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Picabia: Fearless Maverick with Parisian Panache

BY Grégoire Billault
head of contemporary art at Sotheby's


Francis Picabia, Mardi Gras (Le Baiser) (c. 1924–26). Collection of Natalie and Léon Seroussi © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP (Paris). Photo courtesy of Natalie Seroussi

Where to start with Picabia? For me, he has always been one of those wild cards you admire because there are no limits with an artist like him.

Not only did he start with Pointillism and Post-Impressionist painting, he then went from abstraction to figuration. He is obviously the Big Daddy for Dadaism and then he finishes his career with these completely abstract dark paintings. Even his life was a work of art—this guy driving his Bugatti around Paris trying not only to create a body of work that was different and special but also just having fun by pushing so many boundaries. 

You see this quite clearly when you go to MoMA—each room of the exhibition is is a surprise (Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, until 19 March).

Picabia was perhaps the first Pop artist: he used images from soft-porn magazines of Hollywood glamour models seen half-naked by the sea swimming, or on a terrace having fun, where you can see part of a shoulder, leg or breast. From these, he created figurative paintings that talk about life at the time, the way American and other artists would go on to do 20 years later. It was super-early to be doing that. People hated the works—they were something nobody wanted to see. There was no public for such paintings at the time.

Francis Picabia, Parade amoureuse (1917). Neumann Family Collection © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP (Paris). Photo credit: Tom Powel Imaging

If you think about what was happening in the art market in the 1940s, you see the big influence of his contemporaries such as Picasso, Matisse and Léger—everyone was looking at the artists working in France before the Americans in New York started ruling the market. So you have to think about the risks that Picabia was taking with works like the monster paintings or the machine drawings.

He was one of the first artists to make films, he was never scared of being funny—look at his plays on words. There are so many references in Picabia’s work and it’s all so free. Look at how bold he was: he was afraid of nothing. Picabia, he had panache.



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