'It is the past that still has to be explored... I mean the past in so far as it is mysterious. And the hidden corners of our mystery can only be explored if we are prepared to banish all influence, all hereditary or contemporary convention; good and bad, high and low curve and straight line, infinite and finite, space and time' (quoted by M. Nadeau, Histoira del Surrealismo, Barcelona, 1972, p. 209).
Mi is one of Picabia's first series of 'Transparency' paintings (Transparences), painted between 1928 and 1929. The Transparencies are so-called because of their many layers of imagery, which simultaneously combine to create an illusional and seemingly impenetrable allegory with all the characteristics of a dream or a mystic vision. These paintings were in part derived from the artist's Cubist and Orphist period, but Picabia had also experimented with such layered simultaneity in the film Entr'acte as well as in some of his 'monster' paintings in the late 1920s. While Marcel Duchamp's reaction to these paintings was to describe them as 'a third dimension without resorting to perspective' (quoted in M.L. Borràs, op. cit., p. 337), it was primarily within the context of the cinema that these extraordinary works were first interpreted. Gaston Ravel exclaimed excitedly about the first Transparencies when he first saw them that they were 'a miracle! an enchantment and an homage', 'involuntary perhaps, rendered to the cinema' (quoted in Francis Picabia: His art life and times, W. Camfield, New York , 1979, p. 233). Similarly excited by these new paintings was the dealer Léonce Rosenberg, who was so impressed that, in spite of having been reviled and ridiculed by Picabia during the artist's Dada period, offered him an arrangement with his gallery and commissioned a group of paintings for his wife's apartments.
Drawing on the art of the ancient past in a metaphysical sense, and imbuing it with a sense of eternal presence and as a metaphor for the timelessness of the present, Picabia, in these paintings, like de Chirico, anticipated the technique of appropriation that would distinguish much Post-modernist art in the later twentieth century. In doing so, he found, he said, that these paintings gave him a new and exciting freedom that offered and allowed 'all his instincts' to run a 'free course' and ultimately producing a 'resemblance of my interior desires' (F. Picabia, quoted in W. Camfield, op. cit., p. 233-4).
For Picabia, in the late 1920s, the new freedom offered by the simultaneous and seemingly non-hierarchical imagery of the transparencies was important. 'My present feeling as regards aesthetics comes from the boredom produced by the sight of pictures that seem to me to be congealed on their immobile surfaces, far removed from anything human', he said. 'This third dimension, which is not a product of chiaroscuro, these transparencies with their secret depth, enable me to express my inner intentions with a certain degree of verisimilitude. When I lay the foundation stone, I want it to remain under my picture and not on top of it' (F. Picabia, quoted in M.L. Borràs, op. cit., p. 340).
Executed during a period of extreme productivity, while living on the Mediterranean coast, the majority of Picabia's Transparencies refer to classical themes, and conjure what is perhaps an appropriate sense of an antique idyll. Indeed, the 'foundation stone' he mentioned with reference to these works was, almost always, an ancient masterpiece from the classical past, that would serve as the basis for the Transparency's composition. In the case of Mi this founding image is the only clothed figure in the composition, whose drapery and classical pose probably derive from a specific Mediterranean source. Incorporating this image into the work and building from it in an intuitive way using predominantly Botticelli-esque motifs, until multiple layers of reality and illusion become visible, the ultimate meaning of the work grows deliberately obscure and ambiguous but also fascinating. Indeed, in many of Picabia's Transparencies it often seems as if these works were made according to a personal code of imagery that only the artist could recognise and interpret. This aspect of these works is also often reflected in their enigmatic and often strange titles. Many are based, like thee images themselves, on the protagonists of Greek and Roman mythology. Others refer to specific historical sites and figures and yet others to birds, plants and insects. Some are invented, or perhaps, as in this case, abbreviated words or anagrammatic constructions. Picabia's wife Olga confirmed that the artist on some occasions actually constructed some titles by combining syllables from the names of butterflies and flowers and that ultimately he only had phonetic or poetic aims for such titles.
In a statement about the Transparencies that Picabia made for the introduction of these works at his exhibition at Rosenberg's gallery in December 1930, Picabia humorously suggested that these works, as expressions of 'inner desire', were, ultimately, fiercely personal visions to be read and understood only by himself alone.
'I worked for months and years making use of nature, copying it. Now it is my nature that I copy, that I try to express. I was once feverish over calculated inventions, now it is my instinct that guides me... these transparencies with their corner of oubliettes permit me to express for myself the resemblance of my interior desires... I want a painting where all my instincts may have a free course... Those who have said ... that "I do not enter the line of account" are right. I take no part in no addition and recount my life to myself alone' (F. Picabia, introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition Francis Picabia, Léonce Rosenberg, Paris, 9-31 December 1930).