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Artists Francis Picabia

Francis Picabia

French Designer, Illustrator, Painter, and Writer

Movement: Dada

Born: January 22, 1879 - Paris, France

Died: November 30, 1953 - Paris, France

Quotes

"New York is the cubist, the futurist city. It expresses in its architecture, its life, its spirit, the modern thought."
Francis Picabia
"What I like is to invent, to imagine, to make myself a at every moment a new man, and then, to forget him, forget everything."
Francis Picabia
"Each artist is a mold. I aspire to be many. One day I'd like to write on the wall of my house: Artist in all genres."
Francis Picabia
"The world is divided into two categories: failures and unknowns."
Francis Picabia
"Only useless things are indispensable."
Francis Picabia
"If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as your shirt."
Francis Picabia
"[Picabia's career is] a kaleidoscopic series of art experiences."
Marcel Duchamp

"Artists, so they say, make fun of the bourgeoisie; me, I make fun of the bourgeoisie and the artists."

Synopsis

Once known as "Papa Dada," Francis Picabia was one of the principle figures of the Dada movement both in Paris and New York. A friend and associate of Marcel Duchamp, he became known for a rich variety of work ranging from strange, comic-erotic images of machine parts to text-based paintings that foreshadow aspects of Conceptual art. Even after Dada had been supplanted by other styles, the French painter and writer went on to explore a diverse and almost incoherent mix of styles. He shifted easily between abstraction and figuration at a time when artists clung steadfastly to one approach, and his gleeful disregard for the conventions of modern art encouraged some remarkable innovations even later in his career, from the layered Transparency series of the 1920s to the kitsch, erotic nudes of the early 1940s. Picabia remains revered by contemporary painters as one of the century's most intriguing and inscrutable artists.

Key Ideas

In the 1910s, Picabia shared the interests of a number of artists who emerged in the wake of Cubism, and who were inspired less by the movement's preoccupation with problems of representation than by the way the style could evoke qualities of the modern, urban, and mechanistic world. Initially, these interests informed his abstract painting, but his attraction to machines would also shape his early Dada work, in particular his Mechanomorphs - images of invented machines and machine parts that were intended as parodies of portraiture. For Picabia, humans were nothing but machines, ruled not by their rational minds, but by a range of compulsive hungers.
Picabia was central to the Dada movement when it began to emerge in Paris in the early 1920s, and his work quickly abandoned many of the technical concerns that had animated his previous work. He began to use text in his pictures and collages and to create more explicitly scandalous images attacking conventional notions of morality, religion, and law. While the work was animated by the Dada movement's rage against the European culture that had led to the carnage of World War I, Picabia's attacks often have the sprightly, coarse comedy of the court jester. They reflect an artist with no respect for any conventions, not even art, since art was just another facet of the wider culture he rejected.
Figurative imagery was central to Picabia's work from the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s, when he was inspired by Spanish subjects, Romanesque and Renaissance sources, images of monsters, and, later, nudes found in soft porn magazines. Initially he united many of these disparate motifs in the Transparency pictures, complexly layering them and piling them on top of each other to provoke confusion and strange associations. Some critics have described the Transparencies as occult visions, or Surrealist dream images, and although Picabia rejected any association with the Surrealists, he steadfastly refused to explain their content. Picabia always handled these motifs with the same playful and anarchic spirit that had animated his Dada work.
Picabia learned early on that abstraction could be used to evoke not only qualities of machines, but also to evoke mystery and eroticism. This ensured that abstract painting would be one of the mainstays of his career. He returned to it even in his last years, during which he attributed his inspiration to the obscure recesses of his mind, as he had always done.

Most Important Art

Très rare tableau sur la terre (Very Rare Picture on the Earth) (1915)
After World War I broke out, Picabia became fascinated with the idea of industrial objects as a pictorial source. He once wrote that "the machine has become more than a mere adjunct of life. It is really a part of human life...perhaps the very soul...I have enlisted the machinery of the modern world, and introduced it into my studio." His goal, he said, was to invent a "mechanical symbolism," and this piece is one of his most important examples, since critics have read it as an image of a sexual act rendered in mechanical terms. Although, at first glance, it might be hard to read so, Picabia may well have been inspired by his friend Marcel Duchamp to bury sexual references in images of machines. This work is also significant in that it is Picabia's first known collage (hence, as the title suggests, "very rare") since it contains two mounted wooden forms, and the frame is integral to the piece.

It stands to remember that Picabia loved machines, an in particular cars. He is said to have had a collection of over 100 automobiles. So here he is depicting the insides of his passion. Although he may be making fun of mankind, he may also, in true modernist fashion, be connecting technology and progress to human lives.
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Francis Picabia Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Francis Picabia was born in 1879 in Paris, the only child of a Cuban-born Spaniard, Francisco Vicente Martinez Picabia, and a Frenchwoman, Marie Cecile Davanne. Both his parents came from prominent European families, and Picabia was raised in an affluent household. Throughout his life, the family fortune allowed him to study, travel, and enjoy a luxury lifestyle. However, at the age of seven, his mother passed away of tuberculosis, and the following year his grandmother died. These losses ensured that Picabia's childhood would be a lonely one, and he was left in the care of his father, the chancellor to the Cuban Embassy, his uncle, Maurice Davanne, a curator of the Bibliotheque Sainte Geneviève, and his maternal grandfather, Alphonse Davanne, a wealthy businessman. Their house was known as the house of quatre sans femmes (four without women).

His uncle was an art lover and collector, who facilitated young Picabia's interests by surrounding him with works by classical French painters such as Fèlix Ziem and Ferdinand Roybert. His grandfather, a devoted amateur photographer, taught Picabia about photography, and Picabia would later use a camera to aid his work.

Early Training

In 1895, Picabia started attending the prestigious École des Arts Decoratifs, where recent alumni included Vincent van Gogh and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. He studied under Fernand Cormon, Ferdinand Humbert, and Albert Charles Wallet for two years. He then worked at Cormon's studio with his classmates Georges Braque and Marie Laurencin for the next four years. During this time, he produced mostly watercolors and exhibited only once at the Salon des Artistes Francais. He quickly left painting traditional watercolors and transitioned towards Impressionism, influenced by Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley. He believed that "paintings should not represent nature, but the emotional experience of the artist," and that Impressionism was a tool to represent his ideals.

Picabia held his first solo show in 1905 at the Galerie Hausmann in Paris. The show exhibited 61 landscape paintings and received substantial acclaim. After the show, he became widely popular in the art scene, showing solo in Paris, London, and Berlin. However, in 1909, he abandoned the style that brought him initial success and moved towards more avant-garde styles, including Fauvism. This caused a break with his representation at the Galerie Hausmann. In the same year, he married Gabrielle Buffet, a musician, who brought music into his life. Through her, he saw the possible link between art and music. She also encouraged his interest in more avant-garde styles.

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Francis Picabia Biography Continues
Francis Picabia in Studio

From 1909 to 1913, Picabia once again struggled to find the style best suited to express his developing concerns for the emotional and the intellectual, as well as the inner experience and the outer form. He jumped from one style to another, experimenting with Fauvism, Cubism, and abstract art. The attention from the art world that used to surround him decreased dramatically during his exploration. Despite his unstable prospects as an artist, Picabia and Gabrielle started a family, having their first child in 1910 and a second the following year. Picabia and Gabrielle joined the Sociètè Normande de Peinture Moderne, which met to foster and promote the theory of correspondance and the interdisciplinary relationship between all arts. It held annual exhibitions and other events, creating opportunities to network and socialize with other artists. In 1911, Picabia met Marcel Duchamp, beginning a long friendship that played a major role in both their lives and careers. Picabia also befriended the famous American writer Gertrude Stein who was supporting and spending time with modern artist in Paris. Stein tellingly said of him "that although he has in a sense not a painter's gift he has an idea that has been and will be of immense value to all time."

Mature Period

Francis Picabia Biography

By 1912, Picabia shifted to the more radical style of Cubism, painting from his memories and experiences rather than drawing inspiration from nature. Showing at the seminal 1913 Armory Show in New York, he presented Danses à la source I (1912), Souvenir de Grimaldi (1912), La Procession Seville (1912), and Paris (1912). His works received mixed reviews, with some journalists dismissing his "color harmonies" as "a hoax." Despite the criticism in America, he overstayed his two-week visit and acquainted himself with Alfred Stieglitz and his Gallery 291.

When World War I broke out, Picabia left France to seek refuge first in Barcelona, then in New York, and later in the Caribbean. The war pushed him to find yet another style that would represent the era of industrialization. He showed the first of his machine paintings, his mechanomorphs, in 1916 at the Modern Gallery in New York. His relationship with his wife began to fall apart when he met Germaine Everling in 1917. His mental and physical health deteriorated into depression.

During his recuperation, Picabia shifted his focus from painting to writing. He published his poems in 1917 under the title Cinquante-deux miroirs (52 Mirrors) and began publishing a review, titled 391 after Stieglitz's 291 Gallery. 391 became Picabia's outlet for Dadaist writings and visual representation of its ideals, although he also contributed to other Dadaist publications, like André Breton's Litterature and the Dada revue, and published three volumes of poetry, Poèmes et dessins de la fille neé sans mère (1918), L'athlète des pompes funèbres (1918), and Rateliers platoniques (1918). In 1919, Picabia and Buffet officially separated. By this time, his machinist style paintings were already well known through the avant-garde publications. In 1920, Dada reached its peak and the visions of Dadaist "events", exhibitions, books, articles, and magazines became more defined.

Frances Picabia and Germaine Everling at their chateau in Mougins - 1927

After years of promoting itself as a movement of anti-art, Picabia felt Dada had become just another system of established ideas. In 1921, he attacked other Dadaists in a special issue of 391, Phihaou-Thibaou. After the break from Dada, he focused on exhibiting his paintings again. And in 1922, he had a show at Salon d'Automne of his machinist paintings alongside more figurative pictures inspired by Spanish themes. After leaving his colleagues of the past ten years, and in the search of new life with his new common-law wife, he left Paris for the south of France in 1925 and stayed on the Cote d'Azur for twenty years. Germaine and Picabia settled into a home in Cannes and hired a governess for their son, Lorenzo. Picabia fell in love with the governess, Olga Mohler, and left Germaine soon after. They officially split in 1933.

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Late Period

In 1928, Picabia presented his Transparency paintings at the Galerie Theophile Briant. Film critic Gaston Ravel called them "sur-impressionism" as the paintings were said to have the neo-romantic look of superimposed film images. The Transparency series received warm acclaims from his peers, especially Duchamp. His then art dealer, Leonce Rosenberg, described it as "the association of the visible and the invisible... It is this notion of time added to that of space which precisely constitutes the doctrine of your art. Beyond the instantaneity towards the infinite, such is your ideal."

While living in Cannes he was quite the celebrity with the locals, receiving frequent visits from his famous friends, Jacques Douchet, Marthe Chenal, Pierre de Massot, and Marcel Duchamp. Picabia also enjoyed his wealth during this time, taking pleasure in throwing lavish parties, gambling, and collecting luxury cars and yachts.

When World War II started in 1939, the devastation reached Picabia and his lifestyle became quite modest. For the first time in his life, his primary source of income was from the sale of his paintings. In 1940, Picabia and Olga Mohler married. As it did whenever a major event occurred in his life, his painting style transformed once again. Many say that his paintings from the 1940s were purely for commercial value. He painted popular imagery from "girlie" magazines of movie stars and romanticized couples in a realistic style.

After the war, Picabia with briefly arrested by the French authorities for allegations that he was friendly with the Vichy (French Nazi) government during the war. He was release and never convicted but his reputation suffered, and Picabia never returned to France after 1945. There were various statements made by Picabia during the war that could be considered fascist, but as Picabia was ever the joking and anti-establishment personality, it is his hard to properly ascertain his position at that time.

At the end of his long career, Picabia once again changed directions, painting in abstract forms. He continued to exhibit his work in prominent Parisian galleries and published his writings until 1951, when he suffered from arteriosclerosis and could no longer paint. Prior to his death in 1953, he referenced Nietzsche writing "Where art ends, where life begins, I am the poet of my life".


Legacy

Francis Picabia Photo

Picabia did much to define Dada in Paris and New York, and his reputation as one of the movement's father figures has stayed with him. But it is perhaps the spirit that the movement encouraged in him - his anarchic spirit and his disrespect for conventional abstract modern art - that has yielded his greatest legacy. It is this spirit that shaped the Transparency series of the 1920s and the erotic nudes of the 1940s, both of which have proved hugely influential - the former on artists such as David Salle and Sigmar Polke, the latter on figures such as John Currin. When many artists thought abstract and figurative art should be separated, Picabia seemed to combine them. When others felt that the nude should remain a noble subject, he debased it. Picabia seems to have had a light-hearted and often cynical attitude to art-making, and while this put him at odds with many of his more serious peers, it is this attitude that seems so resonant to contemporary artists who not only have less faith in art's ability to change the world, but also have an attitude to museums and galleries that sways between the tolerant and the skeptical.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Francis Picabia
Interactive chart with Francis Picabia's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Camille Pissarro
Pablo Picasso
Georges Braque
Henri Matisse
André Derain

Friends

André Breton
Marcel Duchamp
Man Ray
Alfred Stieglitz
Guillaume Apollinaire

Movements

Impressionism
Cubism
Dada
Realism
Abstract Art
Francis Picabia
Francis Picabia
Years Worked: 1905 - 1951

Artists

Andy Warhol
David Salle
Sigmar Polke
Gerald Murphy
Konrad Klapheck

Friends

Marcel Duchamp

Movements

Futurism
Pop Art

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Useful Resources on Francis Picabia

Videos
Books
Websites
Articles
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
The Artwork Caught by the Tail: Francis Picabia and Dada in Paris

By George Baker

Francis Picabia: Accomodations of Desire

By Sarah Wilson

Francis Picabia His Art, Life, and Times

By William A. Camfield

More Interesting Books about Francis Picabia
Picabia.com

Website Devoted to the Artist

391

Archive of Francis Picabia's Publication

MoMA Collection: Francis Picabia

Features Works by the Artist

Dada and Dadaism: Francis Picabia

Website Includes Information on Picabia and Dada

Francis Picabia

By Jori Finkel
Art Info
January 26, 2009

Francis Picabia, awful artist and provocateur of genius

By Michael Gibson
The New York Times
December 21, 2002

Portrait of a Doctor, Picabia (1935-6)

By Jonathan Jones
The Guardian
July 27, 2001

The Good The Bad and The Ugly

By Daniel Birnbaum
Frieze Magazine
March-April 1998

More Interesting Articles about Francis Picabia
Francis Picabia. Mouvement Dada. 1919

MoMA's Curator explaining Picabia's visual representation of Dada

Francis Picabia. The Cacodylic Eye (L'Oeil cacodylate)

MoMA Curator Discusses Picabia's Photomontage

Francis Picabia. Machine with No Name

Explanation of Picabia's Painting, in Conjunction with the MoMa Exhibition Dada

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