File Note #13: Francis Picabia - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Verne Dawson



Francis Picabia Images References Quote Biography Credits

Francis Picabia

Francis Picabia is speeding in his roadster with the top down, thick hair cutting through the air, the gasoline-powered racing engine providing a speed and power both new and thrilling. He finesses his way through Impressionism, shooting through it. Restlessly he runs through Cubism, via the reckless nihilism of Dada. He follows the linear trajectory of modernism, going full throttle so fast down a straightway that is, in fact, slightly curved. In his probe into the future he finds himself closing in on the beginnings of visual art, skilfully steering through popular imagery into the gallery caverns of the Stone Age. Like Einstein, Picabia has discovered that the shortest distance between two points is a curved line, like a Euroborus coming full circle to consume its own tail. 

When Denis Peyrony discovered the magnificent caves of Les Ezyies in the Dordogne in the early days of the twentieth century, he was not aware of the nourishment he was bringing to one of the most modern minds of the time. What happened to artists, to painters in particular, when they beheld evidence of a sublime painting art recently discovered in their own country, not medieval, Roman, Greek, or even Sumerian, but an art of prehistory, predating their own work by tens of thousands of years? It was an amazing revelation of drawings, which was neither scribbles nor childish scrawls, but anatomically sophisticated works by artists of great sensitivity and precision that lived more than 20,000 years before they were born.

Imagine a world without a disrupted space, without portals to other spaces. A world without the dimensional wormhole of television, without the distant voice brought into one’s own space via radio; without the Internet, without even a book or magazine with photographs of other realities. As we all know, that was how it was for practically all mankind up to the turn of the twentieth century. Then existence, and our understanding of it, changed. Almost simultaneously, around 1905, Freud described layers of consciousness within the human mind; Einstein formalised the distortion of the space- time continuum and Joyce published Ulysses, a work of unprecedented promiscuity of styles and genres. How does the visual artist go about representing this new understanding of reality? In the room a TV is on without volume, news footage of an earthquake in Mexico, the radio is playing waves of lovely sounds made far away by an orchestra, and these invisible waves — the dumb radiance of the transmitter — penetrate our space, even our bodies. The computer is online, streaming statistics of the markets around the world. Art books open on the table, a full-page photograph of an Etruscan figurine, yesterday’s papers turned to the comics — ah, here we are, our time and place. The Old World of an integrated singular style of a dominant culture is kaput!

How does a talented, intelligent and sensitive painter represent this world in which he lives? How does he represent the contemporary experience of complex simultaneity? Perhaps Picabia, amongst the plethora of visual information and stimulation coming into view, took due note of the images reproduced in scholarly journals, in magazines and picture postcards, of the recently discovered caves in south-west France and northern Spain, with their exquisite paintings and engravings. 

Where else do we encounter the layered imagery so crucial to his depiction of the modern experience? A bison drawn in stone, another etched over that one, a deer superimposed on top of that, this time with spears, one linear image on top of another. And what of the elaborate painted arrangements of dots that also adorn the cavern’s walls? Are they notations of counting, or simply decoration? In Picabia’s ‘dot’ paintings, they are an expression of pure form, pure paint and design. In his quest to match the speed of modernism, he passed it, colliding with art’s beginnings, culminating in an embrace predicated on need and usefulness. Ironically, it is a troglodyte that shows him how to represent the layers of experience, of sensation, of thoughts so utterly contemporary.

The fact that Picasso was led to cubism via African art is well known. According to the recent biography of Picasso by John Richardson, an even earlier influence was Prehistoric Iberian sculpture. Surely Picasso saw his own Neanderthal roots in the strong facial forms depicted in an angularity that while totally ancient became quintessentially modern. 

And so it is with Picabia’s ‘Transparencies’ from the 1920s and 1930s. Picabia recognised in the cave paintings of prehistoric Europe a method to represent his own time and experience. Seeing them must have been like closing a circle, completing a wheel.

Could it be that the possibilities of painting in its purest sense were exhausted by Picabia, thus completing the circle? The diversions from pure painting offer tangents. Gluing a photograph onto a painting, bolting a chair to it, or affixing a plate or a clump of hay, these are tangents away from the circumference. They can open up great avenues for art, but not for painting. A black painting is less a tangent than a full stop on the circle. It exists at the beginning and end, where the snake’s mouth meets its tail. It is a pause, an ending followed by a beginning. Even now, over 50 years after Picabia’s death, the same technique, the methods Picabia learned from the Stone Age, reappear in the work of the most progressive artists of our time. Would there be a Polke without Picabia, a Richard Prince without Picabia’s pulp, the countless contemporary Dadaists steeped in language and advertising? Probably, yes. Some things are inevitable. Picabia carried his torch perilously close to the black square. There was a pause, a gap, but not an end. 

Picabia was more than a painter. A poet, novelist, director of reviews, script writer, creator of ballets and theatricals, an organiser of festivals and other official receptions, he was a bon vivant, someone who in decadence and acumen indulged in the pure sensuality of painting. Even when painting highly machined metal parts, he softens their hard lustre with a human touch. With his late dot paintings, in what must have seemed the most minimal reduction of the image at the time, the surface is still indulged, modelled, whipped and frothed with a confectioner’s instinct. His tools were primitive, the images more so; the sophistication is, however, manifest in the mind and in the touch. Ultimately, why do we consider this artist at this time? Why is he relevant while others are not? He did what he wanted as need arose. Walls were porous. As an artist, he was free.

Inventory of works

01. Génération ascendante 1948, oil on canvas, 100 80cm, Private Collection, London

02. Le cercle infernal 1946, oil on board, 75 52cm, Hauser and Wirth Collection, St Gallen, Switzerland

03. Composition 1950, oil on board, 61 50cm, Hauser and Wirth Gallery, Zurich, Switzerland

04. Le marié 1951, oil on board, 55 46.5cm, Hauser and Wirth Gallery, Zurich, Switzerland

05. Composition 1951, oil on board , 55 46cm, Hauser and Wirth Gallery, Zurich, Switzerland

06. Chose á moi-même 1946, oil on board, 92 76cm, Courtesy Waddington, Galleries, London

07. La rêve de Suzanne 1949, oil on board, 74.5 51.5cm, Szwajcer family

08. The Sky 1949, oil on wood, 75 64cm, Private Collection, Turin

09. Untitled 1950, oil on canvas, 61 50cm, Fondazione Marguerite Arp, Locarno

10. Abstrait 1951, oil on canvas, 46 38.5cm, Fondazione Marguerite Arp, Locarno

11. Symbole 1950, oil on canvas, 100 85.5cm, Musée Bibliothèque, Pierre André Benoit, Alès

12. Composition 1949, oil on board, 34.9 27cm, Musée Bibliothèque, Pierre André Benoit, Alès

13. Composition 1950, oil on canvas, 61 50cm, Musée Bibliothèque, Pierre André Benoit, Alès

14. Composition abstraite 1946, oil on board, 55 46cm, Musée Bibliothèque, Pierre André Benoit, Alès 


Francis Picabia, Singular Ideal Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris (2002)

Francis Picabia: Late Works Dave Hickey, Werner Gallery (2000)

Francis Picabia: The Late Works 1933-1953, Zdenek Felix (Editor), Hatje Cantz (1998)

Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times, W.A. Camfield, Princeton (1979) 

Francis Picabia: Accommodations of Desire 1924-1932 Sarah Wilson, Kent Gallery Inc. (1989) 

"What I have learned from contact with Picabia’s work, via reproductions and too rarely the works themselves, is a sharp sense of urgency and never to hesitate. Changing style, becoming someone else, changing name, changing hair colour - no limits should define us." Cerith Wyn Evans, 2000


Francis Picabia (1879–1953) was born in Paris. He studied at the École des Arts Décoratifs and began exhibiting at the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants. Initially influenced by the Impressionists Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley, he adopted many different artistic styles throughout his career, including Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism. In 1915 he participated in Dada events with Marcel Duchamp in New York before spending time in Barcelona, publishing his periodical 391. Picabia remained involved with the Dadaists in Zurich and Paris until he moved to Tremblay-sur-Mauldre outside Paris in 1922. By the end of World War II, Picabia returned to Paris where he made his ‘dot’ and other abstract paintings, exhibited at the Galerie des Deux Iles, Paris in 1949. In 1951, a paralyzing illness stopped Picabia making any more work and he died two years later, in the same house in which he was born. Picabia’s paintings have been included in many exhibitions and a retrospective of his work was recently held at Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2002.


Verne Dawson is a painter based in the countryside of Pennsylvania, USA.

The File Notes with a hashtag in front of the number were published prior to the numerical system implemented on further printed file notes. As a result, there are duplicate numbered file notes. To differentiate, we have used a hashtag to indicate the original number of file note.

Exhibition supported by the Institut Française du Royaume-Uni.