Friday, August 26, 2011

The unknown Francis Picabia

Francis Picabia is, of course, far from unknown. As the spokesman of the Cubist Section d'Or at the Armory Show in New York in 1913, and as the agent provocateur of Dada and Surrealism, Picabia became - with his close friend Marcel Duchamp - the prototypical modern artist. Disputatious, argumentative, controversial, witty, devil-may-care, Francis Picabia must have sparked a million conversations about the nature of art and the role of the artist. So it comes as something of a shock to discover another side to Picabia: his successful career as a Post-Impressionist, working under the direct influence and early encouragement of Sisley and Pissarro. It's as if Damian Hirst had begun as a Pre-Raphaelite, or Marina Abramovic were to suddenly unveil a hidden stash of genteel watercolours of flowers in vases. Picabia's Post-Impressionist phase lasted roughly from 1902 to 1908, and ended abruptly with his discovery of Cubism in 1909. One of his dealers, Danthon of the prestigious Galerie Haussman, was so disgusted by Picabia's change of direction that he auctioned off over a hundred of Picabia's paintings at the Hotel Drouot in March 1909, in what seems to have been a deliberate attempt to wreck his career. Although Picabia did execute some later lithographs and silkscreens, and at least one Cubist drypoint, his printmaking seems largely confined to this early period, and the six etchings in this post all date from around 1907 or a couple of years earlier (the date on Pêcheurs sur les bords du Loing may be 1904 or 1907, I can't tell). They were included in the first monograph on Picabia, Picabia, le peintre et l'aquafortiste by Édouard André, which was published in an edition of 250 copies in 1908.

Francis Picabia, Barque et maisons sur la mer
Etching, c. 1907
(There is a similar etching in MoMA, dated improbably to 1893)

Francis Picabia, Vue de Moret
Etching, c. 1907

Francis Picabia, Le châtaignier
Etching, c. 1907

These six exhilarating etchings provide, I think, a stunning insight into the ground of Picabia's art. Picabia was a revolutionary, but in essence he was simply carrying forward the torch lit by the Impressionists, especially Sisley (whom he knew from 1897 to the artist's death in 1898) and Camille Pissarro (whose sons Manzana and Rodo were friends of his in Montmartre). It was in Moret-sur-Loing that Picabia met Sisley and Pissarro (though he may also have met Pissarro in Martigues in 1898, certainly in 1902), and apart from the first, I believe all these etchings are scenes in Moret.

Francis Picabia, Les bords du Loing
Etching, 1907

Francis Picabia, Pêcheurs sur les bords du Loing
Etching, dated either 1907 or 1904

Francis Picabia, Un canal
Etching, c. 1907

Francis Picabia was born on 22 January 1879 in 82 rue des Petits Champs, Paris, and died in the same house on 30 November 1953. This might suggest a life of stasis and predictability, but in fact Francis Picabia led one of the most volatile art careers of his time. He was born François Marie Martinez Picabia, to a French mother and Spanish-Cuban father. The family was wealthy, and Picabia set about spending his inheritance with impressive zeal - he is said to have changed his car 107 times. His early enthusiasm for drawing and his natural talent were recognized in 1894 when, at the age of 16, he had a painting accepted by the Salon des Artistes Français. His family encouraged him to study art, and he entered the atelier of Fernand Cormon at the École des Beaux-Arts, and later also studied in Cormon's private atelier. He additionally studied under Wallet at the École des Arts Décoratifs, and in the Académie Humbert, where fellow-students included Georges Braque and Marie Laurencin. In 1908-1909 the revelation of Cubism may have come through Braque (though Picabia's excellent official website credits his bride-to-be Gabrielle Buffet), but from 1911 it was cemented by the Groupe de Puteaux that met in the studio of Jacques Villon, and included Villon's brother Marcel Duchamp, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and the painters Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Louis Marcoussis, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, and Fernand Léger.


Haji baba said...

I think you could call this The Shock of the Old. Fascinating post.


conor said...

Great Post. Of course it should be of no suprise that these great masters neccesarily emerged from, once having mastered, the more classical.
Only thus would they have been free to shake off its constraints (when and if they felt like it) and delve into and strive for a greater unknown.
"You have to learn all the rules properly in order to be able to break them properly"

Neil said...

Charles - I like it!

Neil said...

Conor - Thanks so much for venturing onto the blog - and of course you're quite right. I was surprised with Picabia not so much that he had learned the rules, but that having been so successful, exhibiting with all the best galleries and even having a book written about him, he was still willing to throw it all way when he saw a new artistic way forward. Of course it was easier for him because he was rich, but it was still a brave move.

Groslier said...

Sans doute pas le Picabia le plus "révolutionnaire", mais peut-être le plus substantiel…

Neil said...

Thomas - I really like these etchings. It would be interesting to see some of his paintings from this period; it's hard to tell their quality from reproductions. The obvious next move for Picabia in 1908 would have been Fauvism, and I believe he did make a few paintings in a Fauve style. It seems to have been the intellectual audacity of Cubism that seduced him, and which moved his art in a direction that was more about the mind and less about the senses.

Jane Librizzi said...

I remember reading that Picabia spent some time at the art colony in Grez-sur-Loing around 1904, and these images do look like the local scenery. A surprisingly deft way with detail - from this artist.

Neil said...

Jane - According to Janine Bailly-Herzberg's Dictionnaire de l'estampe en France, Picabia first visited Moret-sur-Loing in 1897, returned with Manzana and Rodo Pissarro in the summer of 1898 (Sisley's last summer), and was a frequent visitor thereafter, meeting Camille Pissarro there between 1899 and 1902. Moret and Grez are not far apart.

Librairie l'Arrondi said...

Beautiful blog and very interesting post !

The librairie l'Arrondi Bookshop (Paris)

Neil said...

Thanks for the comment, Librairie l'Arrondi, I'll add your blog on the sidebar.