‘The gaiety of the titles and his collages of everyday objects shows his impulse to be a renegade, to maintain his position of non-belief in the divinities created far too lightly by the exigencies of society.’
(Marcel Duchamp, quoted in M. L. Borras, Francis Picabia, London, 1985, p. 289)
With its richly painted surfaces and playful use of non-traditional materials, Sans titre (Pot de fleurs) is an extraordinary example of the series of ornate collaged compositions which occupied Francis Picabia during the mid-1920s. In these intricately constructed, mischievous works Picabia deliberately subverts and parodies the very traditions of painting itself, incorporating unusual and everyday materials into the structure of his paintings to create whimsical, tongue-in-cheek compositions that challenge the boundaries of fine art. The first collages he created during the 1920s were re-imaginings of traditional subjects, focusing on landscapes, portraits and still-lifes, from the straws and packaged toothpicks of Pailles et cure-dents (Toothpicks) which caused such a stir when it was first exhibited, to the macaroni shells and feather palm trees of Promenade des Anglais (Midi), and the matches, hairpins and coins which adorn the enigmatic Portrait (Femme aux allumettes [I]). In Sans titre (Pot de fleurs) Picabia includes paintbrushes, stretcher keys, string, quill toothpicks, and lids from the cans of colourful paint that dotted his studio to create a highly stylised depiction of a pot of flowers.
Although Picabia had first incorporated collaged elements into several of his Dada works at the beginning of the 1920s, his experiments with the technique began in earnest following the artist’s relocation to the South of France several years later, as he traded the factionalism and snobbery of the Parisian art world for the luxurious and laidback atmosphere of the Midi. Renouncing the Dadaists, Surrealists, and the artistic establishment in Paris, Picabia fully embraced his new life on the French Riviera, enjoying the pleasures of daily visits to the beach, the raucous atmosphere of the local casinos, as well as his frequent jaunts along the coast in his prized motor-car. Revelling in the sunshine and relaxed climate of his new life in the South of France, Picabia developed a renewed interest in painting, throwing himself headlong into the creation of experimental, novel works. ‘This country which seems … to make some lazy, stimulates me to work,’ he wrote to the renowned couturier and collector Jacques Doucet. ‘I have more and more pleasure in the resumption of painting’ (Picabia, quoted in W. A. Camfield, Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, 1979, p. 216). Indeed, Picabia’s enthusiasm for painting during the early years in the Midi was so feverish that his mistress, Germaine Everling, recalled the artist spending whole days immersed in his work, barely leaving the studio from dawn to dusk. Incorporating a plethora of tools plucked directly from the artist’s studio, Sans titre (Pot de fleurs) nimbly embeds the structures and tools which lay behind the act of artistic creation into the finished image, parodying and interrogating the mimetic traditions that underpin the medium in the process.
From the handful of paint-splattered brushes set at jaunty angles to imitate the pattern of branches and stems of the potted flowers, to the stretcher keys which sit alongside them, their triangular shapes used to denote the leaves and foliage of the plant, each element refers back to the very construction of the painting. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the work is the inclusion of the circular paint-can lids which act as the brightly hued blossoms of the flowers. Lending the painting a vibrant pop of colour, the lids carry the distinctive logo of the popular enamel paint Ripolin, its brand name clearly stamped across their cool metal surfaces. A readily available and relatively cheap commercial paint, Ripolin was marketed to the general public as a do-it-yourself material and had been formulated to allow for easy application, usually to interior walls, doors or radiators. This iconic French brand quickly became synonymous with a new modernity, becoming so ubiquitous in society that the verb ‘to ripolin’ was coined. Produced in a variety of richly vibrant shades and designed to provide an even, opaque coverage, Ripolin was fast drying and resulted in a hard, glossy, enamel finish, unmarred by brushstrokes. However, when applied in thick layers the paint had a tendency to shift during the drying process, often resulting in dramatic wrinkling and dripping effects that lent the finished compositions a richly textured, almost rippling surface.
Aware of its provocative potential in a fine art context, Picabia had begun to use Ripolin after the First World War as a means of challenging and undermining the hierarchical nature of painting. Writing about the artist’s use of this unconventional material, Marcel Duchamp claimed that it was a thirst for the new, for a fresh way of approaching painting, that drove Picabia to adopt Ripolin: ‘[his] restlessly inventive spirit leads him to use Ripolin instead of the traditional paint in tubes, which, to his way of thinking, takes on far too quickly the patina of posterity. He likes everything new and the canvases done in 1923, 1924 and 1925 have that newly painted look which preserves all the intensity of the first moment… The gaiety of the titles and his collages of everyday objects shows his impulse to be a renegade, to maintain his position of non-belief in the divinities created far too lightly by the exigencies of society’ (Marcel Duchamp, quoted in M. L. Borràs, Francis Picabia, London, 1985, p. 289). In Sans titre (Pot de fleurs) Picabia fills the background with a generous layer of Ripolin, which he then uses to adhere the collaged elements on to the canvas, carefully positioning them in place while the paint was still wet and then allowing them to be secured by the drying process. Embedding the paint can lids in this way, ensuring that their distinctive branding is clearly visible to the viewer, Picabia boldly trumpets his use of Ripolin, challenging conceptions of ‘fine art’ by incorporating these devalued materials into his compositions.
In this way, Sans titre (Pot de fleurs) wonderfully illustrates the deliberately iconoclastic approach to painting that characterised Picabia’s oeuvre throughout his career. Indeed, with its ironic take on a classical still-life, reducing the pot of flowers to a schematic, semi-abstract play of colour and line, made using non-traditional materials, this work may be viewed as a humorous criticism of the ‘return to order’ which had swept through France in the wake of the First World War. Picabia was arguably the first artist of his generation to perceive the myriad of artistic languages and styles that proliferated through the Parisian art scene during this period, as not so much a utopian breakthrough in aesthetics, but rather as just another new, but ultimately limited, means of making a picture. Like a sixteenth-century Dutch floral still-life, which typically celebrated and lamented the fleeting beauty of the blooms, this work may be interpreted as a comment from Picabia on the short life and ultimate doom of these multifarious approaches to painting - beautiful and breathtaking in the moment, but in the end destined to become yet another forgotten style, overtaken by the next groundbreaking movement.