Francis Picabia was born into a cultivated and extremely wealthy family, to a French mother and a Hispano-Cuban father. He enjoyed his considerable family legacy until about 1940, spending profligately. His family encouraged his artistic vocation, and after a painting was accepted by the Salon des Artistes Français in 1894, he studied successively at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1897 in Fernand Cormon’s studio, at the École des Arts Décoratifs in 1901, the Académie du Louvre, and the Académie Humbert, where he met Braque and Marie Laurencin. In 1909, he married Gabrielle Buffet. In 1911, he met Marcel Duchamp, who brought him into theGroupe de Puteaux, centred on Jacques Villon’s studio and of which Guillaume Apollinaire, Albert Gleizes, and Jean Metzinger were also members; he also took part in the activities of the Section d’Or. He is said to have financed the printing of Cubist Painters ( Peintres Cubistes) in exchange for an appearance in the book. Picabia went to New York in 1913 and was invited to exhibit in the Armory Show, the first presentation of modern art in America; there he met the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who in 1906 had opened a gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue. He was called up in 1914 and acted as a general’s chauffeur, and was then sent on an official mission to Cuba. He met Duchamp again in 1915 in New York and stayed there for a while, temporarily living a life of wild excess. He joined Duchamp in his challenge to art and established values. Stieglitz was at this time running a review 291, named after his gallery, and in it he reproduced several of Picabia’s mechanist drawings.
In 1916, Picabia left New York for Barcelona, where in January 1917 he founded the review 391, a European extension of Stieglitz’s 291, with Gleizes, Marie Laurencin, and Arthur Craven. He published the first four issues in Barcelona and the following three with Duchamp during his last visit to New York in 1917. After his first collection of poetry, 52 Mirrors ( 52 Miroirs) of 1917, he published Poems and Drawings of the Daughter Born without a Mother ( Poèmes et Dessins da la Fille Née sans Mère) in Switzerland in 1918 (the title was a metaphor for the machine). His writings attracted the attention of the Dada group of Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, and Hugo Ball in Zurich, and contemporaneously with issue 4–5 of Dada, Picabia published the eighth issue of 391. He returned to Paris in 1919, joined up again with Tzara in 1920, and took part in the activities of the Dada group with Tzara and André Breton. In 1919, he published Thoughts without Language ( Pensées sans Langage) and Purring Poetry ( Poésie Ron-ron); and in 1920 Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère and Unique Eunuch ( Unique Eunuque). In 1920, he also published two issues of a new review, Cannibal ( Cannibale).
Picabia left the Dada group in 1921. In 1924, in the last issue of 391, he launched a violent attack on Breton’s Surrealist group. Also in 1924, while still painting and writing, he designed the sets and costumes of the ballet Relâche for Rolf de Maré’s Swedish Ballet Company, as well as the set for René Clair’s short film Entracte, which was shown during the interval of the ballet. From 1925, he lived a fashionable night-life in the south of France, initially in Mougis and, from 1931, with Olga Mohler, whom he married in 1940, on yachts along the Mediterranean coast. He returned to Paris after World War II, but his poor health forced him to give up painting in 1953.
From 1897 to 1908, Picabia painted in a late-Impressionist style, influenced by Alfred Sisley in 1897, when he visited Moret, Camille Pissarro (whom he met in 1903), and Paul Gauguin, the flat colour of whose landscapes he imitated. By 1908, he had produced more than 1,000 paintings and had held a very successful exhibition at the Galerie Haussman, which signed an exclusive dealer contract with him in 1906. He broke this contract in 1908 when he met Gabrielle Buffet, and was attracted in a number of directions, including Abstraction. In 1912, he painted some of his key works: Procession in Seville, Paris, Tarantella, and Dance at a Spring. During his first visit to New York in 1913, he painted a series of watercolours of the city emphasising its modernity, colours, rhythms, and jazziness. When he returned from the United States in 1913–1914, Picabia painted what is said to be the whole of his main Abstract output: Udnie, Young American Girl, Edtaonisl, and I See My Dear Udnie in My Memory. From the time of his first visit to New York, Picabia had been struck by the importance assumed by machinery in the modern world, seeming to replace human beings, about to swallow them up, and finally destined to function autonomously. In 1913, he had begun to introduce the subject of machinery into his work, as in Catch as Catch Can, the first of his mechanist paintings. The theme of absurd machines occupied almost all his painting until 1922. The series is considered by some to be the most significant part of his output. He experimented with painting procedures and unusual materials – feather collages on canvas, matches, tooth-picks, hairpins, as in Flirt and Woman with Matches of 1920. He also painted pictures consisting entirely of words ( Double World of 1919, and Straw Hat about 1921).
Picabia participated in group exhibitions, including: 1894, Salon des Artistes Français, Paris, with View of Martigues; 1903, 1910–1911, and at least until 1919, Salon d’Automne, Paris; 1912, La Section d’Or, Galerie La Boétie, Paris; 1913, the Armory Show, New York; 1917, the first show of the Independents, with Duchamp, New York; from 1921–1922 to 1924 he took part in Surrealist exhibitions organised by Breton; 1936, Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism, Museum of Modern Art, New York; and 1948, with Hans Hartung, Wols, Georges Mathieu, and Camille Bryen, Psychic Non-figuration ( Non-figuration Psychique), Galerie Colette Allendy, Paris. Since his death he has been represented in many exhibitions, including: 1979, Paris-Moscow, Centre Georges-Pompidou, Paris; 2002, Dear Painter, Figurative Paintings since Late Picabia ( Cher Peintre, Peintures Figuratives depuis l’Ultime Picabia), Centre Georges-Pompidou, Paris; and 2003, The Origins of Abstraction (1800–1914) ( Aux Origines de l’Abstraction (1880–1914)), Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Solo exhibitions of his work include: 1903 or 1905, Galerie Haussmann, Paris; 1913 and 1915, Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery, New York; 1916, Modern Gallery, New York; 1920, Paris, when he showed in two exhibitions; 1922, Dalmau Gallery, Barcelona; 1930, first retrospective of all aspects of his work from 1900 to 1930; 1934, Valentin Gallery, New York; 1942, Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery, New York; and 1946, Sur-irréalisme, Galerie Denise René. In 1949, a large retrospective called 50 Years of Pleasure ( 50 Ans de Plaisir) was held at the Galerie René Drouin, Paris; the catalogue of this exhibition took the form of a review entitled 491, an extension of 291 and 391, and the articles were by Breton, Jean Cocteau, Robert Desnos, and others. In 1949, he also showed a collection of recent works in another Paris gallery. His later exhibitions were deliberately provocative.
Since his death there have been a number of retrospectives, including: 1956, Paris; 1962, Musée Cantini, Marseilles, and Bern; 1964, London and Milan; 1970, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; 1973, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich; 1976, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris; 1983, Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, and Kunsthaus, Zurich; 1984, Moderna Museet, Stockholm; 1985, Fundació Caixa de Pensions, Barcelona; 1986, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nîmes; 1988, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, and Neuendorf Gallery, Frankfurt am Main; 1990, Francis Picabia. Suzanne Romaine Collection, Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne, Paris; 1996, Galerie d’Art Graphique of the Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne, Paris; 1997, Galerie Piltzer, Paris; and 2002, Singular Ideal ( Singulier Idéal), retrospective, at the City of Paris Musée d’Art Moderne. He was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1933 and an Officier in 1950.
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Chicago (AI): Edtaonisl (1913)
Cologne (Mus. Ludwig): Spanish Night (1922, ripolin (household paint)/canvas)
Grenoble (Mus. de Grenoble)
Lisieux: The Bridge, Villeneuve
London (Tate Collection): The Fig-Leaf (1922, ripolin (household paint)/canvas); Conversation I (1922, watercolour and pencil/paper)
Marseilles (Mus. Cantini): Transparencies (1932, drawing); Knowledge of the Future (1949)
New Haven (Société Anonyme Collection): Midday (c. 1921)
New York (Metropolitan MA): Negro Song (1913)
New York (MoMA): Dances at the Spring (1912, oil on canvas); Portrait of a Couple (1942–1943, oil/panel); I See My Dear Udnie in My Memory (c. 1914)
New York (Solomon R. Guggenheim Mus.): Carburettor Child (1917)
Paris (MAMVP): Lovers (After Rain) (c. 1925, ripolin/canvas)
Paris (MNAM-CCI): Landscape (1909); Rubber (1909); New York (1913, watercolour and gouache); Udnie (Young American Girl: Dance) (1913); Tobacco-Rat (St-Guy Dance) (1919–1920); 1949; L’Œil Cacodylate (c. 1920); Straw Hat (1921–1922); Sphinx (1929); Spring (1935); Burst of Sun (1943); Points (1949, total of 17 paintings and 13 drawings); Udnie (1913, oil on canvas)
Paris (Mus. du Petit Palais)
Philadelphia (MA): Banks of the Loing (1905); Dances at the Spring (1912); Catch as Catch Can (1913, oil on canvas)
Rotterdam (Mus. Boijmans Van Beuningen)
Stuttgart (Staatsgal.): Gabrielle Buffet. She Corrects Manners by Laughing (1915, mixed media on card); Feathers (c. 1925, mixed media)
The Hague (Gemeentemus.)
Turin (Gal. Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea): The Kiss (1923–1926, oil on canvas)
Venice (Collezione Peggy Guggenheim): Very Rare Painting on the Ground (1915, mixed media on card)
Zurich (Flick Collection): Five Women (1942, oil/card)