Once known as “Papa Dada,” Francis Picabia was one of the principle figures of the Dada movement both in Paris and New York. A friend and associate of Marcel Duchamp, he became known for a rich variety of work ranging from strange, comic-erotic images of machine parts to text-based paintings that foreshadow aspects of Conceptual art. Even after Dada had been supplanted by other styles, the French painter and writer went on to explore a diverse and almost incoherent mix of styles. He shifted easily between abstraction and figuration at a time when artists clung steadfastly to one approach, and his gleeful disregard for the conventions of modern art encouraged some remarkable innovations even later in his career, from the layered Transparency series of the 1920s to the kitsch, erotic nudes of the early 1940s. Picabia remains revered by contemporary painters as one of the century’s most intriguing and inscrutable artists.
Francis Picabia was born in 1879 in Paris, the only child of a Cuban-born Spaniard, Francisco Vicente Martinez Picabia, and a Frenchwoman, Marie Cecile Davanne. Both his parents came from prominent European families, and Picabia was raised in an affluent household. Throughout his life, the family fortune allowed him to study, travel, and enjoy a luxury lifestyle. However, at the age of seven, his mother passed away of tuberculosis, and the following year his grandmother died. These losses ensured that Picabia’s childhood would be a lonely one, and he was left in the care of his father, the chancellor to the Cuban Embassy, his uncle, Maurice Davanne, a curator of the Bibliotheque Sainte Geneviève, and his maternal grandfather, Alphonse Davanne, a wealthy businessman. Their house was known as the house of quatre sans femmes (four without women).
His uncle was an art lover and collector, who facilitated young Picabia’s interests by surrounding him with works by classical French painters such as Fèlix Ziem and Ferdinand Roybert. His grandfather, a devoted amateur photographer, taught Picabia about photography, and Picabia would later use a camera to aid his work. In 1895, Picabia started attending the prestigious École des Arts Decoratifs, where recent alumni included Vincent van Gogh and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. He studied under Fernand Cormon, Ferdinand Humbert, and Albert Charles Wallet for two years. He then worked at Cormon’s studio with his classmates Georges Braque and Marie Laurencin for the next four years. During this time, he produced mostly watercolors and exhibited only once at the Salon des Artistes Francais. He quickly left painting traditional watercolors and transitioned towards Impressionism, influenced by Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley. He believed that “paintings should not represent nature, but the emotional experience of the artist,” and that Impressionism was a tool to represent his ideals.
Picabia held his first solo show in 1905 at the Galerie Hausmann in Paris. The show exhibited 61 landscape paintings and received substantial acclaim. After the show, he became widely popular in the art scene, showing solo in Paris, London, and Berlin. However, in 1909, he abandoned the style that brought him initial success and moved towards more avant-garde styles, including Fauvism. This caused a break with his representation at the Galerie Hausmann. In the same year, he married Gabrielle Buffet, a musician, who brought music into his life. Through her, he saw the possible link between art and music. She also encouraged his interest in more avant-garde styles.
Picabia did much to define Dada in Paris and New York, and his reputation as one of the movement’s father figures has stayed with him. But it is perhaps the spirit that the movement encouraged in him – his anarchic spirit and his disrespect for conventional abstract modern art – that has yielded his greatest legacy. It is this spirit that shaped the Transparency series of the 1920s and the erotic nudes of the 1940s, both of which have proved hugely influential – the former on artists such as David Salle and Sigmar Polke, the latter on figures such as John Currin.
When many artists thought abstract and figurative art should be separated, Picabia seemed to combine them. When others felt that the nude should remain a noble subject, he debased it. Picabia seems to have had a light-hearted and often cynical attitude to art-making, and while this put him at odds with many of his more serious peers, it is this attitude that seems so resonant to contemporary artists who not only have less faith in art’s ability to change the world, but also have an attitude to museums and galleries that sways between the tolerant and the skeptical.