Francis Picabia

First made his name as a late-coming Impressionist painter in 1905, Francis Picabia was known for his chameleon-like ability to shift through aesthetic models, associated with Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism. Born in 1879 in Paris to a Spanish-Cuban father and a French mother, Picabia’s multicultural background influenced his eclectic artistic style. He helped establish some of the 20th century’s most important art movements.

In 1909 — or perhaps 1908 — Picabia created Caoutchouc (Pompidou Centre, Paris), a seminal work that is widely regarded as the first abstract painting in the story of Western art. That was some four years or more before Wassily Kandinsky would more famously break free from conventional forms.

Picabia became an Impressionist following his studies at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs in Paris under the history painter Fernand Cormon. His work during that period merged the styles of Monet, Camille Pissarro and Sisley.

After a brief period of experimenting with Fauvism, using Matisse’s rich palette to paint the French coast and still lifes, he transitioned to Cubism. In 1911, along with his close friend Marcel Duchamp, Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger, he became associated with Section d’Or, a collective with a common interest in geometric painting. The outbreak of the World War I, however, brought an end to their activities.

During 1913 and 1914, Picabia moved beyond the Cubist fixation on conceptually dissecting the ‘realism of the object’, and into a realm of abstraction. Among works of this period, Animation, sold at Christie’s New York in 2017 for US$2,892,500, represents an astonishingly vital conception of metamorphosis and kinesis.

By 1915, Picabia became a prominent member of the Dada movement, along with Duchamp and Man Ray. His contributions to Dadaism included painting, poetry and publication, most notably through his involvement with the influential Dada magazine 391. Five years on, Picabia denounced Dada, turning his focus to the new movement of Surrealism.

Picabia’s constant innovation is further evident in his exploration of collage and mechanical imagery. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, his style appeared to change almost daily as he hoped between abstraction and optical illusion.

One of his most celebrated inventions was the hallucinatory Transparence series. Reminiscent of multi-exposure photography, the pictures superimposed portraits lifted from the Renaissance onto Catalan frescos in a bid to push figuration to new heights. Ligustri, a captivating example of this series of works executed in 1929, sold at Christie’s London in 2020 for £3,491,250.

In 1937, Picabia’s work took yet another surprising turn. The artist started to produce realistic nude portraits, lifting subjects from pornographic magazines and adopting smooth, fluid brushwork to mimic the sheen of photographic paper. Initially, their aesthetic drew comparisons with that of Third Reich propaganda, but scholars today regard these paintings as forerunners to the subversion of mass media seen in the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.

In the spring of 1949, to mark Picabia’s 70th birthday, the Galerie René Drouin in Paris mounted a retrospective featuring 136 works that spanned his entire career. Four years later in 1953, Picabia died. His legacy as an innovator and provocateur in modern art is well established. Francis Picabia was a true chameleon, constantly evolving and pushing the boundaries of artistic expression.


Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Mi-Carême (Mid-Lent)

FRANCIS PICABIA (1879-1953)

Danseuse étoile sur un transatlantique

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Sans titre (Venise)

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Le retour de la pêche, les Martigues

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Jésus et le dauphin (Jesus and the Dolphin)

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Sans titre (Visage de femme)

FRANCIS PICABIA (1879-1953)

Notre-Dame, effet de soleil

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Bord du loing à Moret, effet de soleil

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Magnéto anglaise

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Lever du soleil dans la brume, Montigny

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Transparence (Deux têtes)

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Espagnole ou Femme à la mantille bleue

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Jeune fille au paradis

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Maintenant et autrefois

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Phmarcie Duchamps

FRANCIS PICABIA (1879-1953)

Effet de soleil par temps d'orage, Larchant

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Effet de soleil par temps d'orage, Larchant

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Madone et enfant avec nu

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Mechanical expression seen through our own mechanical expression