Francis Picabia

gigatos | February 3, 2022


Francis Picabia (full name Francisco María Martínez Picabia della Torre; January 22, 1879, Paris – November 30, 1953, Paris) was a French avant-garde painter, graphic artist and writer-publicist, theater director, screenwriter, actor, and diplomat.

Francis Picabia became known as an eccentric artist who did not submit to any political or stylistic dogma. He had a great influence on contemporary art, particularly on Dadaism and Surrealism.

Francisco María Martínez Picabía della Torre, called Francis Picabia (sometimes spelled Picabia), was born in Paris to a French mother and a Spanish father. Francis Picabia”s father first worked in Cuba in the sugar industry and then in the diplomatic service of the Cuban embassy in France. It was in Paris that he met Francis” future mother. His mother, Marie Cecile Davan, belonged to the wealthy Parisian bourgeoisie. She died when the future artist and poet was 5 (according to other sources – 7) years old.

Francis Picabia had a flexible, sociable character and a highly changeable, choleric temperament. His sudden changes of temperament and creative tone occasionally erupted into prolonged depression or neurasthenic outbursts of anger, usually manifested in a family setting. Throughout his life, Picabia changed his creative style as well as his personal and aesthetic leanings many times. In this respect, he may be recognized as almost a record-breaker. If you count in order all the transformations of his style, direction, writing style and even ideology, it will turn out at least seven, (if not ten) sharp turns. Perhaps in this respect Francis Picabia surpasses even his more famous contemporary and friend, Pablo Picasso.

When he was sixteen years old, his father secretly offered one of his landscapes to the jury at the Salon des Artistes Françaises in Paris. To the surprise of his family and the young painter himself, the painting was accepted and even noted. This encouraged Picabia to take up painting seriously.

Between 1895 and 1896, Francis Picabia took lessons at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs in Paris with Embert and Cormon, and in his first style he painted good, typically French landscapes, as if continuing in an Impressionist direction the famous works of Camille Corot. After 1899, Picabia began to exhibit at the Salon des Independents and, as an Impressionist, soon gained a certain name in Parisian art circles. Francis Picabi”s Impressionism, however, did not last long. Already in 1902, after a trip to Spain, Picabie”s artistic interests gradually began to shift toward the colorful and defiantly vivid (“Spanish”) Fauvist style.

His acquaintance with Marcel Duchamp in 1910 had a decisive influence on the further development of Francis Picabia”s personality and work. From Fauvism for a relatively brief time before the war with Germany, he moves first to Cubism, and geometric abstraction. Picabia”s most famous painting of this time, Dancer on an Atlantic Cruise (1913), is a document not only of Picabia”s abstract style, but – and of his long (more than three years) departure for New York. Picabia, in his life in general, was in the habit of leaving the place where the war was going on. He exhibited his new paintings in the abstract cubist style at the Armory Show (New York, 1913), this brings him further fame. However, Picabia does not stop there either. In 1915-1917, for all three years of his life in New York, he is in close contact with avant-garde artists and, together with Duchamp, heads the New York section of the Dadaist movement. But only two years later, he paradoxically changes his style once again. This time, abandoning geometric abstraction, Francis Picabia does not choose an already existing style or direction. He creates a whole series of distinctive artistic compositions that have become the most recognizable and “signature” for his personal style of painting. Conventionally, these paintings can be called “mechanical” or “anthropomorphic drawings.” By painting copies of technical drawings and adding unexpected, often vivid and meaningless details, Picabia gave them the paradoxical features of human forms. These are, for example, his most famous works: Parade of Love (1917), A Daughter Born Without a Mother (1917), The Carburetor Child (1919). Francis Picabia”s vivid “mechanomorphic” drawings are full of provocation, Dadaist epatage and sarcasm, they demonstrate both the meaninglessness and power of human perception, capable of implanting real images into any, the most abstract or absurd form. It is these works of Picabia that seem to be closest and most appropriate to his creative individuality, which was paradoxically and directly manifested in his life and in his work.

An extremely free and independent spirit, close in character and personality to Guillaume Apollinaire and Marcel Duchamp, it is funny to trace how at first Francis Picabia openly feuded and opposed, and then supported and even led the Dada movement during his specially undertaken “propaganda” trips to New York, Barcelona and Zurich. In the same way his work developed. His Dadaist articles are recognized as devastating and brilliant, the avant-garde almanac 391, which he founded in New York, and which he then published in Zurich and Paris until 1924, as well as his abstract paintings before World War I and his “mechanomorphic” drawings resembling some strange drawings of the future, became not only recognizable but also iconic in the art history of the early 20th century.

After the Dadaist phase, where he, along with Tristan Tzara, was one of the recognized leaders, (1914-1920) Francis Picabia made another sharp turn in 1921 and joined the direct opponents (and simultaneously followers) of Dada – the Surrealists. He was regularly overcome by depression, from which he was forced to treat himself with cacodylate pills (he is very amused by this word), which had also penetrated deeply into his art of the Parisian period. At this time, Picabia abandons his “mechanical” style, does not paint in oil for several years, and switches mainly to the techniques of collage and the surrealist object. These are his “Straw Hat” (1921), “Cacodylate Painting” (1922) and “Woman with Matches” (1923). During this period, one of the highest achievements of Francis Picabia is, oddly enough, not pure painting, but the ballet and film “Relache” (“Intermission” or “The spectacle is canceled”), made together with the bright avant-garde composer Eric Satie and the novice young film director Rene Clair…

Around 1927, Picabia”s style of “transparent paintings” begins, in which he openly experiments and searches for various ways of distorting perspective. By juxtaposing multi-dimensional faces, figures and objects, he intertwines them in linear spatial superimpositions, trying to achieve the effect of deception of vision or the play of stereoscopic planar movements. In these paintings, large transparent silhouettes composed of lines can be superimposed on a small and detailed painted landscape, creating the effect of a special “spatial surrealism” not found in any other Surrealist painter. This style includes the paintings “Him and His Shadow” (1928), “The Sphinx” (1929) and “Medea” (1929).Surrealist period of Francis Picabia begins to gradually fade and comes to “no” to the beginning of the 30-ies. However, his stylistic metamorphosis does not end there either.

By the mid-1930s, Picabia moved from transparent images to harsh, brutal paintings in the style of amateur pseudo-classicism. Either parodying or reproducing the manner of graphic artists, Picabia moves to a style of almost outright kitsch. He produces dozens of nude paintings, allegories, portraits and even classical biblical scenes with a deliberately ridiculous look of craftsmanship or anti-art. At this time he worked especially extensively on commission. Francis Picabia, by character and way of life, was always a pronounced jouyer and bon vivant. A lover of the beautiful life and pleasures always advertised in travel brochures (beautiful women, racing cars, private yachts, villas on the coast, sunny beaches, etc…..), Picabia ended up after his “critical fiftieth birthday” by starting to earn money openly and transfer his famous name into “cash”. In the last period of his life he turned to conventional and almost glamorous painting, serving immediate commercial gain, but totally devoid of the power and originality inherent in his talent in his younger years.

Picabia survived the six years of the war with Germany in neutral Switzerland. After the end of the German occupation, in 1945 he returned to Paris, in the last years of his life he was in rather close contact with existentialists. It was they who later rediscovered his poetic works and articles on art theory of the 1910s, temporarily forgotten. After the war, he lived in his parents” house and worked in his grandfather Alphonse”s workshop. Experiencing serious financial difficulties, he was unable to acquire new canvases and rewrote the same painting several times.

He died on November 30, 1953, in Paris (at 82, rue des Petits-Champs) and was buried in the Montmartre cemetery.

The Dadaist ballet Relâche to music by Éric Satie, premiered at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées on 4 December 1924, can perhaps be considered the pinnacle of Francis Picabia”s life and work, bringing together almost all of his artistic directions. Here Picabia proved himself to be both a stage and costume designer, a writer, author of the ballet libretto and the film script, an actor (who played two roles in the film), an outstanding organizer of the theatrical production process, and a Dadaist and Surrealist leader (and a skilled schemer) who attracted the best forces to participate in the performance and “neutralized” most of his enemies in time. Central to the creation of the new performance was Eric Satie, an eccentric and perpetually innovative composer who, at 58, could certainly give a head start to any of the youngsters. Picabia and Satie, both extremely lively artists with complex personalities, nevertheless managed to cooperate actively and created a work that still stands apart in the history of ballet.

Like many things in the life of Francis Picabia, his relationship with Éric Satie developed along a pronounced “zigzag” trajectory. In 1919, when Picabia was still living in Zurich and not immersed in the conflicts and squabbles of Parisian art movements, the artist included the (misspelled) name “Erick Satye” in his painting entitled The Dada Movement, intended to illustrate Tristan Tzara”s magazine. Six months later, already in Paris, together with André Breton and his hooligan surrealists, Picabia is already in full swing against the “Jean Cocteau group. He calls one of his 1920 Dada poems “Auric Satie à la noix de Cocteau” (Auric Satie à la noix de Cocteau). In the text of his poem, he was very venomously ironic about “Auric Satie, who decided that his ”Furnishing Music” was capable of giving him a place in high society in the evenings” (DadaPhone Magazine, 1919, no. 7).

However, being alien to all obstinacy and dogmatism, Picabia did not hesitate a few months later to change his course to the opposite. He sent Satie a letter full of sympathy, inscribing the inscription “Erik est Satierik” on the cover of one of his magazines. Six months later, Satie publishes in Picabia”s almanac 391 two slightly sloppy aphorisms, which appear in huge letters on the front page of the magazine. However, in early 1922, during another “war” between the Surrealists of Breton and the Dadaists of Tzara, Satie and Picabia again find themselves in opposing camps. A year later, however, Satie resumed her relationship with the artist, this time to collaborate on a new ballet, not yet titled Relâche or The Spectacle is Canceled.

This ballet was the high point of the collaboration between Satie and Picabia. At first, this production was commissioned (in the fall of 1923) by Rolf de Marais, director of the Swedish Ballet in Paris, to Eric Satie for a script by the poet Blaise Sandrard with sets by Picabia. In its initial version, the ballet did not carry such a provocative title. The title of the ballet in Sandrar”s script was much more modest: Après Dîner (After Dinner). However, just three or four months later, Francis Picabia, with his usual ease, drove Sandrar (who had left for Brazil at too bad a time) from the project, rewrote the script (according to Satie, “adding only a few lines to it”) and himself became the full author and simultaneously the artist-director of a much more radical Dadaist spectacle.

One way or another, by the end of April 1924, the former ballet After Dinner, libretto by Blaise Sandrar, had finally become The Spectacle is Canceled. Picabia conceived a provocative performance in which “many arts would be combined into a single nonsense”: theater, ballet, music, sculpture, painting, and even cinema – Relâche included two projections of film on the screen, one at the beginning of the performance (Prologue) and another at the intermission (Intermission). The film, under this very title, “Entrée” with the participation of many famous dadaist and surrealist artists, the principal choreographer of the Swedish Ballet, as well as Eric Satie and Francis Picabia themselves, was made by the then novice film director René Clair, made a famous name for its author and (separately from the performance “Relâche”) firmly entered the golden fund of the cinema art of the 20th century.

Francis Picabia also created a completely Dadaist and futuristic scenography for his production, and at the same time he was actively involved in the process of ballet and composition, which corresponded to his intention of creating a total authorial product, permeated from bottom to top with the idea of Dada. For example, parts of the ballet are performed in complete silence and the dancers dance, completely unsupported by the music. At other moments, on the contrary, there is music with complete absence of choreography. Eric Satie readily supported all these grimaces of the author, especially since they were completely consonant with his early ideas as well. In the regular theater program accompanying the premiere of Relâche at the Swedish Ballet, one could read the following words belonging to Picabia and Satie:

“When will people free themselves from the bad habit of explaining everything? “The spectacle is cancelled” is a continuous ballet with the aim of the most pretentious absurdity transferred to the theater: “life as I like it, life without tomorrow, life only now, everything today, everything for today, nothing for yesterday and nothing for tomorrow.” (preview of the Swedish Ballet, Relâche, November 1924)

Pikabia, a man extremely sexually uninhibited in life, constantly provoked Satie to all sorts of “sublimations” during the creation of Relâche. As a result, the ballet was full of the most “indecent” movements and scenes. In particular, Satie, very capable of subtly tuning in to such allusions, claimed while working on the score that he had composed “pornographic” music for Relâche. Apparently, he succeeded, and in the most direct form. Satie denoted the genre of his work as “obscene ballet”. And the reaction to his antics was appropriate. One of the most tolerant critics, Paul Judge, in his review of the ballet wrote more mildly about it than others:

“Mr. Satie”s music consists of the most tired and worn-out popular tunes, reproduced with relatively few changes, rather than as ballet music, but a pure example of the application of classic dance-hall techniques.

Satie himself, selecting the most vulgar and obscene Parisian songs for his ballet, was much more explicit about this: “having heard a familiar tune, the most obscene words sung to it should immediately spring up in the audience”s memory. In the various numbers of the ballet (“Woman”s Exit,” “Music,” “Men Undress,” “Dance with Wheelbarrow”) the orchestration is deliberately transparent and clear, and the vulgar motifs are distorted just enough to remain easily recognizable. “The construction of Eric Satie”s music,” Picabia”s second wife, Germaine Everling, later wrote, “constantly enveloped and clarified the artist”s thought.

The totality of the idea of the Relâche cancellation also received its direct embodiment offstage. The premiere of the ballet was scheduled for November 27, 1924. However, at a moment when a sophisticated audience and the entire Parisian bohemia had already gathered at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, a decisive “relâche” was announced and the performance… was cancelled. The reason for the cancellation was the bad weather and Jean Biorlain”s unwillingness to dance “in the state he was in”. The audience was genuinely angered by the antics of the show”s authors. Many seriously argued that no “Relâche” was real and that it was simply a fraudulent hoax to promote the self-promotion of two famous lovers of puns, Satie and Picabia. However, the Cancellation did take place one week later, on December 4, 1924.

The unity of the two principal authors of the ballet was indeed impressive. Satie, always prone to conflict and resentful throughout his life, did not have any friction with Picabia during the work on Relâche. Perhaps this created a breakthrough effect for Francis Picabia himself, who neither later nor earlier in his life and work had any such precedent. The ballet Relâche is Eric Satie”s last work. He worked on the score while he was already terminally ill, and only two months after the premiere he was finally hospitalized at the Convent Hospital of Saint-Jacques, from which he never emerged. Eric Satie died on 1 July 1925. Francis Picabia suffered heavily from his death and fell into another severe depression for more than a year, from which, as can be seen from the rest of his life and work, he never recovered.

During his work on the ballet Relâche, Picabia drew and simply sketched on paper numerous portraits of Erik Satie “in his mechanical style,” as well as publishing various texts about the composer, in which he claimed, in particular, that “our descendants will pull his music over themselves like a glove. An eloquent and naive symbol of their unity, the ballet”s two-minute cinematic Prologue shows Satie and Picabia personally loading the cannon and pointing it at the audience. And in the second part of the film, “Intermission,” Picabia even drew his own initials along with the composer”s initials (FP – ES) inside an expressive heart on the funeral dart with the body of the choreographer he shot, Jean Bjorlen. This cute, typically Dadaist joke, alas, did not turn out to be a good omen, at least for Eric Satie. Just six months later, the funeral carriage came for him as well.


  1. Пикабиа, Франсис
  2. Francis Picabia
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