1879 – Paris – 1953
Exuberant, extravagant and individualistic, Francis Picabia was one of the most influential artists of the first half of the twentieth century. Born in Paris in 1879 of wealthy Cuban and French parents, he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with Fernand Cormon and attended the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs from 1895 to 1897.
Picabia’s first works were Impressionist landscapes influenced by Pissarro and Sisley. In 1909 he married the musicologist Gabrielle Buffet (they divorced in 1931), with whom he shared an interest in the avant-garde. Picabia adopted the harmonies of form, colour and movement outlined by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire in his definition of Orphism (1912) and exhibited works with the Section d’Or that year.
In 1913 Picabia exhibited at the Armory Show in New York which introduced the French avant-garde to America. The jazzy rhythms and frenetic pace of New York life were reflected in his dazzling, fractured gouaches, echoing the Futurists’ obsession with modern urban life. Picabia spent the First World War in New York, Barcelona and Switzerland, collaborating with Alfred Steiglitz at his 291 gallery and developing Dada with Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s concept of the ‘ready-made’ influenced Picabia’s works in which machine parts express human sexuality, ridiculing bourgeois art and morality. In Barcelona in 1916, Picabia began to publish the magazine 391, which had a decisive influence on Dada in France. From 1919 to 1924 he produced his most seminal Dadaist works in Paris, the butt of public outrage, but applauded by critics such as André Breton. Typically averse to confining himself to one style, he also painted large, pseudo-Classical figure compositions.
In 1925, considering that Dada had become far too mainstream, Picabia used a large inheritance from his uncle, Maurice Davanne, to buy a house at Mougins, near Cannes. He produced a series of Monsters, figures with doubled eyes and quivering outlines, and Transparencies (1927-c.1931), figures transposed onto landscapes and flowers in a mélange of shifting visions. Both mockingly reflect the great tradition of European painting, with motifs from Michelangelo, Titian and Rubens.
In the late 1930s Picabia experimented with abstract painting. His brash Hollywood nudes, produced during the Second World War, have been seen as precursors of Pop Art. In 1940 he married Olga Mohler, the former nanny of his son Lorenzo by his mistress Germaine Everling. They returned to Paris in 1945. Picabia continued to experiment and also to re-explore elements of his previous styles, often overpainting earlier works. He died in Paris on 30th November 1953.
The work of Francis Picabia is represented in the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; Philadephia Museum of Art; Tate, London; the Pompidou Centre, Paris; the Kunsthaus, Zurich and the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid.