Francis Picabia (1879-1953)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM THE HUBERTUS WALD FOUNDATION
Francis Picabia (1879-1953)


Francis Picabia (1879-1953)
signed 'Francis Picabia' (lower left); titled 'CATAX' (lower right)
oil, gouache, watercolour and pencil on card laid down on board
41¾ x 30 1/8 in. (106 x 76.5 cm.)
Painted circa 1929
Galerie Théophile Briant, Paris, 1929.
Kodicek Collection; their sale, Christie's, London, 23 June 1993, lot 308.
Hubertus Wald, Hamburg, by whom acquired at the above sale.
W.A. Camfield, Francis Picabia, His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, 1979, no. 315 (illustrated).
M.L. Borràs, Picabia, London, 1985, no. 531, p. 523 (illustrated fig. 696, p. 357).
Paris, Galerie Théophile Briant, Picabia, November - December 1929, no. 7.
London, Matthiesen Gallery, Francis Picabia, 1879-1953, October - November 1959, no. 43.
Lisbon, Fundação das Descobertas, Francis Picabia, Uma Antologia, June - August 1997.
Hamburg, Kunsthalle, Sammlung Wald, September - November 2003.
Special notice

Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

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Lot Essay

The Comité Picabia has confirmed the authenticity of the present lot.

Catax belongs to Francis Picabia's first series of Transparency paintings (Transparences), executed between 1928 and 1929. Renouncing Dadaism and largely disassociating himself from Surrealism, in 1925 Picabia moved to the south of France where, beginning in the late 1920s, he created this major series of highly individualistic works. So-called because of their layered diaphanous imagery, Catax is a particularly arresting example from this series. Faces, limbs, fish, insects and other natural phenomena are superimposed, one upon the other, and surrounded by flowers and arabesques to create an ethereal, dream-like landscape.

Picabia drew from a multitude of visual sources in the Transparencies, ranging from natural history to classical sculpture and Renaissance paintings and frescoes, largely copied by the artist from reproductions in books. Chosen for the mysterious effect of their juxtaposition, Picabia's sources, detached from their original narrative context and divested of any hierarchical associations in their superimposition, allowed him to communicate something profoundly personal: 'these transparencies with their secret depth, enable me to express my inner intentions with a certain degree of verisimilitude' (Picabia, quoted in M. L. Borràs, Picabia, London, 1985, p. 340). Coinciding with a change in the artist's personal affairs which saw him begin a relationship with his son's governess who had been hired by his then-partner, Germaine Everling, the appearance of the Transparencies in Picabia's oeuvre perhaps bespeaks his desire to escape to an illusory world, inhabited, as in Catax, by the spectre of serene, idealised women.

Picabia's grandfather had been a pioneer in the field of photography and, according to Gertrude Stein, the artist's introduction to photography at a young age explained the optical effects of the Transparencies: 'Picabia got from the constant contact with photography something which did give him the idea of transparence and four dimensional painting' (Stein, quoted in S. Wilson, Francis Picabia: Accommodations of Desire, New York, 1989, p. 13). Early commentators also noted the almost cinematic quality of these works; reviewing a major 1929 exhibition of the Transparencies which included Catax, Gaston Ravel declared them, 'a miracle!... an enchantment... an homage, involuntary perhaps, rendered to the cinema' (Ravel, quoted in W. Camfield, rancis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times, New York, 1979, p. 233). Avant-garde filmmakers were, concurrently, exploring techniques of fading and superimposing images on a single frame and Picabia's involvement with the pioneering film, Entr'acte, originally conceived as a filmic intermission for his and Eric Satie's ballet, Relâche, no doubt inspired his Transparency series.

The inclusion of one single large eye in Catax reflects Picabia's enduring interest in eyes and optics and brings to mind not only his important Dadaist photomontage and collage, L'oeil cacodylate of 1921, but also his 'imagery film script', La loi d'accommodation chez les borgnes (The Law of Accommodation among the One-Eyed), penned the year before Catax was first exhibited. Picabia's insistence that the reader of this film script thread together the disparate elements of the story 'on the screen of his own imagination' is paralleled in the present work wherein the viewer is asked to visually synthesise layered and fragmentary images. As Ravel remarked, 'the multiple superimpositions we have used and abused in our films are before our eyes, immobilized by an enchanted brush! On each of these canvases, four or five compositions, without any apparent link, are superimposed, mingle and intertwine. At first glance confusion, perhaps, but little by little everything slowly becomes clear. Behind huge eyes filled with nostalgia, an enormous, magnificent head appears; and here is another, a third, a last one, even more mysterious! A scattering of anthemia, a bird's wing, a powerful hand emerging - from what limbo?' (Ravel, quoted in Wilson, op. cit., 1989, p. 17).

Picabia's early Transparencies can be subdivided into cycles on the basis of their inclusion of motifs drawn from Renaissance precedents; Catax belongs to his Botticelli cycle. The linear, delicate 'Botticelli-esque' face whose eyes gaze melancholically to the left in Catax has been likened to Venus in Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (see Borràs, op. cit., 1985, p. 338 and Camfield, op. cit., 1979, p. 235). The elegant contours of the hand superimposed over the face in the present work mirror that of Venus' in the Renaissance master's painting, while the disembodied clasped hands echo those of Botticelli's zephyrs as well as the angels' hands in his Coronation of the Virgin. The inclusion of forms suggestive of both shells and wings and the floating roses which appear in the right of Catax, reminiscent of those in The Birth of Venus, reinforce the comparison all the more. This appropriation of canonical art historical imagery recalls earlier Dadaist works, particularly Marcel Duchamp's iconoclastic L.H.O.O.Q. which Picabia had reproduced in his magazine, 391. Unlike Duchamp's intentionally provocative and iconoclastic Dadaist work, the art-historical references in the Transparencies create a dialogue, however tongue-in-cheek, with the art of the past: 'Many painters want to explore the future, what a joke. The future is only explored by charlatans; it's the past that remains to be explored' (Picabia quoted in Francis Picabia: singulier idéal, exh. cat., Paris, 2002, p. 314). The thin delicate washes, many layers of glazes and pink and ochre tonality of Catax also serve to lend this work the 'patina' of an Old Master painting.

Like other titles in this Transparency series, Catax, inscribed on the lower right of the canvas, has a poetic ring to it, evocative of classical mythology. Just as Picabia did not reveal the sources which underpinned his Dadaist paintings, so too was he guarded about the art historical quotations and enigmatic titles of his Transparencies. Notwithstanding such secretiveness, itself deliberately aimed at drawing a veil of mystery and ambiguity over these beguiling images, we know that Picabia borrowed a large number of his titles, including Catax, from a lepidopterology book he had in his possession: L'Atlas de poche des papillons de France, Suisse et Belgique (Catax is illustrated on p. 46; see A. Pierre, Francis Picabia: la peinture sans aura, Paris 2002 for a discussion of Picabia's sources.). This, perhaps, also accounts for the profusion of butterflies and wings in these works. Indeed, metamorphosis, a process which the butterfly and moth undergo, is a central tenet of the Transparencies as the superimposed layers of imagery coalesce and evolve, resulting in a lyrical and seductive transformation.

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