Entitled in Léonce Rosenberg's archive with the classical title of Phoebus, this painting is one of the most intricate of the 'transparencies' that Picabia painted between 1928 and 1932. The 'transparencies' are so-called because of their many layers of imagery that simultaneously combine to create an illusional and seemingly impenetrable allegory with all the characteristics of a dream or a mystic vision.
Picabia's 'transparencies' were in part derived from the artist's Cubist and Orphist period , but he had also experimented with such layered simultaneity in the film Entr'acte and in some of his 'monster' paintings of the late 1920s. It was therefore primarily within the context of the cinema that these extraordinary works were first interpreted. Gaston Ravel exclaimed excitedly about the first transparencies, "The multiple impressions we have used, and abused, in our films... are here... immobilised by his magic brush!... at first glance, some confusion perhaps; but, little by little, everything comes clear, slowly... It is a miracle! it is an enchantment ... an homage, involuntary perhaps, rendered to the cinema." (cited in William Camfield, Francis Picabia : His art life and times, New York, 1979, p.233)
Similarly excited by Picabia's new paintings was the dealer Léonce Rosenberg who was so impressed by them that in spite of having been reviled and ridiculed by the artist during Picabia's Dada period, he offered Picabia an arrangement with his gallery and commissioned a group of paintings for his wife's room.
Phoebus is one of the most complex and mature of the 'transparency' paintings that Picabia executed in 1930 in preparation for his first exhibition at Rosenberg's gallery. This exhibition was a major retrospective of the artist's work that was weighted heavily in favour of Picabia's new 'transparencies'. As many of their classical titles suggest, the 'transparencies' often used as their source material images from Greco-Roman art and Italian Renaissance painting. Phoebus is one of the last of 'transparencies' to adopt the elegant lines and delicate features of Botticelli's painting, as it was painted at a time when Picabia had begun to favour the paintings of Piero della Francesca as a source for these deliberately enigmatic works.
At the heart of the painting Picabia has copied an anonymous Roman copy of a Greek sculpture of Orestes and Electra, transforming them into two hairless figures of classical beauty that have been overlaid by the sensual lines of two Botticelli-esque youths.
Picabia's transparencies were executed during a time of great personal turmoil for the artist. A turmoil that was set against the luxurious Mediterranean surroundings of the Côte d'Azur. Living in his château and playing on his yacht, Picabia played host during these years to an endless series of parties and intellectual gatherings. Alongside his marriage to Germaine, he had fallen in love with the guardian of his son Lorenzo, Olga Mohler, whom he would later marry, and at the same time was indulging in an affair with the young daughter of Benjamin Guinness.
During this golden period at the end of the 1920s Picabia's luxuriant lifestyle was accompanied by feverish activity that resulted in the mysterious many layered 'transparency' paintings. "This country which seems...to make some lazy, stimulates me to work", Picabia wrote, "I have more and more pleasure in the resumption of painting." ( Ibid. p.216.) Indeed all the members of the family at Picabia's château, which was permanently populated by many friends, lovers and other guests, refer to the fervour with which Picabia worked in conjunction with his hectic social life. This sense of multiplicity, along with the Mediterranean culture and landscape that encouraged painters from Picasso to de Chirico to assert an overt classicism in their work, are almost certainly the major influences behind the many-layered classicism of Picabia's 'transparency' paintings.
The meanings of such works remain deliberately obscure and ambiguous as if they were, as indeed Picabia himself has hinted, made up of a personal code of imagery that only he could recognise and interpret. In his only statement about these works in the introduction for his exhibition at Rosenberg's gallery, Picabia declares that a painting such as Phoebus is an expression of his "inner desire" to be read by himself alone.
"'Picabia has made too many jokes with his painting!'... is... what certain people find at the bottom of their sack of acrimony... And me, I say: too many jokes have been made with Picabia's painting! I worked for months and years making use of nature, copying it. Now it is my nature that I copy, that I try to express. I was once feverish over calculated inventions, now it is my instinct that guides me... This third dimension, not made of light and shadow, these transparencies with their corner of oubliettes permit me to express for myself the resemblance of my interior desires... I want a painting where all my instincts may have a free course... Those who have said... that 'I do not enter the line of account' are right. I take no part in no addition and recount my life to myself alone." (Francis Picabia : Introduction to the Exhibition Francis Picabia, Chez Léonce Rosenberg, Paris, 1930.)