‘Practically no-one knows what to do any more, and so they shout “Long live classicism!"' (Francis Picabia, quoted in J. M. Daehner, ‘Francis Picabia: Transparent Strata and Classical Bodies, 1922-31,’ in C. Green & J. M. Daehner, eds., Modern Antiquity: Picasso, De Chirico, Léger, Picabia, Los Angeles, 2011, p. 107).
‘My present feeling as regards aesthetics comes from the boredom produced by the sight of pictures that seem to me to be congealed on their immobile surfaces, far removed from anything human. This third dimension, which is not a product of chiaroscuro, these transparencies with their secret depth, enable me to express my inner intentions with a certain degree of verisimilitude. When I lay the foundation stone, I want it to remain under my picture and not on top of it’ (Francis Picabia, quoted in M. L. Borrás, Picabia, transl. by K. Lyons, Paris, 1985, p. 340).
Executed in 1929, Ligustri is a captivating example of Francis Picabia’s celebrated Transparency paintings, a series of works named for their simultaneous depiction of multiple transparent images, dramatically layered atop one another in an effect reminiscent of multiple-exposure photography. The artist had previously played with superimposition in the illusory cinematographic techniques of his 1924 film, Entr’acte, as well as in his paintings from the Monsters and Espagnoles series, using the effect to plunge his viewers into a hallucinatory, sensual reverie filled with overlapping bodies and converging silhouettes. In paintings such as Ligustri, rather than using the painting as a window to another world, normalizing the illusionism at play, Picabia sought to stimulate the imagination by creating a surreal inter-lapping of imagery that confounded traditional reading. He traced the genesis of this fascination with the layering of transparent images to a revelatory moment in a café in Marseille where, on the glass of a window, the reflection of the interior appeared superimposed upon the outside view (Picabia, quoted in D. Ottinger, ed., Francis Picabia dans les collections du Centre Pompidou Musée d’art Moderne, Paris, 2003, p. 71).
Picabia drew on a multitude of visual sources for the Transparencies, using prints and reproductions of classical sculpture, Renaissance paintings and Catalan frescoes to build his compositions. Picabia’s son, Lorenzo, recalled his father having ‘a trunkful of art books in his studio,’ from which he most likely appropriated the majority of these images (L. Everling, quoted in M. Borràs, Picabia, transl. by K. Lyons, Paris, 1985, p. 340). In Ligustri the influence of Botticelli is particularly evident, with the linear, delicate beauty of the two female faces reminiscent of figures from both the Bardi Altarpiece and Primavera, while the tumbling blossoms at the centre of the composition can be linked to the Renaissance master’s iconic painting, The Birth of Venus. The lithe, muscular bodies whose contours merge with these faces, meanwhile, call to mind sculptures from Greco-Roman antiquity, although their exact sources remain unclear. In the case of each of the figures included in the painting, Picabia reduces their forms to a series of simplified outlines, stripping away the life-like modelling of their bodies and flattening the images in a deliberate denial of painterly illusionism. A defining feature of the Transparency series, this technique creates an otherworldly pictorial space, devoid of the traditional laws of perspective, in which the figures appear to float and overlap one another in an ethereal manner.
The Transparencies signalled an exciting development in Picabia’s practice where, he claimed, 'all my instincts may have a free course' (Picabia, quoted in W. Camfield, Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, 1979, p. 233-234). By divorcing his source material from their original narrative and allegorical contexts, the artist forces these figures to enter into new, mysterious relationships with one another. Marcel Duchamp, writing twenty years after the Transparencies were created, explained that through this novel and highly original approach, Picabia succeeded in suggesting the third dimension without recurring to mathematical perspective, pushing figuration to new terrains (Duchamp, ‘Francis Picabia: Painter, Writer,’ pp. 4-5, in Collection of the Société Anonyme: Museum of Modern Art 1920, New Haven, 1950, p. 5). This sense of mystery continues in Picabia’s choice of titles for the Transparency paintings, with a large number, including Ligustri, taken at random from Paul Girod’s guide to butterflies and moths, L’Atlas de poche des papillons de France, Suisse et Belgique. Indeed, the word ligustri is derived from the Latin term for the flowering privet shrub, and is commonly used in the names of several different species of moth which feed on the plant. However, the connection between this title and the contents of the painting is never communicated to the viewer, leaving its meaning an enigma to all but the artist.
Created while the artist was living a hedonistic existence in the South of France, the Transparencies have been interpreted as witty and disguised critiques of the lifestyle on the Côte d'Azur, contrasting the frivolous, modern reality of the holiday resorts of the Mediterranean with its elegant Classical past. As with many of Picabia’s works from this period, Ligustri appears to have been made according to a personal code of imagery that only the artist himself could recognise and interpret. Indeed, in the introduction to an exhibition of his work in December 1930, Picabia somewhat humorously declared that they were expressions of ‘inner desire’, ultimately intended to be read by himself alone. Here, the sources for many of the figures included in the composition remain a mystery to the viewer, their forms just as likely to have been plucked from a kitsch contemporary postcard as a Renaissance masterpiece. His novel appropriation and subversion of the art of the past to create these personal dream-like worlds was, moreover, a response to what he felt was the increasing monotony of much modern art. In this, the Transparencies foreshadow techniques employed by many Postmodern artists of the latter half of the Twentieth Century and were to profoundly influence the work of Sigmar Polke.
Ligustri was acquired directly from the artist in 1930 by the influential art dealer and gallerist Léonce Rosenberg, who staged an important retrospective of Picabia’s work in his Galerie L’Effort Moderne in the December of that year. Rosenberg’s enthusiasm for the Transparencies was reflected by the fact that he commissioned Picabia to create several panels in this style to be included in his ambitious decorative project for his large and elegant flat in the fashionable sixteenth arrondissement. Rosenberg had instigated the project with the intention of making a grand aesthetic statement, bolstering his professional image by dedicating an entire space to new works from artists represented by his gallery. Works by Léger filled the entryway, De Chirico occupied the central hall, while Metzinger took over the lounge. As in Ligustri, the Transparencies that Picabia contributed to the Rosenberg home were filled with allusions to the art of antiquity, their surfaces rendered in delicate washes of colour to create a fresco-like appearance. Viewed en-masse, these imposing, intricate paintings conjured up a strange, otherworldly atmosphere within the Rosenberg home, their multi-layered superimpositions creating the impression of a continuously expanding space beyond the surface of the walls.