Always Forging Ahead: Early Styles of Francis Picabia

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Although Paroxysm of Pain could be termed as a signature work by Francis Picabia (1879–1953), such a classification is difficult to apply to this artist. While in New York in 1915, Picabia created this painting that stylistically is very much part of his “mechanical phase” between 1915 and 1920. Acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 1982, the painting resembles a commercial diagram of a mechanical part found in technical manuals and parts catalogues. Termed “mechanomorphic,” the draftsman-like drawings and paintings in Picabia’s mechanical phase often depict inanimate mechanical objects that take on human states. These are either referred to in the title or by inscriptions, often relating to phrases or to specific people Picabia knew, or they are referenced through the composition itself, sometimes subtly hinting at sexual imagery. In the case of Paroxysm of Pain, Picabia casts an emotional state onto an inanimate object through the title.

Typical of Picabia, he created works in the mechanical style for only a short period, as his shift in artistic interest and his ability to switch from one artistic movement to another every few years is a key theme in his œuvre. A 1911 photograph, taken in his studio on avenue Charles-Floquet in Paris, depicts the artist sitting on a chair with his legs crossed, paint brushes in his right hand, looking off into the distance.

Francis Picabia in his studio, c. 1910–15, Bain News Service photograph collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington (LC-B2- 2620-5 [P&P])

Behind him are easels displaying some of his paintings. On the left is a Cubist painting, while on the floor to the right is a Fauvist one. Every element in the photograph is carefully arranged; Picabia’s pose, his face in profile, with light from the window shining on him, and his paintings positioned to face the camera. The photograph presents a telling portrait of a pensive artist surrounded by his paintings in various styles. Ten years later in May of 1921 in his statement essay “M. Picabia Separate from the Dadas," Picabia declared in the last line his resignation from the Dadaists: “I will remain Francis Picabia!” As he departed from yet another artistic movement, having participated for only three years, from 1918 to 1921, he assures the world that he will remain the same – the artist who constantly changes.

Picabia was born in Paris in 1879 to a bourgeois family interested in art. Scholar William A. Camfield captured in his 1979 biography of the artist a family anecdote recounted by his last wife, Olga Mohler Picabia, that tells of him as a youth earning money by replacing paintings in the family collection with copies he had painted and selling the originals. From 1895 to 1897, Picabia studied at the École des Arts Decoratifs and then apprenticed for the next four years at the studio of the Academic painter, Fernand Cormon.

Image removed due to copyright restrictions.

Picabia achieved fame at the young age of 26 when he made his debut in the Parisian art scene with two solo exhibitions in Paris featuring his Impressionist work – in 1905 and in 1907. An example from this early period is Sunlight on the Banks of the Loing River, Moret, of 1905, created ten years before the Gallery's Paroxysm of Pain.  Between 1903 and 1907 Picabia painted many scenes of Moret-sur-Loing, a village that had captured the interest of the Impressionist artists in the 1880s and 1890s. Picabia’s interest in Impressionism was brief, however, only lasting about four years and setting the tone of his future working methods. By 1909 he was working in a Fauvist style, and by 1911, in Cubism.

Picabia’s artistic career moved through a progression of avant-garde artistic styles: Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Abstraction, Dada, and Surrealism while never fully committing to any movement. Rather than committing himself to one artistic style and developing innovation in that style, Picabia instead challenged the traditional notion that an artist is associated with only one movement. Destabilizing the concept of originality by imitating the paintings of other artists and commercial designs, Picabia’s artistic innovations and consistency are conceptual rather than visual. The artist could afford this kind of artistic freedom in part because he was wealthy (through family money) and because he gained financial success selling his paintings, allowing him the opportunity to constantly reinvent himself as an artist and experiment with different techniques.

Image removed due to copyright restrictions.

Picabia's mechanical phase was followed by Dada, the international "anti-art" movement originating around the First World War that included artists such as Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. He severed ties with Dada in 1921, giving his reasons for leaving the movement: “I parted from certain Dadas because I was feeling stifled among them, every day I was sadder. I was getting terribly bored.” Picabia was always shifting as an artist, striving to create something new. What remained constant is that while the movements he is associated with changes every few years, his attitude towards them was always the same, constantly challenging the role of art and the artist.

The only work by Picabia in the Gallery’s collection, Paroxysm of Pain represents one of the many artistic movements the artist played with and manipulated. While he created work in many styles, his works are rarely hung together in museums. They tend to be shown separately among works by other artists in a similar, respective style. The viewer is therefore always being challenged as to which movement he belongs, rather than emphasizing the vast span of this artistic polymath.


Francis Picabia's Paroxysm of Pain is on view in C217 at the National Gallery of CanadaShare this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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