The Comité Picabia has confirmed the authenticity of the work.
A study in contrasts, Chariot is one of a small group of works created by Francis Picabia during the opening years of the 1920s, as the artist began to explore the tensions and juxtapositions that arise between vastly discordant visual forms when combined within a single composition. In these dramatic works the artist creates a fusion of opposites, as the sensuous forms of academic nudes are superimposed against the hard-edge geometry of an abstract, scientific visual language. Built around the interplay between forms that are white and black, coloured and monochrome, positive and negative, abstract and figurative, works such as Optophone I, Conversation I & Conversation II, and Chariot are marked by a powerful, dynamic visual tension. Dating from a crucial period within Picabia’s career, they demonstrate the range of the artist’s interests following his abandonment of Dada, particularly his profound interest in optical and perceptual effects, as he began to explore the ways in which perception may be affected by the memories, expectations and desires of the viewer.
Chariot holds an illustrious provenance, having first come to the market in the seminal auction of Picabia’s work held at the Hôtel Drouot in March 1926, in which each artwork was purportedly from Marcel Duchamp’s own collection. Staged with his friend’s approval, Duchamp hoped that by highlighting his association with the artist Picabia would gain the critical appreciation and commercial success he deserved. The event amounted to a mid-career retrospective for Picabia, showcasing the divergent and multifaceted directions his art had taken over the previous two decades, from his Impressionist canvases through his orphist, machinist and dadaist phases. Chariot was purchased at this event by the Parisian antiques dealer Monsieur Fabius, who is believed to have subsequently sold the work on to André Breton and his wife Simone (later Collinet). The couple’s rich collection of avant-garde art remained together until they divorced in 1931, at which time Simone probably took sole possession of the painting. From here, it entered the collection of the acclaimed British radio and telivision magnate, E. J. Power, who eagerly collected modern and contemporary artworks throughout the 1950s and 60s, later donating a large portion of his collection to the Tate Gallery in London.
Picabia’s interest in optical illusions was shared by his close friend and colleague in the Dadaist circle, Marcel Duchamp, who spent the opening years of the 1920s experimenting with the visual effects of movement and abstraction, developing dynamic sculptures which played on the manner in which the eye reads circular lines as they move. In contrast, Picabia’s work on this theme remained static, focusing on the extreme juxtapositions which developed when a number of carefully delineated stripes, arranged in either a concentric or linear pattern, are combined with the sensual, classical nudes of academic painting. In works such as Optophone I, the pattern takes the form of concentric circles, radiating outwards like a target, while in other instances the lines seem to diminish or gradually decrease in width as they progress across the picture plane, as in Conversation I. In contrast, the stripes in the present work are of a uniform depth, evenly spaced and arranged in a more regulated, symmetrical pattern, creating a regular rhythm across the picture plane. Duchamp wrote about this theme in relation to Optophone I, explaining that these works were rooted in scientific study: ‘He seeks optical illusion by means which are largely “black and white”: spirals and circles which act on the retina. This amusing branch of physics finds at his hands its aesthetic formulation’ (M. Duchamp, quoted in Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London, 1981, p. 591). Indeed, the black and white lines which dominate these paintings are reminiscent of the scientific illustrations of spectrographic imaging, a process by which radiation, such as electromagnetic radiation or sound waves, was dispersed into a spectrum that could then be photographed or mapped into a visual form. The highly regulated, carefully measured stripes that the spectrograph produced became an abstract, rigorous visual language. It is likely that Picabia first encountered these types of images in the pages of the scientific journals he eagerly read, and from which he had drawn inspiration for his machinist portraits in previous years.
At the heart of Chariot, a reclining male nude sits on the foreground, appearing detached from the regular pattern of stripes which dominate the background. His presence introduces a note of sensuality to the composition, the soft curves of his form offering a stark contrast to the sharp lines of the stripes.
As with the spectrographic imaging, this male figure is appropriated from another source and repurposed in a new context. In this case, Picabia adopts a single character from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s epic mural L’Age d’Or, created for the Duc de Luynes’s castle in Dampierre between 1843 and 1847. This grand mural from one of the great masters of French painting depicted the mythical Golden Age described by ancient poets as the utopian existence humans first enjoyed after being created by the gods. Drawing inspiration from the papal frescoes of Raphael, Ingres created hundreds of preparatory sketches and schemes for this large-scale work, focusing on each of the individual groupings and figures in great detail, exploring multiple permutations of their pose, stance and form in order to achieve compositional perfection. The male figure used in Chariot is plucked from the grouping known as La famille au chien, and appears economically rendered against the bold stripes, its silhouette executed in a strong, unbroken outline that cuts across the monochrome pattern underlying it. A narrow, sinuous band of red colour runs independently through the nude’s body, hugging the head and feet before winding itself around the rest of his form. It does not cling to his contours, nor appear as a loose garment, encasing the body in its folds. Rather, the stripe seems to be its own entity, flowing around and through the male figure, at once part of and separate to the body. The superimposition of this line of colour on to the body complicates our understanding of the relationship between the three elements within the pictorial space, challenging our perception of the ways in which the different layers of the image appear to relate to one another.
Picabia’s adoption of this figure as the central focus of his composition may be seen as an ironic take on the interwar French fixation with the art of Ingres, which proponents of the conservative retour à l’ordre pointed to as proof of the superiority of le dessin français, and the noble lineage of French academic drawing. Picabia was particularly scornful of the effect this had on the art of Picasso, writing a number of articles in his publication 391 which taunted the artist for his embrace of neoclassicism. This sarcastic attitude may be seen to permeate the composition as a whole, as the juxtaposition of scientific, machine aesthetic with a classical conception of beauty could be read as a criticism of Amédée Ozenfant and Charles-Édouard Jeanneret’s Purist movement, which was loudly proclaiming its presence on the Parisian art scene at this time. In contrast to the harmony and unity that Ozenfant and Jeanneret believed this would generate, the effect of this combination in Chariot is highly discordant, with each element retaining its own distinct identity within the composition and refusing to coalesce. However, Picabia’s principal critique of both the Purist and retour à l’ordre movements lay in their apparent lack of innovation, and his appropriation of such easily recognisable visual sources allowed him to gently mock his contemporaries, while simultaneously marking his own individuality within the École de Paris.