During the Second World War Matisse was isolated in Nice, while Picasso remained in occupied Paris. But they still managed to exchange works and increasingly drew support from one another. The works in this room reveal the stylistic distance between them at this period, and their differing responses to the war. A pairing of two still lifes is telling. In Picasso’s Still Life with a Sausage 1941, objects take on a visceral force. His meal is laid out like an anatomy, suggesting death and dismemberment. He likened the knives and forks to ‘souls in purgatory’. Matisse’s Still Life with Oysters 1940, by comparison, appears untroubled, an evocation of a fine meal and an oblique reference, no doubt, to the privations of wartime rationing.
When France fell, rather than flee to America, Matisse had decided to remain in Nice. Though relatively secure in Vichy France, in 1941 he underwent an operation for cancer, which nearly killed him. His wife, from whom he had recently separated, was in Paris with his daughter, where, as workers for the Resistance, they were under constant threat. Picasso, as a Spaniard resident in Paris, was also in a dangerous position. The Nazis kept records of his movements, often calling at his studio; during the 1920s and 1930s hostile critics had outinely described him as part Jewish, a reaction both to the radical nature of his art in an increasingly conservative culture, and to his foreign identity.
Two other works contrasted here reinforce the differences in their approach at this period. Both take a musical theme. Matisse’s Music was painted just before the war in spring of 1939. Its lyrical sentiments are violently opposed in Picasso’s composition, Serenade, completed in 1942. Picasso’s painting recalls the Matissean motif of a reclining nude, her arms above her head, though the direct source is a painting by Ingres. Even in such a dissonant work, Picasso injects a note of humour. The figure to the right, far from being a voluptuary, appears to wear socks and slippers, the traditional garb of that famously cantankerous species, the Parisian concierge.