Creating a rich variety of work ranging from strange, comic-erotic images of machine parts to text-based paintings that foreshadow aspects of Conceptual art, the French avant-garde painter, poet, and typographist, Francis-Marie Martinez de Picabia, is revered as one of the most intriguing and inscrutable artists of the past century.
Best-known as one of the leaders of Dada movement, Picabia was born on January 22, 1879, in Paris. The only child of a Spanish father and a French mother, Picabia was raised in an affluent household. He was enrolled at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs in Paris from 1895 to 1897. In the winter of 1902-03, he began to paint in an Impressionist manner and started to exhibit works in this style at the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Independents of 1903.
In 1909, Picabia adopted a Cubist style, and, along with Marcel Duchamp, he helped found the Section d’Or, a group of Cubist artists in 1911. He went on to combine the Cubist style with its more lyrical variation known as Orphism in paintings such as “I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie” (1913-14) and “Edtaonisl” (1913). As he moved away from Cubism to Orphism, his colors and shapes became softer.
In 1915, Picabia traveled to New York City, where he, Duchamp, and Man Ray began to develop an American version of Dada, a nihilistic art movement that flourished in Europe and New York from 1915 to about 1922. In New York, he exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291, and contributed to the proto-Dadaist review 291.
About 1916, Picabia completely gave up the Cubist style and began to produce the images of satiric, machinelike contrivances that were his chief contribution to Dadaism. The drawing “Universal Prostitution” (1916-19) and the painting “Amorous Procession” (1917) are typical of his Dadaist phase. In 1916 and 1917, he lived in Barcelona and in 1917 he published his first volume of poetry and the first issues of 391, his magazine modeled after Stieglitz’s periodical 291.
For the next few years, Picabia remained involved with the Dadaists in Zurich and Paris, creating scandals at the Salon d’Automne. In 1921 he renounced Dada on the grounds that it was no longer vital and had lost its capacity to shock. The following year, he moved to Tremblay-sur-Mauldre outside Paris and returned to figurative art. In 1924, he attacked Andre Breton and the Surrealists in 391.
In 1925, Picabia settled in the south of France, where he experimented with painting in various styles. During the 1930s, he became a close friend of Gertrude Stein. In 1945, he returned to live in Paris, and he spent the final years of his life painting in a mostly abstract mode. He was notable for his inventiveness, adaptability, absurdist humor, and disconcerting changes of style. In March 1949, a retrospective of his work was held at the Galerie Rene Drouin in Paris.
Francis Picabia died on November 30, 1953, in Paris.