The Comité Picabia has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
Hera, executed in 1929, is a major example from Francis Picabia's visually compelling series of paintings known as the Transparencies. In this picture, the heads of predominantly beautiful women float against a backdrop filled with a looming nude, plunging the viewer into the midst of an hallucinatory, sensual reverie. Picabia combined layers of imagery drawn from Classical, Renaissance and Catalan Romanesque art in the Transparencies with images derived from the natural world. He overlaid these with his own decorative motifs of gracefully spiralling lines and, in the case of Hera, executed this intoxicating synthesis via a rich mixture of gouache, pastel, charcoal and pencil.
The use of the term 'transparency', derived from photography, points to the visual effects of double and montaged images which appear in this series. Picabia had previously explored the optical effects of multiple layers of imagery in his Cubist and Orphist period, as well as in his preceding Monster paintings and in his film Entr'acte of 1924. The artistic possibilities of transparency had also been explored earlier by, amongst others, Marcel Duchamp in his famous The Large Glass (1912-23) and Man Ray in his Rayographs (see J. Mundy , ed., Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia, exh. cat., London, 2008, p. 38). Duchamp connected the superimposition of images in Picabia's Transparencies with his own interest in multiple, shifting perspectives, particularly evident in his film Anemic Cinema (1926). Picabia's Transparencies, Duchamp wrote, 'express the feeling of a third dimension without the aid of perspective (M. Duchamp, quoted in J. Mundy, 'The Art of Friendship' in ibid.). Indeed Duchamp and Picabia were both later to sign the Manifeste dimensioniste which called for painting to expand into the third dimension, and sculpture into the fourth.
Like an artist's sketchbook showing the genesis of an idea, Hera features faces in profile and three quarter view, freely suspended before a nude, seen from the back. The pose of the nude with one leg raised is particularly erotic, an eroticism which is made all the more potent by the hands and faces which touch it. This motif of hands touching bodies features in many other paintings from this series and, perhaps, with its sexual connotations, reflects Picabia's statement that his Transparencies were expressions of his 'interior desires' (Picabia, quoted in W. Camfield, op.cit., 1979, p. 233). Although the imagery in Hera is complex, the mood evoked is one of tranquility and reverie. Hera was shown alongside Catax (see lot 107) at Picabia's exhibition of 1929, held at the Galerie Théophile Briant in Paris. Reviewing this exhibition, one commentator noted that Picabia succeeded in creating, 'a world of sensations, harmony and of thoughts' (E. Ramond, 'L'exposition Picabia', Paris Montparnasse, 15 November 1929, no. 10, p. 11 quoted in Francis Picabia dans les collections du Centre Pompidou, Musée national d'Art moderne, Paris, 2003, p. 72).
As in Catax, it is possible that the faces in Hera are derived from Renaissance or Classical sources. For some of the Transparencies, specific sources have been identified for the figures, most notably from the art of Sandro Botticelli and Piero della Francesca whose works Picabia copied from reproductions in books. Here, the face to the left, with its profoundly hooded eyes, bears close resemblance to Piero's serenely stylized female faces.
When he executed the Transparencies, Picabia was living on the antiquity-steeped Mediterranean coast and the painting's title, Hera, would seem to be an allusion to antiquity. Hera, the Goddess of women and marriage, was the wife of Zeus and one of his three sisters. The extent to which the present painting actually engages directly with this Classical source, however, is questionable. By now, the antiquity of the Mediterranean coast was no longer its main attraction, but rather its fashionability. It also attracted many artists, including Picabia, not just for its light and scenery but for its hedonistic lifestyle. It has been posited that the Transparencies reflect this new reality and the Classical allusions are subverted and decontextualised in these works to indicate the destabilising of the Classical tradition (see S. Cochran, 'An Alternative Classicism: Picabia with and against Picasso and de Chirico', in C. Green & J. M. Daehner, eds., Modern Antiquity: Picasso, de Chirico, Léger, Picabia, exh. cat., Los Angeles, 2011, pp. 31-41). Certainly it would appear that specific images and titles were chosen in the Transparencies not for their inherent content or allegorical associations, but rather for the mysterious, ambiguous effect of their juxtaposition. Indeed, it is known that Picabia took the titles of many of these works, including Hera, from a book on butterflies - Paul Girod's Poche des Papillons de France, Suisse et Belgique (see A. Pierre, Francis Picabia: la peinture sans aura, Paris, 2002). Camfield has remarked that this painting leads one, 'to muse about identities, relationships and the title. Pursuit of such musings may lead to an association with Hera Anthea (flowery) [at the temple of Hera Anthea at Argos an annual flower festival was celebrated], but there is no way to verify that facet of Hera for this painting, and finally, the indeterminate condition of such queries seems to accord with Picabia's work' (Camfield, op. cit., 1979, p. 237). It was this very indeterminacy and ambivalence which throughout his career Picabia so ingeniously exploited, whether in his earlier intriguing and perplexing Dada machinist imagery or in the later nudes of his so-called realist phase.
The Transparencies such as Hera signalled an exciting development for Picabia where, he claimed, 'all my instincts may have a free course' (Picabia, quoted ibid., p. 233-234). His novel appropriation and subversion of the art of the past to create these personal dream-like worlds was, moreover, a response to what he felt was the increasing monotony of much modern art. In this, the Transparencies foreshadow techniques employed by many Postmodern artists of the latter half of the Twentieth Century and were to profoundly influence the work of the contemporary painter and photographer Sigmar Polke.