from 1906. Then we see two Arcadian visions, Picasso's Boy Leading a Horse (1906) and Matisse's Le Luxe I (1907). These are among the pairs that make deep iconographic sense. Many of the pairs, however, are merely fetching. Matisse's Bowl of Oranges (1916) and Picasso's Still Life with Pitcher and Apples (1919) seem mostly to be together because they are the same size and have a similar number of objects. Maybe somebody thought it was droll to have apples and oranges side by side. There is something essentially undisciplined about the way the show has been organized. When the curators cannot match paintings or sculptures that were done at the same time, they match works done ten or twenty years apart; the leafy forms of Picasso's Woman in the Garden (1931-1932), a bronze version of a welded metal original, look sensational next to Matisse's Creole Dancer cutout (1950), but the two artists have arrived at their ebullient images in very different ways. Sometimes it seems that if the curators want to include a painting because it is a masterpiece, such as Matisse's resplendently complex Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Background (1925-1926), they will pair it with any old thing, which in this instance means a dull Surrealist puzzle, such as Picasso's Woman in an Armchair (1927). Occasionally two canvases are put together because one of the artists saw connections, as when Matisse recognized echoes of his Goldfish and Palette (1914) in Picasso's even more severe Harlequin (1915); but while the connections may be formally and iconographically intriguing, they do not really deepen our feeling for either of the paintings.

What you have here is a rather crude model of influence. You take this or that, you put it in your work, and you're done. What the organizers are unable to convey is the extent to which the artist who really knows how to capitalize on an influence exists in a permanent state of susceptibility or receptivity. The influences that matter the most can be so general as to elude our efforts to pin them down, or they can involve adopting elements or techniques in a way that is so bold as to suggest a kind of colonization. Much of what is presented at "Matisse Picasso" as an exchange between these two artists might better be described as a particular instance of a broader climate of feeling or sense of tradition. A lot of what is going on, even in the most seemingly dramatic juxtapositions, is not so much that Matisse and Picasso are watching each other as that they are both interested in another artist. In the beginning that artist was often Czanne, who taught so many painters to re-imagine the drama of deep space as a drama played out in a shallow or nearly flat space. And when Matisse and Picasso used full-out color, they were probably both saluting Gauguin and Van Gogh.

"MATISSE  PICASSO" AIMS to keep you amused by rapidly zooming in and out of various periods in the artists' lives, but you are never drawn into the workings of a great artist's imagination in the way that you are in a large retrospective, where developments can be traced year by year, sometimes even month by month. Not surprisingly, some of the most convincing sections of "Matisse Picasso" are devoted to works on paper: the boldly conceived woodcuts from 1906-1908, Neoclassical portraits and figure studies during and after World War I, and studies of the artist and the model from the 1930s. Here we begin to grasp one of the abiding connections between Matisse and Picasso, which has to do with their insistence on always digging into the graphic mainstream of the Western tradition, where figure drawing is the key that unlocks spaces, opens forms, and leads to so many different levels of abstraction and near-abstraction and non-abstraction. Unfortunately, there are not all that many works on paper in "Matisse Picasso." Perhaps they are too modest to accord with the curators' desire to knock the audience over the head.

There is something utterly mainstream about this puffed-up spectacle: it leaves Matisse and Picasso exactly where it finds them. When the curators set Matisse's The Studio, Quai Saint-Michel (1916-1917), a painting that can bring Corot's studio interiors to mind, next to Picasso's Painter and Model (1928), an architectural maze that is all black lines and white spaces and red and yellow and blue accents, they seem to be asking us to ignore the more obvious association between Picasso's work here and the tough-minded elegance of Mondrian's Neoplastic compositions, which were hot news in the mid-1920s. You cannot expect to have paintings by Mondrian included in an exhibition called "Matisse Picasso," but the curators ought to have done a better job of grappling with the fundamental question of how both Matisse and Picasso related to abstract art. Matisse and Picasso took art to the brink of abstraction but generally not beyond--and yet they both knew how to jump-start their imaginations by responding to the abstract artists who had earlier learned so much from them. By the mid-1920s it is obvious that abstract art, which Matisse and Picasso had provoked, is provoking them. When the curators set Picasso's Large Still Life on a Pedestal (1931) next to the Matisse paper cutout Vegetation (c. 1951), my feeling is not that Picasso and Matisse are looking at each other but that they are both taking a look at the biomorphic possibilities of abstract art--at Brancusi, Arp, Klee, and perhaps even certain aspects of Kandinsky. Toward the end of the exhibition, when Picasso's cut metal sculptures and Matisse's cutouts are joined to make such beautiful visual music, we are in a realm of near-abstract distillations, a kind of mid-century Parnassus where Arp, Calder, and maybe even Noguchi and Kelly are equally at home.

At "Matisse Picasso," the extraordinarily complicated landscape of twentieth- century art is turned into a cover story about a couple of superstars. In the catalogue, John Golding acknowledges how much Matisse learned about Cubism through his friendship with Juan Gris, "because of the rigours of the younger man's work and mind" and his "fealty to the totality of the painted surface," and yet the show's us-against-the-world thesis excludes Gris, and a lot of other people as well. When we see Matisse's wildly complex Still Life After Jan Davidsz. de Heem's "La Desserte" (1915) next to Picasso's elaborate Mandolin and Guitar (1924), the real subject here is a mutual interest in the highly formalized still lifes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and I wish something by Braque had been included, because he was the artist who investigated this theme more thoroughly than either Matisse or Picasso and whose architectonic compositions of the early 1920s may have been on Picasso's mind when he painted his most formal still lifes. The last Picasso that we see in the show, The Shadow (1953), contains a rendering of what is apparently a Sicilian toy cart that looks like nothing so much as the Etruscan-influenced sculptures of horses that Braque had been making since the late 1930s.

The organizers of "Matisse Picasso" will tell you that they do not claim to deal with all the influences that were at play in Matisse's or Picasso's work, but when they present their two heroes' shared interest in Neoclassicism in the years around World War I without bringing Derain into the equation, they are simply not telling us what happened. The severely yet delicately modeled portraits that Derain did in 1913 and 1914, one of which Picasso owned, were harbingers of Neoclassicism, and they (and Derain's subsequent work) surely fueled the grave naturalism of Picasso and Matisse as much as the two fueled each other. While the prevailing view that Matisse and Picasso were greater artists than Derain is correct, there are many artists who believe that Braque was a more profound painter than Picasso, and in any event there is still a general ignorance in the United States about the achievements of both Braque and Derain. The curators of "Matisse Picasso" are oh-so-proud of their impeccable taste, but if they really knew anything about educating taste they might have considered doing a little more with Braque or Derain. Congratulating the Museum of Modern Art for trotting out some beloved Picassos and Matisses is a little like congratulating the Metropolitan Opera for the announcement of a production of La Traviata.

THERE IS A CONFRONTATIONAL mood about this entire exhibition that probably has much more to do with Picasso's way of seeing the world than with Matisse's. In his life as well as in his art, Picasso was a man with a taste for dramatic alliances and dramatic breakups, and he clearly saw possibilities in the dialectical theatricality of his lifelong, sometimes electrically charged relationship with Matisse. Elderfield, who has guided the show in New York, is known as an expert on Matisse and organized the Modern's retrospective in 1992, but the idea of juxtaposing the two artists has probably more often than not come from Picasso's supporters. Wasn't Gertrude Stein, who was in Picasso's camp, among the first to endow their contrasting personalities with a mythic dimension? And in the past decade or so, as the idea of a face-off between the two has become increasingly popular, the comparison has often been pushed by people who are generally associated with Picasso, including Pierre Daix, a biographer of Picasso and the author of Picasso/ Matisse (1996); Franoise Gilot, Picasso's companion after World War II and the author of a book rich in anecdote and insight called Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art (1990), and of course John Golding, the expert on Cubism who had the idea for the present exhibition.

After Matisse's death in 1954, Picasso was apparently anxious to underscore their supremacy, no doubt as a way of assuring the world that, with Matisse out of the way, there was now only Picasso. He announced that Matisse had left him his odalisques, as if Matisse had made some sort of deathbed gift or put a codicil in his will, and he proceeded to paint a series of variations on Delacroix's Women of Algiers, a painting that Matisse had mined in many of his greatest odalisques of the 1920s and 1930s. We can easily make too much of Picasso's getting himself into a Matissean kind of mood, for there was a nihilistic dimension to Picasso's imagination that always made him eager to reject the niceties of influence in favor of something more like theft. Matisse was only one of many artists from whom Picasso stole without giving it a thought. There is a fascinating passage in At Work in Paris (Thames and Hudson), a new volume of memoirs by the sculptor Raymond Mason, in which Giacometti is doing his damnedest to keep Picasso out of his studio, because, as Giacometti explains, "When he's in your studio [he] looks at your work not with two eyes but with two cameras, and the next day does the same thing ten times over."

The truth is that Picasso was rarely at his best when he was in his rip-off mode, and this is almost inevitably the case when he was filching from Matisse. In the 1950s, when he attempted to adopt the opulent yet severe effects that are Matisse's final thoughts on the art of oil painting, the results--at least the ones included here, The Studio at "La Californie" (1955) and Las Meninas, After Velzquez (1957)--are practically buffoonish. While there are some terrific works to be found among Picasso's late studio paintings, they tend to be the ones in which Picasso is looking at Braque's studio paintings rather than at Matisse's; and the fact is that whatever affinities there may be between the later Picasso and the later Matisse, they were ultimately two artists who were going in very, very different directions. In the Cubist years Picasso was arguably the one who was moving the furthest from traditional ideas of genre and style, but in the later years it was Matisse who was tossing out all the old distinctions between drawing and painting, painting and decoration, the sketchbook and the easel, the easel and the mural. At least in the greatest of his late work, such as the enormous group of etchings known as Suite 347, Picasso is a storyteller in a sort of personalized narrative mode that does not seem that far from the work of Degas or Goya or maybe even Rembrandt.

I WONDER IF THE CURATORS WHO the curators who organized "Matisse Picasso" ever asked themselves why it was that Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art and the guiding spirit behind the museum's seminal exhibitions of both Picasso and Matisse, never mounted a show like the one that has now arrived at MoMA QNS. Such an exhibition might seem to be logical, almost inevitable for the Museum of Modern Art. And yet a visit to "Matisse Picasso" makes it easy to see why Barr never attempted this kind of show. It simply does not work.

Seeing "Matisse Picasso" in New York, which is the final stop on its international tour, can provoke all kinds of thoughts about the relationship that the Museum of Modern Art has had with Matisse and Picasso in the nearly three-quarters of a century since the museum was founded, and they are not thoughts that will make you feel very optimistic about the direction of the museum. While it would be absurd to say that Barr alone placed Matisse and Picasso at the pinnacle of the pantheon of twentieth-century art, there is no question that he and William Rubin, who was his successor as the guiding curatorial force at the institution, played a key role in demonstrating that this art of overarching complexity could be accessible to a large public. Barr and Rubin helped to shape the places that Matisse and Picasso now hold in the public imagination. And Matisse and Picasso recognized the museum's role in their careers. They had never received institutional support in France, and by the late 1930s they could see that with the progressive museums in Germany shut down and chaos overtaking Europe, their best chance for an audience was in America.

Barr was on friendly terms with Matisse; Rubin knew Picasso. Matisse was involved in the preparations for his 1951 MoMA retrospective. For decades, Picasso left Guernica on loan at the Modern, and he gave the important sheet metal Cubist Guitar (1912-1913) to the collection. Barr was responsible for early appearances in English of some of the most important writings by both artists. The Matisse retrospective in 1951 and Barr's accompanying book, Matisse: His Art and His Public, presented the Chapel in Vence, which had just been consecrated, as a major new development in modern art. And Rubin's Picasso retrospective in 1980, held seven years after the artist's death but before the opening of the Muse Picasso in Paris, revolutionized our understanding of the phantasmagorical richness of Picasso's work in the decades between the wars. Barr was a singular figure, a man who made modern art popular even as he laid the groundwork for the most exacting scholarly study of the achievements of Picasso and Matisse. The curators who are in charge of "Matisse Picasso" would probably like us to believe that they are operating in the same spirit. Nothing could be further from the truth. Barr and Rubin may have used the star power of Matisse and Picasso to pull people into the museum, but they also believed that museumgoers, if given some direction, could enter into the intricacies of a supreme artist's imagination. The organizers of "Matisse Picasso" just keep bombarding us with star power. The show is all greatest hits and dramatic flourishes. An institution that once took part in shaping our understanding of some of the central achievements of the age no longer sees those achievements as anything but brand-name products. And the branding has become a global affair, since the museum is less and less inclined to attempt to formulate exhibitions on its own. (Some will say that this inhibition is a result of the everincreasing costs of mounting major shows, but somehow the Metropolitan Museum of Art still finds a way to go it alone, as with its epochal Renaissance tapestry show and now with Leonardo's drawings.) When the Modern does mount shows of classic modern work with its European collaborators, the presentations of Bonnard and Giacometti and now Matisse and Picasso have none of the inspired inevitability that Rubin brought to certain installations of Czanne and Picasso, installations that even today, decades after the work was taken off the walls, have a lingering emotional impact.

No institution remains the same, and there is no point in complaining that the Museum of Modern Art in which so many of us grew up no longer exists. The problem is not that some of us are nostalgic. The problem is that the museum's most vociferous supporters are so armored in their simplistic assumptions about what the museum stands for that they are incapable of seeing what the museum has become. If you want to judge how far the museum has fallen, just take a look at the contributions to the catalogue by Elderfield and Varnedoe, the two members of the curatorial team who are associated with the Modern. Their writing, with its weird mix of in-your-face newfangled jargon and a sort of neo- belletristic coziness, will startle readers who expect the kind of intellectual and literary clarity that Barr and Rubin brought to the mysteries of modern art. Of course Barr and Rubin made plenty of mistakes: Barr pushed some of the dreariest American realism through much of the 1940s, and Rubin had an obsession with Frank Stella that practically capsized the museum's presentation of contemporary art. But we were far better off with a museum where the challenge of the new involved some misconceived acts of fervor than we are with the Museum of Modern Art of the present, where a curator with an independent voice would no longer last a minute.

"Matisse Picasso" is an impersonation of a Museum of Modern Art exhibition. And yet this ill-focused, undisciplined, and essentially heartless presentation of some of the greatest art of the twentieth century is certain to get the nod from a city that is full of older museumgoers who are eager to relive the great experiences that they once had at the Modern and younger museumgoers who are anxious to make up for the great Modern shows that they missed. And there is another thing that New York, a city of bargain hunters, is going to like about "Matisse Picasso." It is the perfect show for our sagging economy. You get two for the price of one.