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Francis Picabia (1879-1953)


Francis Picabia (1879-1953)
signed 'Francis Picabia' (lower left); titled 'Nerii' (upper right)
oil on panel
63 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (161 x 100 cm.)
Painted circa 1929-1931
Private collection, by whom acquired directly from the artist, and thence by descent; sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 16 December 1999, lot 54.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Paris, Galerie Georges Bernheim, Francis Picabia, 1931, no. 32.
VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 17.5% on the buyer's premium.


This work is sold with a photo-certificate from the Comité Picabia.

Nerii is one of Francis Picabia's 'Transparency' paintings. These were an important series of works begun in the mid-1920s that drew on the elegant flowing outlines of classical and Renaissance motifs, particularly the figures of Sandro Botticelli and Piero della Francesca, rendered in a sequence of multiple-layered 'transparent' form. Suggestive of multiple meanings and simultaneous realities coexisting in a single space, these intriguing works achieved what Marcel Duchamp described as 'a third dimension without resorting to perspective' (Marcel Duchamp, quoted in M. L. Borràs, Picabia, London, 1985, p. 337).

The multiple layering of imagery in Picabia's Transparencies derived in part from the developments made by the 'Monster' paintings that preceded them, as well as from Picabia's collage-like experiments with multiple imagery in films such as René Clair's Entr' acte of 1924. This multi-layering technique allowed Picabia to paint more freely, almost 'automatically', using only intuition as his guide. 'I worked for months and years making use of nature, copying it, he recalled. 'Now it is my nature that I copy, that I try to express. I was once feverish over calculated inventions, now it is my instinct that guides me... these transparencies with their corner of oubliettes permit me to express for myself the resemblance of my interior desires... I want a painting where all my instincts may have a free course... Those who have said ... that "I do not enter the line of account" are right. I take no part in no addition and recount my life to myself alone' (Francis Picabia: Introduction to the Exposition Francis Picabia, Chez Léonce Rosenberg, Paris, December 9-31, 1930).

In this way, Picabia's Transparencies became poetic expressions, neither classical, nor modernist, but, like de Chirico's later metaphysics, unique and timeless expressions of a distinctly Mediterranean mystery. Merging the image of two Botticelli-esque faces with a landscape and other figures, this transparency uses its mixed pictorial metaphors to evoke a compelling mental landscape, heavily imbued with an overriding sense of reverie, dream and memory. 'It is the past that still has to be explored', Picabia asserted, 'I mean the past in so far as it is mysterious. And the hidden corners of our mystery can only be explored if we are prepared to banish all influence, all hereditary or contemporary convention; good and bad, high and low, curve and straight line, infinite and finite, space and time' (Francis Picabia cited by Maurice Nadeau Histoira del Surrealismo Barcelona, 1972, p. 209).