Between the two world wars Matisse appeared to withdraw from avant- garde innovation to concentrate on more naturalistic figures, interiors and landscapes. In 1917 he moved to Nice, and painted a series of odalisques - languorous, costumed models in Orientalist settings, inspired by his earlier travels in North Africa. It was his absorption in such fantasies during this period that earned him the disparaging title of the ‘Sultan of the Riviera’. But even while embracing tradition, Matisse remained a highly original painter. When Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Background 1925-26 was first exhibited it caused a furore. Instead of fleshy curves, Matisse gives us an abstracted nude, her hips forming a stiff right-angle. The hypnotic patterning of the background defies the viewer to focus, sending our gaze shuttling about the canvas. This juxtaposition of dissonant elements was immediately criticised as an act of brutality and violence.
The works by Picasso in this room show him both emulating and at times parodying the Matissean nude, the style exemplified in the celebrated Pink Nude of 1935. At their most extreme, Picasso’s female forms become devouring mantraps, deliberate travesties of the classic odalisque. In other works he is much closer to Matisse. Girl Before a Mirror 1932, for instance, is over-loaded with colour and decoration. Picasso even appropriates Matisse’s serpentine line, breathing sensuality into every arabesque. Yet, for all that, the image is characteristically his own. Picasso’s Spanish obsession with mortality comes through in his use of the mirror with its darkened reflections, suggesting a ghostly world beyond.
Doubling, another key Picasso trait, appears in the splitting of the face and in the mirror image. The woman (Picasso’s mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter) appears pregnant, her arm stands in as an erect phallus. The eroticism of the image, the interchangeability of body parts and the way the figure metamorphoses into fruit are typical Picasso. His work was much admired by the Surrealists, and his association with them from the mid-1920s onwards encouraged him to develop the poetic aspects of his work. This Surrealist flavour was anathema to Matisse - the lemons that adorn his painted harems remain resolutely in their bowls.
Critical response to these works was hostile. Picasso’s glance towards the Matissean world of the odalisque was considered ill-advised, much as Matisse’s earlier experiments with Cubism had been decried. The art world, it seemed, preferred its two pre-eminent figures to remain rivals, pictorially as well as personally.