The Comité Picabia has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Rich in imagery and enigmatic in its meaning, Statices 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. In each of these, rather than using the painting as a window to another world, normalising 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 (Francis Picabia dans les collections du Centre Pompidou Musée d’art Moderne, exh. cat., Paris, 2003, p. 71). Drawing on classical imagery of biblical mythological, and art historical subjects, Picabia uses this technique to overlap and interlace multiple figures in a single composition, allowing their contours to converge and intersect in a confused array, deliberately challenging our understanding of the imagery before us.
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, recalls his father having ‘a trunkful of art books in his studio,’ from which he most likely appropriated the majority of these images (Lorenzo Everling, quoted in M. Borràs, Picabia, transl. by K. Lyons, Paris, 1985, p. 340). In Statices the influence of Sandro Botticelli is particularly evident, with the linear, delicate beauty of the two female faces reminiscent of figures from both the Bardi Altarpiece and Allegory of Spring (Primavera). Picabia reduces their profiles to a series of simplified outlines, stripping away the life-like modelling of their faces and fattening the images in a deliberate denial of painterly illusionism. A defining feature of the Transparencies 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. 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 (M. Duchamp, ‘Francis Picabia: Painter, Writer,’ pp. 4-5, in Collection of the Société Anonyme: Museum of Modern Art 1920, New Haven, 1950, p. 5).
Behind these two ethereal female figures, an elegant classical sculpture is captured in delicate shades of blue, her sensuous curves modelled using a rich interplay of shadow, which lends a sense of weight and three-dimensionality to her form. This figure’s pose is mirrored by a second statuesque nude facing her, whose body appears as a visual opposite to hers, its arms raised in the same manner, its head gently tilted to the side, but its entire form turned away from us, so that only the back remains visible. The artist uses a subtle grey-scale to render this second statue, which offers a striking contrast to the vibrant blues of the sculpture facing us. The relationship between these two figures demonstrates the growing importance of colour in the Transparencies of this period, as Picabia began to introduce different tones as a means of distinguishing the overlapping forms from one another, and in so doing, enhance the juxtapositions and connections between each of the layers of the image. This richness of colour is continued in the orange outline used by the artist to delineate the merman in the foreground of the image, whose body curves in an elegant line across the composition, his fish tail disappearing in and out of the water before curling into a dramatic swirl at the far right hand side of the image. Although the precise source for this image remains unclear, his lithe, muscular body, and the laurel wreath clasped in his right hand suggest that Picabia has plucked him from a monument from Greco-Roman antiquity. However, although some scholars have seen the use of these classical sources as relating to the retour à l’ordre which had swept through the European art world following the end of the First World War, Picabia’s Transparencies seem to work more as provocative pastiches rather than reverent homages to the past. As he once proclaimed: ‘Our back is enough to contemplate the respectful past’ (Picabia, in 1930, quoted in Francis Picabia: Singulier ideal, exh. cat., Paris, 2003, p. 314).
Chosen for the mysterious effects of their juxtaposition with one another, the layered images in Statices combine to form an enigmatic, dream-like subject. By divorcing his source material from their original narrative and allegorical contexts, the artist forces these figures to enter in to new, surreal relationships with one another. This sense of mystery continues in Picabia’s choice of titles for the Transparency paintings, with a large number, including Statices, 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 statices may have been derived from the scientific name for the common Forester moth, Adscita statices, a small green species typically seen across Europe in June and July. 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.