Francis Picabia’s career is defined by varied activities as a painter, poet, editor, and international impresario of the avant-garde. Picabia was born into a wealthy Spanish-French family in Paris, and from a young age threw himself into the most extreme currents of modern art. He met the Impressionist Camille Pissarro in 1902 and produced landscapes under the elder painter’s influence, before moving successively through Cubism and Dada. Picabia was included by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire in the latter’s important book The Cubist Painters, Aesthetic Meditations
(1913), in which he described Picabia as the representative of a sub-genre of Cubist painting that he dubbed “Orphism.” In these years, Picabia produced large-scale works that pushed the pictorial idiom of
Cubism toward abstraction. Picabia is primarily remembered today, however, as the most controversial representative of the international Dada movement. From 1917 to 1924, Picabia edited the journal 391 (an ironic nod to Alfred Stieglitz’s journal and gallery 291), in which he published the work of Dadaists like Tristan Tzara, Marcel Duchamp, Céline Arnaud, and André Breton, as well as his own nihilistic poems and “mechanomorphic” drawings.
At various points in his life, Picabia supported himself through his dealings in the art market, focusing on buying and selling works by his fellow avant-gardists. For all the ire that Picabia directed toward Cubist art in his Dada manifestos, he purchased important examples of Cubism throughout his career as a dealer. He bought Picasso’s newspaper collage Bottle and Wine Glass on a Table (1912; The Metropolitan Museum of Art) from the Galerie Kahnweiler before 1914. Picabia then sold it to Alfred Stieglitz for $150 while in New York in 1915 traveling in service of the French Army. Picabia then deserted the military and spent the war years living in New York and, later, Barcelona, spreading the gospel of modernism internationally through his numerous publications and exhibits. Tzara recalls that Picabia was one of the buyers at the famous Kahnweiler sequestration sales of 1921 to 1923, where the German-born dealer’s collection of works by Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Fernand Léger were sold off after being seized by the French government during World War I.
Picabia’s activities in the art market were never purely speculative, and he used his financial independence to bankroll exhibitions and publications by other young modern artists. Indeed, the painting Houses in Paris, Place Ravignan by Juan Gris (1911–12; Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection) bears testimony to Picabia’s close relationship with Gris, and to his place within the broader the Cubist movement. On the bottom left corner, it is signed in brown paint by Gris: “A mon cher ami Picabia/avec toute l’admiration de/Juan Gris” (To my dear friend Picabia, with all my admiration, Juan Gris). Gris gave the painting to Picabia as a gift in order to thank the artist for including it in the exhibition Salon de la Section d’Or, which the latter had funded and which took place at the Galerie la Boétie, Paris, October 10–30, 1912. The show was one of the most important European exhibitions of modern art in the prewar years, offering a showcase of developments in Cubist painting. Indeed, it is largely thanks to this exhibition, and others by the Section d’Or, that the term “Cubism” gained a public currency by 1912, and was initially associated with artists like Gris, Picabia, Jean Metzinger, and Albert Gleizes, rather than with Picasso and Braque, who did not participate. From the 1920s until his death in 1953, Picabia’s art and life went through a number of dramatic shifts—from figurative painting to abstraction and back again, to name but one—appropriate for this most protean member of the avant-garde.
For more information, see
Baker, George. The Artwork Caught by the Tail: Francis Picabia and Dada in Paris
, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2007.
Ottinger, Didier. Francis Picabia dans les collections du Centre Pompidou. Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou, 2003.
Pierre, Arnauld. Francis Picabia: La Peinture sans Aura. Paris: Gallimard, 2002.
Picabia’s archives are preserved at the Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet, Paris.