Room 5 Room 5

The developing dialogue around Cubism is explored further in this section. Picasso’s small Cubist collages, called papiers collés, show the artist beginning to reintroduce colour to his work, applying bands of patterned paper that echo Matisse’s decorative schemes. In turn, some of the structural principles of these collages would be appropriated by Matisse and translated into large paintings. 

At the core of the selection of paintings is a confrontation between two major works, Matisse’s Goldfish and Palette 1914 and Picasso’s Harlequin, painted a year later in 1915. The strong vertical bands, and the presence of a palette on the right in each painting are clear parallels. Matisse believed that Picasso had been influenced by Goldfish and Palette, but then Matisse’s painting, with its thin, flat planes of colour is clearly indebted to Picasso’s papiers collés, building on their geometric planes of cut paper. 

The paintings in this grouping are infused with the sombre mood of war - to which the austerity of Cubism lent itself well. On either side of the dark central column in Goldfish and Palette things teeter precariously. Picasso’s Harlequin floats against a black void - the method of flooding the background with pigment was one that Picasso had learned from Matisse. In two other paintings, The Moroccans 1915-16 and The Piano Lesson 1916, Matisse again adapts the structural devices of papiers collés to heroic dimensions. In The Moroccans, he draws on memories of North African architecture and street life; while The Piano Lesson is a rather old-fashioned genre scene, radicalised by its abstract form. 

This kind of subject matter was alien to Picasso, but he cannot but have recognised Matisse’s leap in transforming the lessons of his collages into grand-scale compositions. He responded with his own series of large paintings, including Harlequin, that culminated in Three Musicians 1921. However, Three Musicians is more classical in composition than anything by Matisse. Picasso creates a theatrical space with figures grouped towards the centre, limited to left and right. Matisse’s paintings, by contrast, spread across the canvas, suggesting continuation beyond the picture frame. This ‘all-over ‘quality in Matisse’s work stemmed from his appreciation of Islamic art. With its decorative appeal, colouristic richness and resistance to a centralised focus, Islamic art was as significant an influence for Matisse as African art for Picasso.