When Matisse’s Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra 1907 was shown at the Paris salon, it was universally decried as hideous and deformed. The subject matter, a reclining nude set amidst a lush landscape, was familiar enough; it was Matisse’s treatment of it that proved so controversial. The blue body, twisted and muscular, defies any traditional criteria of beauty or eroticism. And while Matisse follows convention in not allowing the model to look at us directly, her staring breasts prove far more startling as eyes.
Picasso was then engaged in painting his own series of harpies, which would culminate in his masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1907. However, he is reported to have disliked Matisse’s painting, feeling that, in pictorial terms, the nude was at odds with the vibrant, patterned background; and that it was neither a portrait of a woman nor a decoration, but something between the two.
Picasso’s Nude with Raised Arms 1907 was perhaps an answer to what he saw as Matisse’s indecision. He situates the nude solidly into the background, melding her body with the forest setting until the two are interchangeable. The painting extends the dialogue with Matisse in other ways. Matisse had introduced Picasso to African art in the autumn of 1906 by showing him a small, carved figure. If there is something of Africa in the muscular torso of the Blue Nude, it is sublimated through the lens of classical sculpture.
Picasso, who after Matisse’s introduction to African sculpture, had immersed himself in the holdings of the ethnographic museum in Paris, takes on not only the formal principles of such artefacts, but the animating forces behind them. In Nude with Raised Arms, the entire scene is Africanised, in a way that moves beyond simply external appearance. This woman, with her transfixing gaze, is a sorceress, the embodiment of totemic, magical powers.