Exhibition: Francis Picabia (1879 – 1953) in Zurich

Large retrospective t the Kunsthaus Museum in Zurich, Switzerland (03 Jun – 25 Sep 2016) (http://www.kunsthaus.ch/picabia/en/). After Zurich the show moves to New York: MoMA (20 Nov 2016 – 19 Mar 2017).

I was so impressed by the immense diversity and prolific body of work done by Francis Picabia during his artistic life (more than 200 works exhibited). He went through so many different styles and re-invented his approach to painting again and again. There was once a single show in Paris by Picabia. The exhibited works were so different in styles that the observer rather had the impression of a group show by different artists. One of Picabia’s quotes is

“our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction”.

Known for his group involvement with DADA in the 1920 Picabia went through various cycles of working traditionally in oil on canvas, with DADA going the route of the magazine format in contrast to canvas, and later moved back to canvas to explore new ways of visual articulation. Marcel Duchamp and André Breton realised early on Picabia’s importance to the art world.

In the beginning Picabia copied impressionistic works with a high accuracy that one could not tell so much the difference between them in style. Picabia wanted to show that one can produce such painting without going out into nature and paint from life as the impressionists were proclaiming.

I was not so attracted by his earlier works, feeling them rather deprived and artificial. I skipped the DADA period with the for me at times rather formal illustrative drawings in the context of industrialisation and war time. Also I was not so much attracted by the rather cubism style abstract paintings. Although I found Picabia’s approach to color application quite insightful:

“Color no longer depends on the known three dimensions,
it creates them … (color) decrease or increase in intensity
so as to elicit an aesthetic emotion.” (1913)

I felt more attracted towards his later paintings were he explored more the human figure in context of social conceptions and ideas and illusionism. His series ‘Transparencies‘ reminded me at times to some works by Jenny Saville and some drawings by Frank Auerbach due to the multilayering of painting and line markings. Picabia uses fragments of paintings from art history (Piero della Francesca, Sandro Botticelli) and added further referential fragments to create new visual images. With that kind of conceptualization Picabia puts the observer into a reflective role to think about the aesthetic and illusionism of images.

(All images taken at the exhibition)

  • Atrata‘, 1929
    Oil and pencil on wood (147 x 92 cm)

– ‘Aello‘, 1930
Oil on canvas (169 x 169 cm)



One often critiqued period in Picabia’s work are the World War II times. The figurative paintings – often based on found images from soft-porn magazines – add to an aesthetic that were close to the aesthetic of images from the ‘Dritte Reich’. Picabia modified the images or added further elements to contradict the original message.  At times those paintings are getting close to kitsch, and were actually be seen and critiqued by others for Picabia’s possible collaboration. Till today this is politically loaded question.

  • Femme à la sculpture grecque noir et blanche (Woman with Black-and-White Greek Sculpture)‘, 1942-43
    Oil on board (105 x 76 cm)



One aspect I found interesting is that Francis Picabia was perhaps one of the first artists to work with enamel paint (Ripolin) and achieving that typical high glossy smooth surfaces. The painting ‘Mardi Gras‘, inspired by the annual carnival in Nice, demonstrates Picabia’s approach with enamel. Some graphic appeal in combination with a painterly approach.

  • Mardi Gras (Le Baiser – The Kiss)’, 1924 -26
    Enamel paint on canvas (92 x 73 cm)

Overall, this retrospective showed the constant inquiry and appropriation of an artist, referring to found visual sources, and reframing them with painting into a critical visual statement of the time.

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