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Francis Picabia (1879-1953)
Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Sans titre (Visage de femme)

Francis Picabia (1879-1953)
Sans titre (Visage de femme)
signed 'Francis Picabia' (lower right)
oil on board
18 1/8 x 14 ½ in. (46 x 36.8 cm.)
Painted circa 1941-1943.
Private collection, Paris.

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Lot Essay

The Comité Picabia has confirmed the authenticity of this work.

Sans titre (Visage de femme) belongs to a series of realist, figurative paintings of women that Francis Picabia commenced at the beginning of the 1940s whilst living in the South of France. Often derived from photographs and images found in fashion magazines, nightclub advertisements, as well as picture postcards, these images of women are rendered in a “popular”realist style, which allowed Picabia to clearly imitate and replicate the original source image. This series marks one of the last great stylistic shifts in his richly diverse and varied oeuvre. An artist who continuously broke artistic tradition, Picabia maintained a defiantly individual stance throughout his career, refusing to conform to prevailing styles of art and continuously inverting elitist rules of taste. Rendering ubiquitous, popular imagery in rich, deeply coloured oil paint, in Sans titre (Visage de femme), Picabia elevated kitsch to the realm of “high” art, disregarding the accepted notions of aesthetic sensibility. Indeed, it is this iconoclastic tendency and bold disregard for convention that made Sans titre (Visage de femme) and this series of paintings so influential for future generations of artists. These works are often considered to be among the very first “postmodern” pictures.

Against a black background, the face of a woman emerges, her fingers resting delicately on her chin, drawing attention to her softly pouted red lips and demurely downturned eyes. Her frozen pose and illuminated face is immediately reminiscent of the headshots and portraits of women that adorned the covers of fashion magazines and beauty advertisements. In appropriating mass-produced images, Picabia was revisiting a technique that he had used in different ways throughout his career, in 1921, several years before the present work was painted, Picabia stated his artistic process: “The painter makes a choice, then imitates it; the deformation of this choice constitutes art” (quoted in C. Boulbès, “Francis Picabia, Delicious Monsters: Painting, Criticism, History” in “Dear Painter, paint me...” Painting the Figure since late Picabia, exh. cat., Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2002, p. 31). With a direct and unabashed appropriation of popular culture and kitsch imagery, Picabia irreverently questioned the ingrained distinctions between “high” and “low” art that existed within the avant-garde, breaking away from the traditions of modern painting. This concept would become central to artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, as well as Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein amalgamating popular imagery into their art. Indeed, this series can be seen as a precursor to the seminal artistic movement, illustrating the radical and influential nature of these works.

Alongside Sans titre (Visage de femme) and other portraits of women, Picabia was also appropriating erotic nudes and pin-up girls from porn magazines. In contrast to these starkly erotic paintings of nude women, the woman in Sans titre (Visage de femme) radiates a more subtle yet no less sexual allure. Throughout his career, the female figure had played a central role in Picabia’s art. From his Dadaist depictions of sexualized and anthropomorphic mechanical forms, to his gruesomely rendered Monster series of the 1920s, that pictured cavorting couples, and the later Transparencies of the 1930s, which depicted classical female figures, Picabia used the depiction of women and particularly the inference of eroticism, to confound and shock the viewer, disrupting the accepted notions of taste and mocking the pretensions of the Parisian avant-garde.

In contrast to Picabia’s Monster or Transparencies series, in which the artist, in different ways, distorted and played with images of the female figure, creating layered or textured painterly surfaces, in Sans titre (Visage de femme), the smoothly painted surface emulates the photographic quality of the image from which it was derived. Picabia imitated the glossiness of the printed-paper on which the original photographs would have been found through the bright highlights on the model’s forehead and hand. The realistic quality of these paintings bewildered and shocked critics who had become accustomed to the dominant tendency towards abstraction at this time; Michel Perrin, a friend of the artist at this time recalled, “The pictures Picabia was painting in March 1942 were so precise, with colours so true to life, that the acerbic critics exclaimed ‘But this is photography!’” (quoted in M.L. Borràs, Picabia, London, 1985, p. 423). In taking a mass-produced image and carefully rendering it with precise artistic detail, Picabia played with the concepts of artistic authorship and individual skill that were central to modern painting and in so doing, created a subtle blend of imitation and parody. Sans titre (Visage de femme) exemplifies not only Picabia’s plurality of styles, but demonstrates the artist’s unremitting predilection for overturning conventions of the avant-garde and in so doing, pursuing new and radical approaches to art and art making, which paved the way for future generations of artists.

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