His Work Seems More Alive Today than of any Artist of His Era

Francis Picabia, one of the grandest, most mordant exemplars of early modernism, and perhaps the least familiar. One imagines that the artist was too slippery or contradictory for the museum, too much of a prankster and publicity hound. Born to wealth, he never struggled as an artist and had a reputation, partly intended, as a playboy. He made important contributions to both Cubist painting and its nemesis, Dada, with its art-barbed hijinks, and refused to cultivate a personal style that deepened with time. Instead he toyed with kitsch and calendar art, and based paintings on found photographs. When he returned to abstraction at the end of his life, he tried several styles. But lately — when multiple mediums and styles are increasingly the artistic norm — Picabia’s stature has grown. His work seems more alive today than that of any artist of his cohort, even Duchamp.

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Francis Picabia was born in Paris of a French mother and a Cuban father who was an attaché at the Cuban legation in Paris. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was seven. Some sources would have his father as of aristocratic Spanish descent, whereas others consider him of non-aristocratic Spanish descent, from the region of Galicia. Financially independent, Picabia studied under Fernand Cormon and others at the École des Arts Decoratifs in the late 1890s. (wikipedia)

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In 1894, Picabia financed his stamp collection by copying a collection of Spanish paintings that belonged to his father, switching the originals for the copies, without his father’s knowledge, and selling the originals. Fernand Cormon took him into his academy at 104 boulevard de Clichy, where Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec had also studied. From the age of 20, he lived by painting; he subsequently inherited money from his mother.

From 1913 to 1915 Picabia traveled to New York City several times and took active part in the avant-garde movements, introducing Modern art to America. When he landed in New York in June 1915, though it was ostensibly meant to be a simple port of call en route to Cuba to buy molasses for a friend of his—the director of a sugar refinery—the city snapped him up and the stay became prolonged. Mass media devoted an entire issue to him, he met Man Ray, Gabrielle and Duchamp joined him, drugs and alcohol became a problem and his health declined. He suffered from dropsy and tachycardia. These years can be characterized as Picabia’s proto-Dada period, consisting mainly of his portraits mécaniques.

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