As Matisse’s health sank in his 80s, his art soared. His long struggle to purify form, to make figures beautiful by making them simpler, to show essence and erase detail, led him back to the child’s art of paper cutouts. Some of these were huge, others small enough for him to manage from bed. When a Dominican priest invited him in 1947 to design a chapel in the town of Vence, he prepared some of the images for the stained-glass windows and wall decorations by cutting out paper. Picasso, too, took up a pair of shears. He made a series of sculptures that look like paper cutouts, though they are of sheet metal. And his paintings seemed to take on a Matissean simplicity of form, even a decorative exuberance.
In retrospect, one should have seen this coming. Some of their earlier paintings, like Matisse’s portrait of Marguerite, had a paper cutout look. And Picasso’s collaborations with Braque involved cutting and pasting paper in Cubist collages. There were even earlier hints. Matisse always drew on the weaving traditions of his birthplace, using textile patterns to subvert perspective and, as Hilary Spurling notes, “he resorted as a painter to old weavers’ tricks like pinning a paper pattern to a half-finished canvas.” Picasso had learned the same trick from his father, who used cut-out paper to construct his own paintings. “It’s an old, formal means for academic painters to build a painting,” explains PompidouCenter curator Isabelle Monod-Fontaine. “Cut-and-pasted paper was a way for a painter to conceptualize his work. Picasso and then Matisse took this from a low level, a hidden technique, and put it out front, on the surface, in the art itself. And that is a major part of modern art.”
The 19th-century painter Eugène Delacroix, who inspired Matisse’s odalisques and, after Matisse died, Picasso’s, once wrote of his own struggle to be modern. The problem, as he saw it, was how to keep the freshness of a first sketch when making a final, finished painting. That’s what putting hidden tricks up front was all about. It’s why Matisse and Picasso chose to draw crudely when each could draw like Ingres, why Matisse liked his paintings to look unfinished and Picasso was bent on tearing everything apart. They took different approaches, but between them they made art modern.
“Only one person has the right to criticize me,” said Matisse. “It’s Picasso.” After Matisse died in 1954, Picasso was alone, but not quite. “When Matisse died, he left me his odalisques as a legacy,” he proclaimed, and proceeded to dissect them in a series of his own paintings. Picasso died in 1973, believing to the end, as he said, “All things considered, there is only Matisse.”