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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection

Sans titre

Sans titre
signed 'Francis Picabia' (lower right)
oil on board
29 5/8 x 23 in. (75.3 x 58.5 cm.)
Painted circa 1940-1942
Michael Werner Gallery, New York.
Mary Boone Gallery, New York (acquired from the above, 1983).
David Salle, New York (acquired from the above, 1983).
Diego Cortez Arte, Ltd., New York (acquired from the above, November 1987).
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1 December 1987.
A. Umland and C. Hug, Francis Picabia: Our Heads are Round So our Thoughts Can Change Direction, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2016, p. 307 (illustrated in color, fig. 9; titled Portrait de Viviane Romance and dated 1939).
W.A. Camfield, B. Calté, C. Clements and A. Pierre, Francis Picabia: Catalogue raisonné, 1940-1953, Paris, 2022, vol. IV, p. 210, no. 1650 (illustrated in color).
New York, Mary Boone Gallery, Francis Picabia, September-October 1983.

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Lot Essay

Francis Picabia was visiting Switzerland with his partner, Olga Mohler, when the Second World War broke out in September 1939. Alarmed by the rapidly advancing hostilities, the artist returned to his apartment in Golfe-Juan in the South of France that October, where he would remain for the much of the conflict. Writing shortly after his return, he described the solace he found in art making during this turbulent period: “I worked a lot after my return from Switzerland, from morning to evening I didn’t leave my studio, it was the only way for me to forget…” (letter to Léonce Rosenberg, June 1940; quoted in W.A. Camfield et. al., op. cit., p. 38). Working in a “popular” realist style, Picabia produced a large number of figurative paintings during the early years of the war, which can be divided into three main thematic strands—the female nude, narrative or allegorical works, and têtes de femme, close-up portraits of glamorous young women. Using images plucked from fashion magazines, film posters and picture postcards for inspiration, Picabia explored the boundaries between mass-media, advertising and the realm of high art, in what would become one of the last great stylistic shifts in his richly varied oeuvre.
Painted circa 1940-1942, Sans titre is a striking example from the series of stereotypical portraits of fashionable women that occupied Picabia so intensely at this time, dubbed “modernes beautés” by one contemporary critic. Paralleling the artist’s earlier appropriation of scientific diagrams and technical illustrations in his machine inspired Dada works, these paintings took their cue from images of models, chanteuses, and film stars that had caught Picabia’s eye as he flicked through various publications, such as Paris Magazine, Mon Paris and Cinémonde. In the present composition, the artist takes a promotional photograph of the actress Merle Oberon from the mid-1930s as his starting point—he would use the same image as the basis for another painting from this period, also called Sans titre (Camfield et. al., no. 1651; Private collection), in which he zooms in on the face of Oberon, as she gazes back over her shoulder.
Born in India to an Anglo-Irish father and a mother of Sinhalese and Maori descent, Oberon was forced to conceal her heritage for her entire career, constructing a fictive backstory and passing for white in order to avoid racial prejudice. While a small role as Anne Boleyn in the 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII officially launched Oberon’s acting career, her break-out role came in the form of coming-of-age drama The Dark Angel, for which she earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in 1936; she would later go on to star opposite Laurence Olivier in the 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights, playing the lead role of Cathy. Renowned for her beauty, Oberon was a familiar presence in the illustrated press during these years, appearing in a number of advertisements for Max Factor, as well as in the myriad promotional materials for her film work, each image proclaiming her position as a new screen idol.

I like to contradict myself in my works, never stopping…

In Sans titre, Picabia strikes a delicate balance between imitation and invention, offering a playful revision of his source material—though Oberon’s coquettish pose is translated almost exactly in the painting, the color of her hair, the pattern of her dress, and the particulars of the room she inhabits are all subtly altered. Well-versed in the iconography of the young Hollywood starlet, Picabia appears to have exaggerated certain aspects of the image to lend his sitter a distinctly vampish quality. At the same time, he painstakingly copied small details from the original photograph, such as the long shadows cast by her eyelashes, the dramatic chiaroscuro caused by the artificial lighting, and the white piping of the dark seat cushion behind her. Unlike his famed Monstres or Transparencies paintings, in which he distorted and played with the original image to create layered or textured painterly surfaces, in the “modernes beautés” Picabia favored a smoothly painted surface and clarity of outline that in many ways emulated the photographic quality of the images from which his paintings were derived. Nevertheless, works such as Sans titre contain passages of bold, loose brushwork, the artist’s hand zig-zagging through the pigment as he described the fall of light on her arm, defiantly reminding the viewer of his presence in the work’s creation.
An artist who continuously broke tradition, Picabia maintained an individual stance throughout his career, refusing to conform to prevailing trends or styles. With such direct and unabashed appropriation of popular culture and kitsch imagery, he irreverently questioned the ingrained distinctions between “high” and “low” art. This concept would prove highly influential to a generation of young artists in the Post-War era, from Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, to Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and later Jeff Koons. For the artist David Salle, who previously owned the present Sans titre, his first encounter with Picabia’s paintings from the 1940s was an exhilarating experience: “I felt an immediate connection to the sensibility. Something about the style—so lurid and melodramatic and full of unlikely juxtapositions...—all that struck a chord with me. I had never before seen painting as untethered to notions of taste, or even intention… The freedom in those pictures buoyed me up” (quoted in A. Umland and C. Hug, op. cit., p. 307). Salle purchased Sans titre from an exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery in 1983, and subsequently hung the work in his living room. He later described the painting as “a kind of compass point and a dare,” that seemed to issue him with a challenge (quoted in ibid.).

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