The Comité Picabia has confirmed the authenticity of the work.
The frame of this work was made by Pierre Legrain wood, fabric, aluminium, paper and glass tubes 32 5/8 x 27 3/8 in. (82.8 x 69.7 cm.). Please see: W.A. Camfield, Francis Picabia his art, life and times, Princeton, 1979, p. 202.
'We paint without preoccupying ourselves with the representation of objects, and we write without looking for the sense of words. We seek only the pleasure of expressing ourselves, but while doing so, giving to the diagrams we draw, to the words we align, a symbolic sense, a value of expression not only outside of all current convention, but by an unstable convention ... which lasts only for the very instant we use it. Also, the work finished, that convention lost from sight, it is unintelligible to me and besides no longer interests me. It is of the past' F. Picabia
Formerly owned by the French fashion designer Jacques Doucet whose collection in the 1920s also famously included Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Francis Picabia’s Lampe was painted in Paris around 1923, during the final ‘anti-Dadaist’ phase of Picabia’s anti-art Paris-Dada period. Lampe is one of the last of a major series of paintings made at this time in which Picabia explored the aesthetic potential of constructing a pictorial language solely from inherently disconnected imagery and words. Executed with the precision, clarity and graphic simplicity of an engineer’s drawing, Lampe is one of a series of paintings made between 1921 and 1923 in which the ancient ideal of classical beauty was interspersed with the kind of flat geometric abstraction then being championed by contemporary Russian artists such as Kasimir Malevich, Ivan Puni and El Lizzitzky. In this way Lampe is in part a Dada-Constructivist lampooning of the earnest utopianism of the Constructivist/Suprematist aesthetic as well as the classical ‘return to order’, then being practiced by avant-garde artists in Paris such as Picasso, de Chirico and Severini. With its functional title and its apparent collation of human and mechanical forms Lampe is also one of the last of Picabia’s mechanomorphic paintings - pictures that humorously fused the idea of human sexuality with the cold repetitive functionality of the machine. As such Lampe is a work that appears to deliberately mark the end of a major phase of creativity in Picabia’s oeuvre - a phase that had produced some of the artist’s greatest and best-known works, as witnessed in his famous 1922 Galerie Dalmau exhibition - but which, around the time he painted Lampe Picabia knew he was leaving behind him.
Picabia presented Lampe in its stunningly whimsical and over-the-top frame made by Pierre Legrain as a kind of summation of his recent painting at the Salon des Indépendants in February 1924. It was his sole pictorial contribution to this salon and also decidedly his last. In 1924 Picabia was preparing to leave Paris to live on the French Riviera – to abandon Dada and the fledgling Surrealist group around André Breton in favour of an independent life away from the politics, cliques, intrigues and squabbling of Parisian avant-garde with which he had grown tired. The 1924 Salon des Indépendants exhibition would, Picabia intended, mark his last involvement with the Salon system and as an accompaniment to his inclusion of Lampe in the Salon, Picabia wrote an accusatory article entitled ‘A Note on the Salons’ in which he attacked its organiser Paul Signac for the clique-like way in which he ran the exhibition and his refusal to allow foreigners to exhibit alongside the French.
In accordance with this concept of all-inclusiveness, Lampe is a painting that functions as a kind of summation of the many varied themes explored in Picabia’s work since 1917. Although many of the titles of his paintings are wholly arbitrary, lamps were a repeated theme of Picabia’s mechanomorphic pictures. Often, as in pictures like Voilà Haviland and Américaine of 1917 for example, lamp or bulb imagery had provocatively fused the idea of femininity with a simple machine that could be ‘turned on’ and ‘lit up’.
The circles and discs of Lampe more closely relate to Picabia’s recent paintings such as Astrolabe, Radio Concerts and Volucelle in which, visually paralleling Duchamp’s contemporary obsession with the illusionism of his rotor-reliefs, Picabia had played with contemporary graphic expressions of sound and light waves. At the same time, Lampe’s image of a woman’s face seemingly emerging from the geometric forms of the picture’s diagrammatic style parodies both German Dada’s image of the Neue Frau (New Woman) and the new classicism of the French avant-garde’s return to order. With its playful take on contemporary abstraction too, Lampe is a work that playfully parodies almost every significant development in European avant-garde art at this time. In this respect, it can be considered not only the last of a type but also perhaps, one of the first of Picabia’s knowingly post-modernist works in which, over the following years, he would deliberately parody the idea of modernism in a series of deliberately kitsch, elaborate and demonstrably stupid paintings that mocked the seriousness and lofty pretensions of much contemporary avant-garde work. Perhaps the clearest indication of Picabia’s humorous and over-the-top intentions with Lampe is given by the painting’s deliberately over-elaborate frame which, made by Pierre Legrain, was composed of wood covered with aluminium paper and black cloth and fitted across its top and bottom with three glass tubes filled with coloured liquid that bubbled whenever the work was moved.
It was this frame, that appears to have attracted the critics at the show, who were captivated with its kinetic properties and mistakenly dismissed it and the painting it held, as a kind of novelty toy. For Picabia, by this time, the response of the critics to his farewell to the Parisian world of modern art, was neither here nor there. As so often in his life, he had already moved on. ‘The paintings I make are very much in rapport with my life’, he said at this time. ‘They change according to the people that I see, the countries that I traverse. The reason [for my recent change in style] is just that I thought that I had done everything there was to be done in abstract art, in the art of suggestions…Now I consider that painting must evolve toward the reproduction of life, without attaching to that servile imitation of photography… There are people who do not like machines: I propose Spanish women for them. If they do not like Spanish women, I’ll make them French women…I find these women beautiful, and not having any “speciality” as a painter ...I do not fear compromising myself with them vis-à-vis the elite... To make love is not modern: however, that is still what I like best.’ (Francis Picabia, 1923, quoted in W. Camfield, Francis Picabia His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, New Jersey, 1979, p. 199).
Lampe was acquired shortly after its creation by the acclaimed collector and Parisian couturier Jacques Doucet. Doucet had appointed André Breton to be his artistic and literary adviser in 1921, and Breton actively encouraged the designer to engage with the most cutting edge art of the avant-garde, persuading him to acquire works that would come to be seen as masterpieces of the 20th-century. Among the greatest of these was Pablo Picasso’s 1907 canvas of preening prostitutes, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon which famously hung in the stairwell of Doucet’s elegant townhouse at 33 rue Saint-James, in the suburb of Neuilly-sur- Seine. Doucet had first been introduced to Picabia in the Spring of 1922, and quickly became an important patron for the artist, acquiring at least fifteen works by Picabia to hang in his famous Salon. It is perhaps thanks to this relationship with Doucet that Picabia became acquainted with Legrain, as Doucet had previously commissioned the designer to create special bindings for the treasury of precious manuscripts and rare edition books which filled his private library.