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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Francis Picabia

Moret Canal, Autumn Effect, 1909, Francis Picabia
Francis Picabia Self-portrait, 1923
It's interesting, in studying the lives of artists, how often I've encountered what I call "parallels. That is, two artists, approximately the same age, coming under the same influences, often of the same nationality, working in the same city, even painting the same content in the same style. Yet, one becomes a household name, the other simply an "also ran." Sometimes there aren't quite that many similarities, but as I was searching today for an artist to "bring to life," I encountered the work of Francis Picabia. You've probably never heard of him (I hadn't). The man was born in 1879. He died in 1953. Thus this Paris-born artist lived through one of the most explosive periods in the development of Modern Art in a city which was the birthplace of that profoundly important era. His work is remarkably similar to any number of the movers and shakers from that period. He was born within two years of a man who became the major driving force in the Paris art world of the time and it would be hard to imagine that the two were not at least passing acquaintances. Yet, Francis Picabia could hardly be considered more than a footnote in the annuls of Modern Art while his "parallel," Pablo Picasso, cut a virtual super highway through the art history of the 20th-century.

The Eure in the Twilight Sun, 1901, Francis Picabia
Like Picasso, both men appear to have been child prodigies. Picabia was born in Paris and was, in fact, two years older than his parallel, who came to Paris from Catalonia (Spain) around 1900. Picabia was, by then, already a student at the School of Decorative Arts. Picasso obtained most of his early training from his father, later at schools in Barcelona and Madrid. Picabia grew up without a mother, who died of tuberculosis when he was seven. His father was of Cuban descent a member of the diplomatic corps. The family was relatively wealthy. So adept at painting was the young Picabia that, at the age of fifteen, needing money to finance his budding stamp collection, he painted copies of his father's extensive art collection, then, without his father knowing, substituted them for the originals, which he sold for a healthy profit. By the age of twenty, he was supporting himself full-time as an artist. Picabia's The Eure in the Twilight Sun (above), from 1901, is typical of his work from this period. Picasso was, at the time, just one of many struggling left-bank painters living from hand to mouth, in search of name recognition.

On the Banks of the Creuse, 1909, Francis Picabia
However, it's during this first decade of the 20th-century that the two lives diverge. Picabia was quite adept at Impressionism, which by then, had gained in popularity to the point such work was very much in demand. Picasso, at the time, was struggling through his Blue Period works, never having shown any interest whatsoever in the passé prettiness of Impressionism. His figures from this period were as gaunt and haggard as his own frigid, one room existence. He was known to burn some of his work just to keep warm. Later, he moved on to the circus figures and the brighter palette of his Rose Period. Meanwhile, Picabia was still painting Impressionism, as seen in his Moret Canal, Autumn Effect (top) as late as 1909, though by then he seems to have also been flirting with the Fauvist movement as well in his On the Banks of the Creuse from the same year. By 1909, Picasso had finished work on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Dances at the Spring, 1912, Francis Picabia
Gertrude Stein, 1937 or later,
Francis Picabia
Despite their differences, both men were virtual unknowns, seeking exposure, support, and most of all buyers for their work. Picasso discovered Gertrude Stein and her brother, about 1905, who not only helped his career by introducing him to the "right" people, but bought some of his work as well. In return, Picasso painted his famous cubist portrait of her. Francis Picabia didn't get around to painting her until 1937 or later (right). As the first decade of the 20th-century drew to a close, Picabia seems to have been an artist in search of a style. He'd switched from Impressionism to Fauvism, and then took up a new thing they were calling Cubism. It was at that time he may have first met Picasso. Picabia's Dances at the Spring (above), from 1912, would certainly suggest he was aware of Picasso's exploratory strides.

A Daughter Born Without a Mother, 1916, Francis Picabia

Machine Turn Quickly, 1917,
Francis Picabia
A year later, Picabia was the only member of the "Cubist group" of painters to travel to New York for the groundbreaking Armory Show. There he met Alfred Stieglitz, who gave him a one-man show in his gallery 291, as well as Man Ray. For the next few years, Picabia seems to have spent more time traveling back and forth between Paris and New York than in painting. He became involved in the earliest development of Dada along with Marie Laurencin, Olga Sacharoff, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Marcel Duchamp, and their leader, Andre Breton. Picabia's A Daughter Born Without a Mother (above) from 1916, and Machine Turn Quickly (left), from 1917, are typical of the nonsensical Dada images from this period.

Corrida, 1925-27, Francis Picabia--Picasso's favorite subject.
The Eye Codylate, 1921, Francis Picabia
Picasso never became involved in Dada, or its stepchild, the Surrealist movement. Picabia immersed himself in both. While Picasso was making his own "movements," Picabia, dabbled in them all. By the 1920s, Picabia was well on his way to becoming an alcoholic while at the same time suffering from "Dropsy" ( Edema, intestinal fluid buildup) and Tachycardia (rapid heartbeat). Picabia's Corrida (above) from 1925-27 would seem to indicated that he was not only aping Picasso's style but also one of his favorite content areas. If nothing else, Corrida might serve as a sample of what Picasso might have painted had he become a Surrealist. Picabia's The Eye Codylate (right), from 1921, would suggest the artist's familiarity with Picasso's inventive exploration of collage combined with painting.

Picabia at work on Villica Caja (below), 1929
By the 1930s both Picasso and Picabia were established artists, though Picasso proved, over the ongoing years, to be a good deal more established. As Picasso had some twenty years before, Picabia discovered Gertrude Stein who, more importantly, discovered him, much as she had Picasso, though with lesser long term effect. It might be more telling to say that Picabia eventually discovered himself. His painting, Villica Caja (below) from 1929 marks a maturation of his work as he veered away from the dead end of Dada toward a more decorative Surrealism, though still owing much to some of Picasso's works from around the same time.

Villica Caja, 1929,  Francis Picabia
Squatting Woman, 1942,
Francis Picabia
When the war came to Paris, Picabia packed his bags and headed for he south of France. Picasso remained in Paris, becoming something of tourist attraction for the invading Germans. Basking in the sun on the French Rivera during the war, Picabia began painting figures, not just nudes, but images more on the order of "girlie" magazine centerfolds (years before Hefner invented the term). They weren't pornographic, but definitely erotic to a degree not seen in French art before the war. And, like his earlier Impressionist works, they were quite popular. An Algerian dealer bought dozens of them, similar to Picabia's Squatting Woman (left) from 1942, which the merchant took home with him. As a result, Picabia's garish nudes ended up decorating the Algerian's chain of North African brothels.

Nude in a Landscape, 1938, Francis Picabia. Notice the difference in style in this pre-war
nude figure and the blatantly naked figure (above, left). They're definitely not Picassos.


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