The Comité Picabia has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
‘I am working very much in the midst of a swirl of Baccarat, of dancing legs, and the whirlwind of jazz. I am making pictures on the theme of Lent and lovers - confetti pictures in which the sheen of cheap silk is rendered in Ripolin.’
(F. Picabia, quoted in ‘Letter to Pierre de Massot’, January-May 1924, quoted in Francis Picabia: singulier idéal, exh. cat., Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville, Paris, 2003, p. 298).
In the winter of 1924-25 Picabia began a series of paintings that deliberately ridiculed the rich socialites who celebrated carnival in Cannes during the winter season. Executed in the cheap brand of household enamel paint known as Ripolin, these paintings, which were to be famously dubbed by his friend and colleague Marcel Duchamp as the Monstres, were based on scenes from the veglioni or masked balls of Cannes which, as photographs and drawings published in the February 1925 edition of the magazine Saison de Cannes show, were especially decadent and lavish at this time. Rendered in rich, gaudy colour and revelling in a loose, free-flowing and open style, these radically new paintings were intended as both a mockery of the pretensions of high art and as a satirical dig at the monstrosity of Riviera ‘high life’ and the ‘flappers’ who chose to party through the winter there.
Painted in 1925 and depicting two characters in carnival costume with monstrous faces behind a playfully abstract cavalcade of party streamers, Mi-Carême (Mid-Lent), also known as (Carnaval), is one of the finest of this deliberately ugly, anti-art, antimodernist and anti-classical series of paintings that epitomise Picabia’s unique and fiercely individualistic stance towards both life and art.
As Duchamp wrote of these works, Picabia’s ‘restlessly inventive spirit leads him to use Ripolin instead of the traditional paint in tubes, which, to his way of thinking, takes on far too quickly the patina of posterity. He likes everything new and the canvases done in 1923, 1924 and 1925 have that newly painted look which preserves all the intensity of the first moment…The gaiety of the titles and his collages of everyday objects shows his impulse to be a renegade, to maintain his position of non-belief in the divinities created far too lightly by the exigencies of society' (Marcel Duchamp quoted in Maria Luisa Borràs, Francis Picabia, London, 1985, p. 289).
Picabia’s renunciation of Paris and his move to a life of ease and luxury in the French Riviera in 1924 was one which the artist knew all too well would offend the progressive politics of many of his allies in Paris. In addition to this, Picabia also found in the South of France, that ‘this country, which seems...to make some lazy, stimulates me to work...I have more and more pleasure in the resumption of painting.’ (Francis Picabia quoted in W. Camfeld, Picabia: His Life and Work, New Jersey, 1979, p. 216.) Decrying the Dadaists, Surrealists and other artists in Paris for their own lack of political and artistic individuality, Picabia took particular pride in doing just what he liked and made a specific point of visibly revelling in his luxurious life with his second wife on the French Riviera. In this respect, his Monstre paintings are also in some ways a pictorial expression of this defiant attitude of artistic individuality and independence. They are a celebration of what Picabia once described as ‘the absolute reign of ersatz’. that dominated the age, and also among the very first ‘postmodernist’ pictures in that they are works that completely disregard all aesthetic sensibility and artistic convention and deliberately poke fun at the entire concept of the ‘high’ art so revered in Paris.
Rendered in either a mixture of oil and gouache or, as here, in a sequence of cheap metallic household enamels, and adopting the banal imagery and cheesy romantic motifs of seaside postcards - voracious lovers and bathing beauties beside the sea – these deliberately crude pictures defied all the rules and conventions of traditional painting. But more-to-the-point, they did so in a way that appeared to ridicule the claims and pretensions of ‘fine’ art then being so fiercely fought over in the avant-garde circles in Paris. Self-evidently a simple combination of line, stylised graphic shading and symbol, the simplistic and often classically-based figures of these works are all rendered in a loose, apparently slap-dash and almost formulaic graphic style that calls to mind the approximations of sign-painters and the adorners of sea-shell souvenirs.
Taking the simple techniques of these artisans to a new level by reducing their artifice to an almost independent and abstract language of simple sign and motif, Picabia’s seaside souvenir Monstre paintings appear to lay bare the process of the painter’s art as if it were an art of easy assemblage. Here in Mi-Carême (Mid-Lent), with its Commedia dell’arte couple shown carousing together beneath the moon, Picabia, as in so many of his Monstre paintings, seems to have once again confrontationally taken the ‘monstrosity’ of ‘love’ as his subject. L’amour, Picabia frequently claimed at this time, was the subject that most ’frightened’ the Parisian ‘intellectuals’.
Picabia’s deliberately iconoclastic approach to painting and the carnival-like gaudiness of his technique were part of a radical and groundbreaking anti-modernist aesthetic that, though revolutionary and shocking in the 1920s, was to have a significant influence on many post-modernist approaches to painting in the 1970s and ‘80s, particularly upon the work of Sigmar Polke. Similarly, Picabia’s adoption of household enamel and the free-flowing liberty this paint lent his work, allowed for a freer, more intuitive and open approach to painting that the artist was to revel in and would later develop in his transparency paintings. It is in this sense too that the freely painted, winding and spiralling forms of the streamers set against a reflective silver enamel ground in this work can also be clearly seen to anticipate the similar free-form use to which household enamel paint was also put by Jackson Pollock in the 1940s.
Most immediately, however, Picabia’s radical approach in paintings such as Mi-Carême (Mid-Lent) was to have an instant and profound influence on Pablo Picasso. During the summer of 1925 Picasso spent a lot of time with Picabia and his family at the beach in Juan-les-Pins, where their children often played together. Clearly impressed by Picabia’s work that summer, Picasso immediately adopted Picabia’s use of crude paints such as Ripolin enamel and applied the simplistic assemblage-like language of his Monstre paintings - itself derived from Cubism – into the formal logic of his own work. Great paintings from this time such as Picasso’s Three Dancers and The Kiss, for example, clearly owe much to Picabia’s Monstres.
Adopting a marvellously false-modest tone worthy of some of Jeff Koons’ artistic statements today, Picabia later wrote in connection with these works that they were simply the product of ‘a man uninfluenced by anybody, unconcerned about Modernism, Cubism or Dadaism, neither a Socialist nor a Communist, nor yet the contrary: a man who is simply himself…A man in short, going towards a new, as yet undiscovered world: the world of love, which the mediocre have no desire to enter and which frightens the ‘intellectuals’, because they are afraid of making fools of themselves. Painting for me lies in the pure pleasure of invention. What I would like best of all would be to invent without painting.’ (Francis Picabia, ‘Ondulations Cérébrales’, in L’Ére Nouvelle, Paris, 1927, pp. 1-2).