Art
Francis Picabia through Four Decades and Three Series
By Alexandra Alexa
Nov 24, 2015 6:00 pm
Installation view of “Francis Picabia: Paintings 1909-1950” at Galerie Andrea Caratsch, Zurich. Courtesy Galerie Andrea Caratsch.

Installation view of “Francis Picabia: Paintings 1909-1950” at Galerie Andrea Caratsch, Zurich. Courtesy Galerie Andrea Caratsch.

One of the only artistic convictions that Francis Picabia staunchly stood by was a drive toward constant experimentation. Unlike many of his contemporaries working in the turn-of-the-century modernist movements, Picabia explored multiple styles of painting, deftly moving from cubism through the mechanomorphic, text-based work of his Dada years and back toward figuration. A recent show at Galerie Andrea Caratsch in Zurich, “Francis Picabia: Paintings 1909-1950,” highlighted the extensive oeuvre of the restless artist, who once said: “If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as your shirt.”

Installation view of “Francis Picabia: Paintings 1909-1950” at Galerie Andrea Caratsch, Zurich. Courtesy Galerie Andrea Caratsch.

Installation view of “Francis Picabia: Paintings 1909-1950” at Galerie Andrea Caratsch, Zurich. Courtesy Galerie Andrea Caratsch.

The exhibition featured some rare early works—a Fauvist landscape and portraits of Spanish women wearing mantillas—but weighs heavily toward three recurring styles that he explored after his break with Dada: the “Transparence” paintings he worked on in the late 1920s and early ’30s, a series of erotic nudes from the 1940s, and the proliferation of abstraction that defined the last decade of his career.


The neutral-toned “Transparence” series draws on classical sources, from antique Roman sculpture to paintings by Titian and Peter Paul Rubens, to create enigmatic layered images. Despite the aesthetic correlations between these works and Surrealism (which Picabia rejected any connection to), he retains a tongue-in-cheek tone in the way he appropriates these images—overlapping them with equal weight so that ultimately each image presents a discordant view of the human form.

Installation view of “Francis Picabia: Paintings 1909-1950” at Galerie Andrea Caratsch, Zurich. Courtesy Galerie Andrea Caratsch.

Installation view of “Francis Picabia: Paintings 1909-1950” at Galerie Andrea Caratsch, Zurich. Courtesy Galerie Andrea Caratsch.

Picabia seemed intent on subverting ideals of elegance and beauty. Turning his eye to the glossy images of commercial and erotic magazines, Picabia worked on a series of realist nudes in the ’40s. The high-contrast compositions hint at classical nudes—like those by Gustave Courbet, for example—but maintain Picabia’s ironic voice through his emphasis of the subject’s exaggerated, suggestive expressions and a heavy handling of their lustrous hair and makeup.

Installation view of “Francis Picabia: Paintings 1909-1950” at Galerie Andrea Caratsch, Zurich. Courtesy Galerie Andrea Caratsch.

Installation view of “Francis Picabia: Paintings 1909-1950” at Galerie Andrea Caratsch, Zurich. Courtesy Galerie Andrea Caratsch.

Although Picabia embodied a clear disregard for conventions (he once said, “Artists, so they say, make fun of the bourgeoisie; me, I make fun of the bourgeoisie and the artists”), his final artistic direction is defined more by introspection than criticism of the outside world. In these pared-down works, hieroglyphic motifs combine to create vaguely anthropomorphic abstractions—condensed visions reflecting the artist’s exposure to fatality, as a debilitating arteriosclerosis finally took away his ability to paint. Exhibited together, these seemingly independent chapters in the painter’s life create a portrait of the ever-searching man who Hans Arp once called the “Christopher Columbus of art.”


—Alexandra Alexa

Francis Picabia: Paintings 1909-1950” was on view at Galerie Andrea Caratsch, Zurich, Sep. 24-Nov. 20, 2015.

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