The characteristic differences between the two artists are brought to the fore in two still lifes, shown in this room: Matisse’s Goldfish and Sculpture 1912, and Picasso’s Still Life with a Skull 1908. Matisse’s painting, set in his studio at Issy-les- Moulineaux, a suburb of Paris, is an ode to joy. He famously commented that he wanted to create ‘an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter’.
Colour was the mortar of Matisse’s art, and he used it liberally, commenting that ‘one centimetre squared of any blue is not as blue as a square metre of the same blue’. Here, a saturated blue floods the canvas, while the goldfish in the bowl are stabs of pure orange. Goldfish were an important emblem for Matisse, representing not only colour, but life and movement, and through their associations with the East, a spirit of contemplation. (The dealer Léonce Rosenberg once dubbed Matisse ‘the master of the goldfish’ in a letter to Picasso.) The sculpture of a reclining nude in the still life is also a recurring motif - the actual sculpture appears elsewhere in this exhibition. But in total the scene reveals little of the artist’s personal life. Matisse’s was an art of interiority, both literally, as a painter of interiors, but also in the sense of privacy and self-absorption. We can’t often read his biography into his paintings, as we can with Picasso.
By contrast, in Still Life with a Skull, we have the sense that Picasso lived amongst the objects that he painted. He shows us his palette and brushes, his pipe resting on a pile of books, and one of his paintings in the background. The image is a vanitas, reminding us of death’s inevitable approach. A skull is a frequent prop in Picasso’s paintings - he was highly superstitious, especially about death. The still life can also be read as an encoded demonstration of the relationship between artistic creativity, death and sexuality: on the left is the phallic pipe and skull, on the right the painting of a female nude, below it an open bowl, another female symbol; and in the midst of it all the artist’s brushes.