The Comité Picabia has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
‘The cycle is complete. Picabia has refound the sap of the dada epoch, the same disengagement, the same anti-painting painting... In the ascending generations, it is he again who shows the road of complete liberty.’
(Michel Seuphor, Francis Picabia oeuvres de 1948, Galerie des Deux Iles, quoted in W. Camfield, Francis Picabia. His Life, Art and Times, Princeton, New Jersey, 1979, pp. 270-271).
Painted in 1948, Sans titre (Venise) belongs to an important series of abstract and semi-abstract paintings that Francis Picabia made in the aftermath of the Second World War. Greatly underappreciated during his lifetime and only recently becoming recognised for their significance and quality, this late body of work was created as a somewhat sardonic conjunction to the post-war boom in abstract art that took place in the late 1940s in both Europe and the United States.
Executed in a thick, playful and highly textured use of oil, Sans titre (Venise) is a pictorial amalgam of painterly form and style. With its spotted flowers, mask-like shapes and colourful linear patterning all coalescing into an abstract, almost fresco-like mosaic of imagery and technique, it is a work that hovers playfully on the borderline between figuration and abstraction. Such pictorial variation and deliberate ambiguity is a feature that is common to almost all of Picabia’s so called ‘abstractions’ from this period. Many of these works derived in some part from figurative sources and were subsequently translated by the artist into varying degrees of abstraction through the process of painting them. In the present work, for example, the interlocking shapes may be interpreted as mask-like forms akin to those worn during the Carnevale celebrations in Venice, and contain echoes of such compositions as the artist’s 1925 painting Mi-Carême. Original, often humorous and distinctly post-modernist in this respect, Picabia’s irreverent pictorial approach won him few friends in the immediate post-war era but can today be seen to anticipate later approaches to painting taken by artists such as Sigmar Polke, Andy Warhol and Martin Kippenberger amongst others.
In the case of Sans titre (Venise), Picabia may well have been looking back and even appropriating from his own earlier work, revisiting something of the feeling generated by his very first ‘abstract’ paintings – early masterpieces of 1913 such as Udnie and Edtaonisl. These were paintings that had come to Picabia’s attention once again in 1948, when he was approached by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp and asked to seek these great compositions out, as both were keen for the French state to purchase them. Picabia found Udnie in the hands of a dealer, while Edtaonisl was discovered rolled up in his own studio, prompting the artist to set about restoring it, in collaboration with Christine Boumeester.
As the Belgian painter Michel Seuphor noted in the preface of Picabia’s Paris exhibition of paintings from 1948, it seems that Picabia’s re-encounter with these early abstractions had an influence on the paintings he made this year. The rhythm and formal properties of a significant number of Picabia’s abstractions from 1948 appear to echo that of these two early masterpieces. Seuphor pointed to this, writing, ‘the cycle is complete. Picabia has refound the sap of the dada epoch, the same disengagement, the same anti-painting painting… In the ascending generations, it is he again who shows the road of complete liberty’ (M. Seuphor, Francis Picabia oeuvres de 1948, Galerie des Deux Iles, quoted in W. Camfield, Francis Picabia. His Life, Art and Times, Princeton, New Jersey, 1979, pp. 270-271).
In the lilting rhythm of its disparate, but interlocking forms and their implicit sense of motion, Sans titre (Venise) is a work that echoes the pictorial play of Edtaonisl and Udnie. Here however, there is an overt sense of irreverence in the way in which Picabia has handled his material, using deliberately thick daubs, comical spirals and incised streaks of heavy-set oil. Full of the joy of invention, but slightly mocking in its knowing play with form and material, it was canvases like Sans titre (Venise) that particularly annoyed many critics of this period. This was because such works appeared to not be taking the idea of abstraction seriously at a time when it was being heavily championed, in both Paris and New York, as the great new hope for art in a post-apocalyptic era. Such was their ire in fact, that at Picabia’s 1948 exhibition Seuphor was prompted to claim that ‘there is perhaps no painter more contested today than Picabia' (M. Seuphor, quoted in C. Boulbès, ‘Painting, Poetry and Impudent Correspondence’, in Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, exh. cat., Zurich, 2016, p. 244).