A painter with talent, cheekiness and an eventful life… Francis Picabia marked the 20th century with the eclecticism of his painting and his significant contribution to French and American intellectual life. And what does the market make of him?
Francis-Marie Martinez de Picabia was born on 22 January 1879 in Paris. A single child born to parents representing Spanish aristocracy and French bourgeoisie, he grew up in a certain material comfort but was not spared from emotional affliction. He was seven when his mother died of tuberculosis, and he found himself stuck with his father, Juan Martinez Picabia, the Cuban consul in Paris, his bachelor uncle Maurice Davanne, a curator at the Sainte-Geneviève Library in Paris, and his grandfather Alphonse Davanne, a wealthy businessman and enthusiastic amateur photographer who at one time was president of the Société Française de Photographie. In this universe that was possibly a little too virile, Francis escaped boredom by painting.
In 1895, after school, he signed up at the École des Arts Décoratifs with Braque and Marie Laurencin as his teachers. In 1899, Francis Picabia joined the Salon des Artistes Français thanks to his painting Une Rue aux Martigues. At the start of the 20th century, his painting owed a great deal to impressionism. He showed at the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants, but also in galleries such as that of Berthe Weill or at the Galerie Haussmann. His paintings sold well.
In 1908, Francis Picabia met Gabrielle Buffet, a young avant-garde musician who encouraged him to continue his research. Supported by his personal fortune, he gradually shook off his ties with his synthetic style and his dealers to trace a path through the 20th century’s “isms”: fauvism, futurism, cubism and orphism. His style stretched in all directions and adapted itself to every constraint, every manifesto. Some of his paintings deliberately tended towards abstraction.
Between 1910 and 1911, Picabia joined Parisian avant-garde circles after he met Marcel Duchamp and Guillaume Apollinaire. In 1913, during the notorious Armory Show in which Marcel Duchamp’s Nu descendant un escalier was shown, Francis Picabia was present as an exhibitor, but above all, as an ambassador and spokesman for European avant-garde. He was impressed by the host city, a paragon of modernity, and declared: “New York is the only cubist city in the world… a futurist city. It expresses modern thought in its architecture, its life, its spirit.” When the war broke out, he managed to return to New York; here, he took part in Alfred Steiglitz’s Revue 291 and started his so-called “mecanomorphic” period, focusing on cogs and machines, not without conferring them with an erotic tension and accompanying them with poetic titles. He would continue to radicalise mechanical devices towards a quasi-abstract geometricity, and would show these works in 1922 at the Dalmau gallery in Barcelona – an exhibition which, despite André Breton’s preface, was a resounding failure.
The excesses of life in New York plunged Picabia into deep anguish. He left the city to travel, namely to Barcelona, while taking care to avoid the war. He also set about writing poetry and published his first collection in 1917 (Cinquante-deux miroirs).
His decidedly Dadaist stance enabled him to easily adhere to the movement, and he was in contact with Tristan Tzara. During this period, Francis Picabia separated from his first wife and started a new relationship with Germaine Everling. His Dada period was rich. Francis Picabia continued to paint, even if his work was subject to debate; he owned his own journal, 391; he also contributed to many other publications including the journal Littérature which turned up between the end of the Dada movement and the birth of surrealism. André Breton was its head editor, and his editorial line was the following: “Send me whatever you like and above all, don’t back down from violence: the path has never been so free.” Picabia produced the journal’s covers, and published many texts in it. But this idyll with André Breton would only last a certain time, for Picabia subsequently turned against surrealism, one day declaring that “artificial eggs don’t make chickens”.
At the start of the 1920s, he moved to the French Riviera where he would live for twenty or so years. There, he led a worldly life, still connected to Paris via his editorials and texts in journals – this is how he struck a fatal blow to Dada – and it was also in the south of France that he found a new muse, Olga Mohler, following Germaine Everling’s exit in 1935. Next to his new partner, his art took a new turn with his neo-romantic transparencies that he showed regularly at Léonce Rosenberg’s gallery.
His final years were marked by a great diversity in style: realistic, falsely academic works which rehashed the codes of American advertising, popular imagery, but also erotic magazines; he also painted new superimpositions and landscapes which recalled his impressionist period; finally, he made a few distinct forays into geometric abstraction. He also began writing again – Thalassa dans le désert would be published in 1945.
Consumed by an overly great passion for cars and gambling, Francis Picabia finished in financial ruin. By the end of 1951, he had a crippling case of arteriosclerosis which prevented him from painting. He would die two years later, on 30 November 1953.
In over 40 institutions in about 20 countries
Currently on show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, but also, more modestly, at the Galerie Nathalie Seroussi (Paris) as part of the group show “La femme visible” (until 14 January), Francis Picabia remains a major figure of modernity, still widely talked about and exhibited. His nihilism, nurtured by the fallout of two world wars, his pictorial and creative eclecticism, and his decisive contribution to Dada explain this ongoing popularity.
Since 1928, his works have been shown more than 430 times, fairly often in solo exhibitions – 16 % of his total showings. The pace of his exhibitions quickened significantly when the 2000s began, jumping up from an average of 3.5 exhibitions per year between 1980 and 1999, to over fifteen or so ever since.
Francis Picabia has often been shown in galleries, 38 % of the time. Until the 1990s, he was above all exhibited by dealers and gallerists, before institutions took up the torch – there have been roughly 150 museum exhibitions since 2000, and around one hundred gallery appearances. Today, around twenty dealers – mainly in France, Switzerland, the United States and Great Britain – carry on his legacy.
Recent years have incidentally been punctuated by a few notable exhibitions. First, “Francis Picabia – A Retrospective”, presented at the Kunsthaus in Zurich in 2016, today hanging on the walls of the MoMA. In 2014, the MNAM – Centre Pompidou showed a set of drawings produced by Francis Picabia for the journal Littérature, after the institution acquired them thanks to sponsorship by Sanofi; these drawings were accompanied by photographs by Man Ray (“Man Ray, Picabia et la revue Littérature”). In 2012, it was the Kunsthalle in Krems, Austria, which would hold a retrospective on the artist.
In group shows, Picabia is most often exhibited beside Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Man Ray and Joan Miró.
The United States and France, the painter’s two adopted countries, have hosted 44 % of his exhibitions, followed by Germany (16 %). While the three countries represent six out of ten exhibitions in which the painter’s works are found, Picabia still has an undeniably international stature. Over 40 institutions scattered in around 20 countries own his works in their collections while exhibitions on the artist have been hosted by some 30 countries.
The artist’s catalogue raisonné is currently being prepared by the Comité Picabia, which has already published two volumes (1898-1914 and 1915-1927) in collaboration with the Fonds Mercator.
While being widely exhibited, Francis Picabia’ media coverage is not so rich, even if it is on the rise: he has inspired an average of 230 articles since 2010, compared with 160 in the 2000s and 25 in the 1990s. One-fifth of these articles has been published in France, 13 % in the United States, 12 % in Spain. The journalists who have written the most on him are Kenneth Baker (The Telegraph), Bernd Noack (Fürther Nachrichten), Carol Vogel (The New York Times), Judith Benhamou-Huet (Les Échos), and Christoph Heim (Basler Zeitung).
Petite Udnie, a record Picabia from the Bourdon collection
At auctions, the painter’s ratings remain restrained. His business volume only rarely goes over ten million dollars: this was only the case between 2006 and 2008, in 2012, and in 2013. Since 1985, his business volume has totalled $117.4 million. The artist’s market was very stable between 1985 and 2005, reaping an average of $1.5 million per year. It was nonetheless during these years that a record was set, never bettered since: in 1990, auction house Loudmer sold the oil-on-canvas Petite Udnie (1913-1914) for 24 million francs ($4.1 million) during the sale of the Bourdon collection.
A total of 27 works by the artist have gone over the million-dollar mark, 24 since 2005. With the boom in the prices of his most prestigious lots, the market for Francis Picabia’s works has become more volatile. Recently, during the sale of the Leslie Waddington collection at Christie’s on 4 October 2016, Lampe (1923), estimated at between £800,000 and 1.2 million, finally went for £3.6 million ($4.6 million). The work, formerly owned by Jacques Doucet, and still presented in its original frame by Pierre Legrain, was sold to an Asian telephone bidder for a record sum for a work on paper by the artist. At the same sale, Chariot, a watercolour depicting a pink man surrounded by black and white stripes, painted at the start of the 1920s, sold for £1.6 million ($2 million).
France remains the artist’s leading market: over one half of lots featuring Picabia (56 %) are sold here, accounting for one-third of his business volume. However, works sell at lower prices in France than in English-speaking countries – at an average of $56,000 compared to $165,000 in the United States and $168,000 in Great Britain. The United States, by selling 14 % of the artist’s lots, produces one-quarter of his business volume, while Great Britain, selling one fifth of his lots, scores 39 % of his business volume. Picabia’s works reveal an unsold rate of 22 % – a rate which has been relatively stable for about a decade.
Today, one of the artist’s works on paper will set you back by between $5,000 and 20,000, with the best works sometimes exceeding one million dollars. Expect to spend around $1,000 for rare multiples on sale – mainly lithographs and etchings. Count on between $50,000 and 300,000 for his paintings. We should note that Picabia’s works on paper remain a substantial market: they represent 53 % of lots sold and 26 % of his business volume. In 2016, 25 of these works on paper totalled $9.2 million. Less positively, 21 found no takers.
Wariness seems to prevail, with some commentators reproaching the existence of fakes on the market. It was an article written by Judith Benhamou-Huet which set alight the gunpowder in July 2016, backed up with quotes from Catherine Hug (one of the curators of the Picabia retrospective in Zurich and New York) and Alan Tarica.
Picabia, a New York star
It’s one of the blockbuster exhibitions in New York for Francis Picabia hasn’t featured in any retrospective in the United States for nearly 50 years. Since 21 November and until 19 March, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is welcoming “Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction”, a New York version of the exhibition held at the Kunsthaus in Zurich in 2016. Nearly 50 years of creation are revealed, from his impressionist debut to his last illustrations for Pierre André Benoit in 1952, when he was already suffering from arteriosclerosis.
“Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction”, until 19 March. Museum of Modern Art, 11 W 53rd St, New York, United States. www.moma.org