Francis Picabia : Biography
Francis Picabia is born in Paris, January 22, 1879, 82 rue des Petits Champs, the same house where he dies, November 30, 1953. During the seventy four intervening years, Picabia explores most of the artistic movements of his time, a feat as exceptional as the epoch itself. His childhood is as materially comfortable as it is emotionally troubled. “Between my head and my hand,” he says in 1922, “there is always the figure of death.” As a child, he is l'enfant terrible, later he becomes the perfect rastaquouère, the Joker or flashy adventurer, which is the public side of his complex personality.
An only child, François Marie Martinez Picabia is the son of a Cuban born Spaniard, Francisco Vicente Martinez Picabia, and a Frenchwoman, Marie Cécile Davanne; a marriage of the Spanish aristocracy and the French bourgeoisie. Picabia is seven when his mother dies of tuberculosis. A year later, 1887, his maternal grandmother dies, leaving the child alone with his father, chancellor to the Cuban Embassy;
his bachelor uncle, Maurice Davanne, curator of the Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève; and his grandfather, Alphonse Davanne, a wealthy businessman and devoted amateur photographer, reportedly a friend of Daguerre. Francis escapes the solitude and boredom of this “womanless” house through drawing.
In response to his grandfather's prediction that color photography will eventually replace painting, Picabia retorts, “You can photograph a landscape, but not the forms I have in my head.” -- a fundamental theme which unifies Picabia's aesthetic convictions, among the most heterodox of this century.
Very early he develops an aggressively independent character; at the same time, his talent as an artist appears. After a tumultuous primary education, Picabia begins his artistic apprenticeship at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs in 1895 where he studies under Corman, Humbert and Wallet. Braque and Marie Laurencin are fellow students, Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec recent graduates. 1899 marks Picabia's debut in the Salon des Artistes Français with the painting, Une rue aux Martigues. It isn't until after 1902 that the influence of Pissarro, and especially Sisley, is felt and with it Picabia's Impressionist period flowers. He begins exhibiting at the more liberal Salon d'Automne and Salon des Indépendants as well as the avant garde galerie of Berthe Weill. Success and notoriety follow. Picabia signs a contract with the prestigious Galerie Haussmann. In 1905, Danthon, proprietor of the galerie, mounts the first of three one-man shows and a prolific period follows where he perfects his Impressionism. Picabia's approach aligns him to the Symbolist-Synthesist concepts of the late 19th century where art is not considered a copy of nature, but rather the artist's emotional experience of it as seen in a synthesis of form and color with subjective expression.
With his brilliant reputation firmly established after the exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit in 1909, Picabia abandons the past and his place as its famous protagonist to embark on the adventure of modern art. The same year he marries Gabrielle Buffet, a young avant-garde musician who will be an intellectual stimulus throughout his life. The two abstract drawings of 1908 preview his first abstract painting of 1909, Caoutchouc. Although Picabia does not pursue the possibilities of this new direction until 1912, this is the first of many ruptures which characterise his work and his life. A young artist of thirty, he is banished from the company of established galeries, their clientèle and critics. The coup de grace is administered by Danthon, March 1909, at the Hotel Drouot where he auctions off over one hundred of Picabia's lmpressionist paintings.
From 1909 to 1914, Picabia flirts with the “isms” of the beginning of the century : Fauvism, Futurism, Cubism, and eventually Orphism, continually exploring the new visual language of modernism. “During the years immediately following the war of 1914,” Marc LeBot writes in his thesis, Francis Picabia et la crise des valeurs figuratives :
"Picabia launched more new ideas than any other artist of the avant-garde... without ever consenting to systematically exploit any of these formulas.”
There is the rite of passage from Neo-Impressionism to a reduction more radically abstract. All along, Picabia is searching for his own language to transcribe his interior state. During this time he exhibits regularly in the Salons, from the fauvist works of 1911 to the more cubist canvases of the following year. In the 1911 Salon d'Automne, he presents Jardin and Sur la plage; in the Salon des Indépendants, Printemps; and again in 1911 at the Société Normande de Peinture Moderne he exhibits Adam et Eve, Les régates and a landscape similar to L'Arbre rouge of 1912. The next year he presents the same paintings at the Salon de la Section d'Or; the paintings Souuenirs d'Italie à Grimaldi and Femmes sous les pins at the Salon des Indépendants; and at the Salon d'Automne, La Source and Danses à la Source.
Picabia becomes a member of the Société Normande de Peinture Moderne where he makes contact with the Parisian avant-garde. He also participates in the Groupe de Puteaux of Duchamp-Villon. 1910-1911 marks the beginning of his life-long friendship with Marcel Duchamp, for whom Picabia is a liberating force. The year 1911 is also the propitious meeting with Apollinaire. Picabia has an important role advocating a more abstract art in the Section d'Or, the Salon of the Société Normande, and later with Orphisme, Apollinaire's theoretical creation based on “pure” painting and its musical analogies. 1913 arrives, an historical year for modern art, the year of the Armory Show in New York (The International Exhibition of Modern Art). Picabia goes with his wife Gabrielle as an ambassador of the European avant-garde, the public spokesman who immediately becomes famous. He presents four paintings of 1912 at the Armory Show: Danses à la source I, Souvenir de Grimaldi, La Procession Seville and Paris. In the press Picabia explains how he “puts his soul on canvas”, saying that in his paintings, “the public is not to look for a 'photographic' recollection of a visual impression or sensation, but to look at them as but an attempt to express the purest part of the abstract reality of form and color.” Apart from the more illuminated, the reviews are mixed, many journalists treating his “color harmonies” as “a danger to art”, “a hoax”, “a conspiracy”.
The two week visit to New York lasts almost six months. Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia writes in her book, L'Ere Abstraite: “... the confrontation of modern European art with the New World and even the presence of Picabia in the United States and later that of Marcel Duchamp, delivered the artists and intellectuals from the obsession of the European academic tradition and made them aware of their personal genius.” Picabia meets the photographer Alfred Steiglitz and his group of friends, the artists who congregate at his Gallery 291 (the same address on Fifth Avenue) where he exhibits a series of large water colors painted in his room at the Hotel Brevoort. As he leaves his mark on the city, New York leaves its indelible mark on Picabia; its extreme modernity, the paradigm of the spirit of the industrial revolution, supports his already advanced ideas : here the machine turns incessantly. Picabia writes in 1913, “New York is the cubist city, the futurist city. It expresses modern thought in its architecture, its life, its spirit.” This new spirit leads to his psychological studies of 1913-1914, for example, Alfred Steiglitz as a camera or the American girl as a spark plug. The use of the symbolic vocabulary of machines grows into a more elaborate “mecanomorphic” period where machines are abstracted from their usual context to become pure, often eroticised, objects.
Returning to Paris in 1913, Picabia exhibits two important paintings at the Salon d'Automne, Edtaonisl (ecclesiastique) and Udnie. During this period he also paints Catch as catch can, Culture physique and Chanson nègre. During 1913-1914 there are works such as “Petit” Udnie, Danseuse étoile sur un transatlantique, Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie, Impétuosité française and a drawing, Fille née sans mère (girl born without a mother: the quintessential machine), all inspired from his experience in New York.
Then the infernal machine explodes: 1914, World War I. Thanks to family connections, Picabia as soldier leaves on a mission for Cuba in May, 1915, a mission he abandons during a stop-over in New York. He renews contact with his friends from 291, Steiglitz and Marius de Zayas, as well as Marcel Duchamp and the salon of Walter Arensberg, famous friend of the arts. We are now in the early years of Picabia's machinist style, 1914-1915. In an article in the New York Tribune of October, 1915, entitled, “French artists spur on American art”, Picabia writes: “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.” He further states his intention to work until “I attain the pinnacle of mechanical symbolism”. Typical of this periode are La fille née sans mère II, Unique eunuque and La veuve joyeuse.
In 1916, Picabia shows his new series of machine paintings at the Modern Gallery, offshoot of 291 directed by Marius de Zayas, among them Très rare tableau sur la terre, Machine sans nom and Voila la femme. With the war and the excesses of his life in New York, the first signs of neurasthenia appear and a nervous depression follows. For the next ten months, Picabia spends his time between Barcelona, New York and the Caribbean, seeking refuge from the war. Residing temporarily in Barcelona in the company of his expatriot friends, Marie Laurencin, Gleizes, Cravan and Charchoune, he begins seriously writing poetry. In 1917 Picabia publishes his first collection of poems under the title Cinquante-deux miroirs. This year also sees the publication of 391, a follow-up of Steiglitz's magazine 291, which becomes Picabia's personal forum in the dada spirit of creative intemperence. 391 has a life span of seven years, ending in 1924 after nineteen issues.
Spring 1917, the same time as America declares war, Picabia makes his third and final trip to New York where his particularly dadaistic activity centers around Duchamp and Arensberg. Returning to Paris in October, Picabia's health deteriorates and his private life becomes more embroiled. During this year he meets Germaine Everling, soon to become his devoted companion and common-law wife. The following year he leaves for Switzerland and a period of recuperation during which time his doctor forbids him to paint. He writes feverishly, producing Poèmes et dessins de la fille née sans mère, L'athèlete des pompes funèbres and Rateliers platoniques.
Picabia is also in contact with Tristan Tzara of the Zurich Dadaists. Finally in 1919, ten years and four children later Picabia separates from his first wife and embarks on a new adventure with Germaine Everling, and the Dadaists. Although Dada in spirit as early as 1913 with Duchamp in New York, Picabia now prepares its coming of age in Paris. Propelled by Picabia, in the guise of “Funny Guy”, it is hilariously anti-everything: art, artists, religion, nationalism, as anti-bourgeoisie as it is anticommunist. “Artists, so they say, make fun of the bourgeoisie; me, I make fun of the bourgeoisie and the artists,” Picabia says in 1923. The game is ingenius, deadly funny, the scandal brilliant. And yet, it is short-lived as a group actvity, especially for Picabia. At forty, “Papa Dada” is still the eternal loner. His guiding principle: “The only way to be followed is to run faster than the others”.
Picabia meets the Dadaists with Gabrielle in Zurich in 1919; in Paris later that year they assemble at the apartment he now shares with Germaine Everling. Before the high season of Dada in 1920, Picabia, the polemicist, contributes to many avant-garde publications, especially Breton's revue Litterature, the Dada revue and his own 391. He publishes Pensées sans langage and once again scandalizes the Salon d'Automne with L'enfant carburateur and Parade amoureuse, among other works which are examples of his established machinist style never before seen in Paris.
1920 arrives and with it La belle époque for Dada in Paris, with Tristan Tzara, André Breton and Picabia conducting. And the Tout Paris dancing in time. It's a year full of ideas, “happenings”, exhibitions, books, articles and magazines, including Picabia's latest, Cannibale. To the wealth of Dada poetry, he adds Unique Eunuch and Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère. Picabia's most characteristically Dada works are exhibited this year creating new denunciations: Le double monde, La Sainte Vierge and Portrait de Cezanne, which consists of a stuffed monkey attached to a canvas.
By 1921, even before this brilliant group has its second season in Paris, internal conflict erupts into serious dissention among the Dadaists. What began as a general protest against the fallacy of man-made systems, ignited and symbolized by Word War I, is becoming a system itself. An intolerable situation for Picabia, who in 1921 separates from the Dadaists, especially Tzara and Breton, in a violent attack in a special issue of 391, Pilhaou-Thibaou, where he denounces “the mediocrity of their now-established ideas”. In his farewell address, Picabia reiterates, “The Dada spirit really only existed between 1913 and 1918... In wishing to prolong it, Dada became closed... Dada, you see, was not serious... and if certain people take it seriously now, it's because it is dead!”. In the same article, his famous last words: “ One must be a nomad, pass through ideas like one passes through countries and cities.”
In 1922, he also exhibits at the Galerie Dalmau in Barcelona, machinist paintings along with his beloved “Espagnoles”, the one subject which reappears throughout Picabia's oeuvre.
1923 is another prolific year. At the Salon des Indépendants, Picabia exhibits a unique series of works based on optical research, Volucelle, Volumètre and Optophone.
Paul Eluard writes :
“The worst place of the Salon was, as usual, reserved for Francis Picabia. Volucelle is part of his latest style, so original and powerful. It is a pleasure to come across this large, luminous painting, so light and mobile, at the bottom of the stairway."
In May, Picabia exhibits essentially Impressionist works and Spanish subjects, with his first art dealer Danthon. In response to criticism by journalist Roger Vitrac who finds it not only ridiculous to paint the Espagnoles, but even more so to exhibit them, Picabia responds, with obvious irony :
“But I find these women beautiful, and not having any “specialty” as a painter, nor as writer, I am not afraid to compromise myself with them vis-à-vis the élite, no more than I'm afraid to compromise myself, in other circumstances, vis-à-vis the imbeciles!”.
In another article he chides :
“I find it necessary to have something for every taste. There are people who do not like the machines: for them I propose the Espagnoles. If they don't like Espagnoles, I will make them Françaises... Yes, I paint to sell. And Iam astonished that those paintings I like the most sell the least.”
This year and the next, Picabia begins his so called Dada-collages of 1923-1926, such as Femme aux allumettes and Centimètres, made with matchsticks, yardsticks, or whatever else he finds at home in Tremblay
After having backed André Breton and the Congrès de Paris against Tzara in a pamphlet, La Pomme des Pins, in 1924 Picabia again declares war on Breton and the Surrealists in a new series of 391. The last four issues appear this year as well as his fictionalized autobiography, Caravansérail.In a diatribe against Surrealism, he calls it a fabricated movement saying sardonically, “Artificial eggs don't make chickens”. The child that is born of the Instantaneism of Picabia, a rival without a future of Surrealism, is Relâche, an “instantaneist” ballet of “perpetual movement”, and Entra’cte. Relâche is produced by Rolf de Maré and the Ballets Suédois, with music by Erik Satie. Entra’cte, written by Picabia, is directed by René Clair. This “intermission” between the two acts of the burlesque ballet is a perfect instant of Dadaism and Surrealism. Writing the scenario for one final farce, Ciné-Sketch, which is presented only once on New Year's Eve, Dada's “Funny Guy” bids farewell to Paris.
Picabia stays twenty years on the Côte d'Azur. But the echo of the missing rastaquouère still reverberates in the capital, enforced by his frequent visits, exhibitions, and the noise of the legend created by his mediterranean life style. His first stop is Mougins, in the hills behind Cannes, where he constructs the Chateau de Mai and settles in with Germaine Everling and their son, Lorenzo, born in 1919. Enter Olga Mohler, a young Swiss girl engaged initially as governess for the child.
The paintings baptized the “Les Monstres”, which began to appear as early as 1924, now flourish in bitter-sweet caricatures of classical paintings like Les Trois Grâces by Rubens, La femme au chien from Durer etchings, or Nu fantastique from the Michelanglo fresco in the Sixtine Chapel. Vibrating in voluptuous ripolin paint, covered with streamers and confetti, sporting pointed noises, a single eye or multitude of eyes, like La femme au monocle, Carnaval, Mi-Carême, Jeunes mariés or Le baiser, these are distortions of romantic postcards of the period.
Picabia's dazzling notoriety follows him to Cannes where he quickly establishes himself as a local celebrity at the Casino, Night Clubs and Galas. “La vie mondaine” continues with frequent visits from Parisian friends like Jacques Doucet, Marthe Chenal, Pierre de Massot and Marcel Duchamp. In 1926, eighty Picabias are auctioned off at the Hotel Drouot, presented as the collection of his old accomplice, Rose Selavy, alias Duchamp.The following year, Picabia pronounces the last rites for Dada in a scathing article in Comoedia entitled, “Picabia contre Dada ou le retour à la raison”. He insists that “art cannot be democratic” which follows his original tenent: “Nature is unjust ? So much the better, inequality is the only possible state, the monotony of equality can only lead us to boredom.”
After a trip to Barcelona in the summer of 1927 with Olga Mohler and Lorenzo, the Chateau de Mai soon becomes a highly agitated “Chateau à trois”, until 1930 when Picabia installs Olga on his new yacht, Horizon I, conveniently anchored across from the Casino in the port of Cannes. Figures from the roman frescoes of Catalonia now appear in his work, the precursors of a new period, “Les Transparences”.
Presented in Paris at the Galerie Theophile Briant in October 1928, film critic Gaston Ravel calls them “sur-impressionism”, referring to the simultaneity of superimposed film images, an impression of “the third dimension without the aid of perspective”, as Duchamp later describes them. Apart from birds and foliage, the subject matter often takes as a point of departure the classical figures of Botticelli and later Piero della Francesca.
The flowering of this style corresponds to a new period in Picabia's private life. Again, the importance of “la femme”, or simply the amorous adventure where one rupture accompanies another: first Gabrielle Buffet, brilliant catalyst during the break with Impressionism and the marriage with modernism; later, Germaine Everling, irresistible mondaine escort during the Dada adventure in Paris and the retreat to the Midi; and now, Olga Mohler, more than comprehensive companion during Picabia's last twenty-five years and their extended “honeymoon” which sees the development of the Neo-Romantic transparencies. In the words of the artist: “The paintings are the shadows of my adventures.
”1930 commemorates a retrospective with Leonce Rosenberg in Paris, “30 ans de peinture”, including an important series of transparencies. Characteristic of Picabia's continually changing positions, Leonce Rosenberg, once reviled by Picabia during Dada, now becomes his principal dealer. He eulogizes the artist's work in his preface to the exhibition: “The transparencies are 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.”
Speaking less spiritually, the artist writes in the same catalogue: “Picabia made too many jokes with his painting! Voila... what certain people find in the bottom of their bag of recriminations.. As for me, I say people made too many jokes with Picabia's paintings! My disquiet was transformed into a pleasantry... My obsessive anxiety has always pushed me toward the unknown... I worked months and years serving nature, copying and transposing it. Now, it's My nature that I copy, that I try to express.” And finally, “My dear Leonce Rosenberg, we can bluff men but not the times...”
1930 is also marked by a series of grandes soirées at the Casino, brilliantly organized by Picabia, “La nuit tatouée” and “Le bal des Cannibales” among the more renowned. Between 1930 and 1932, the number of trips to Paris accelerates, as does the purchase of new automobiles and boats. Picabia owns 127 “machines”, among them the deluxe models of their time, the Mercer, the Graham Paige, the Rolls Royce.
The aphorism of 1950 has always applied “I always liked amusing myself seriously.” At this time, Picabia renews contact with Gertrude Stein, whose recent moral and intellectual support develops into a warm friendship during the Picabia’s annual visits to Bilignin. In 1932 she writes: “... the surrealists are the vulgarisation of Picabia as Delaunay and his followers the futurists were a vulgarisation of Picasso”, dubbing Picabia “the Leonardo da Vinci of the movement”. She esteems him not only for the common views they share on art but also because he is Spanish, firmly believing that the only important 20th century painters are Spanish like Juan Gris, Miro and Picasso. Or as she explains, they have the qualities of “wildness, exaggeration, cruelty, superstition, mysticism and no sense of time.”
In 1933, both the inevitable and unexpected arrive. Germaine Everling breaks definitively with Picabia and leaves the Château de Mai (which is sold two years later). In spite of a full social life, Picabia continues working. In 1935 Picabia paints a group of figurative canvases for an exhibition in Chicago, most of which he later destroys.
If during the thirties Picabia no longer participates in the mainstream of the avant-garde, during the forties his attitude is equally individualistic regarding the problems posed by World War II. To the point where his “Dada spirit” and apolitical position create problems at the Liberation. After l939, the problems multiply. Those of the war infiltrate his life, which has remained relatively untouched in the Midi apart from certain food shortages. Picabia's life style is considerably reduced, the yacht and luxury automobiles replaced by a small apartment in Golfe-Juan and a bicycle. In 1940 he marries Olga Mohler. And for the first time his primary source of revenue is the sale of his paintings.
The remaining four years on the Côte d'Azur crystallize in a series of realist paintings such as La brune et la blonde, Fernmes au bulldog, Deux nus and La corrida. These works include visual sources from popular imagery: bigger-than-life screen stars, pin-ups from the 1930’s “nudie” magazines, decadent or romanticized couples, providing a particularly startling contrast to this gray war period. While an element of parody exists here as in many of his works, Picabia's intentions are unchanging in as much as he paints for the pleasure of painting in spite of his incorrigeable pessimism. “Francis always painted what he wanted, before the art dealer from Algiers, or elsewhere, came and bought them”, Olga Picabia states against claims that they are a purely commercial enterprise. At the same time, he presents an exhibition of “tableaux de poche”, or pocket paintings, with the sculpture of Michel Sima in Cannes, 1942.
With his typically provocative comportment towards the collaboration as well as the Resistance, Picabia and his wife do not escape the “settling of accounts” after the war. During this difficult period he suffers his first cerebral hemorrhage. In 1945 Picabia returns to Paris. He and Olga move into the old family home, unjudiciously sold during the war, in which they have only the use of his grandfather's atelier.
In an attempt to recover from recent deceptions, Picabia renews contact with old friends from before the war. Henri Goetz and his wife Christine Boumeester, recent friends from the Midi, bring the young abstract painters to his home every Sunday: Henri Nouveau, Francis Bot, Hartung, Bryen, Soulages, Mathieu, Ubac, Atlan. Still as resourceful at sixty-five as he was at twenty-five, Picabia changes direction again, from the popular realism of the war to his own personal form of abstraction. He exhibits regularly in the Parisian galleries and alongside the young post-waravant-garde at the important Salon des Surindépendants and Salon des Réalités-Nouvelles.
Already towards the end of the war Picabia is writing again, publishing Thalassa dans le desert in 1945. During the following years, works of a more bitter, disillusioned tone are published by his friend, Pierre-André Benoit in Alès. Considerable writing is done during his annual summer sojourn with Olga Picabia's family in Rubigen, Switzerland. In Paris, he is still a notorious habitué of the “Bal Negre” and various Parisian cabarets, as was his style before the war. For Picabia the cabarets “Eve” and “Tabarin” are his Opera and Comédie Française, those two venerable French institutions he finds as “lively as the cemetery at Montmartre.”
Impatiently exploring the possibilities of his latest abstract period, Picabia produces important works such as Bal Nègre, an homage to his favorite Night Club, Danger de la force, Bonheur de l'aveuglement and finally Kalinga. In the spring of 1949, the summet of his long career, a monumental retrospective, “50 ans de plaisir”, is organized by the Galerie René Drouin. The catalogue is in the form of a unique issue of 491, written by his friends and edited by Michel Tapié. However, a sad irony eclipses the pleasure of the moment: on the eve of the opening, a theft in his apartment leaves Picabia penniless at the end of his life.
In spite of this, Picabia, encouraged by his friends and especially his own curiosity and need to go farther into the unknown, produces a series of minimal paintings consisting of sparsely placed dots, the final reduction of his abstract paintings. The dots are shown at the Galerie des Deux Iles in 1949. Between 1950 and 1951 Picabia has several important exhibitions: in France, in New York at the Rose Fried Gallery and the Galerie Apollo in Brussels. In 1952 he presents his latest work at the Galerie Colette Allendy, among them Villejuif, seven paintings for the days of the week and La terre est ronde, with a catalogue consisting of 7 facsimiles of letters from Breton, Cocteau, Bryen, Van Heeckeren, Seuphor, J.H. Lévesque and Michel Perrin. In the following years, Simone Collinet, Breton’s first wife, becomes Picabia’s principle dealer.
This is the last voyage of the “Christopher Colombus of art”, as Hans Arp knighted Picabia. In 1951, a paralyzing arteriorsclerosis definitively cuts him off from his life source, painting. The final “dissolution”, as he calls it himself, comes November 30, 1953. December 4th, at the Cemetery of Montmartre, André Breton pays a final tribute to his life-long sparring partner:
“Francis... your painting was the succession - often despairing, neronian - of the most beautiful fête that man has ever given himself. An oeuvre based on the sovereignty of caprice, on the refusal to follow, entirely based on freedom, even to displease... Only a very great aristocrat of the spirit could dare what you have dared.”