As well as looking to the painters of classical antiquity or the Italian Renaissance, it is clear that Picabia was also drawing inspiration from a myriad of contemporary sources including Freudian psychoanalysis and modern photographic techniques. William A. Camfield wrote about the genesis of this style: ‘Picabia’s interest in the concept and techniques of transparency was not a sudden development. Ultimately it derived from preoccupations with simultaneity during the epoch of Cubism and Orphism; more recently he had experimented with simultaneity/transparency in the film Entr’acte and in a number of the monster paintings of ca. 1927. But in 1928 his work evolved into the early mature paintings of a type which became known as “the transparencies” – a style so named for its multiple layers of transparent images, although it was also characterized by pervasive moods of wistfulness and melancholy, and by extensive reference to art of the past’ (W. A. Camfield, Francis Picabia, Princeton, 1979, p.229).
Despite the wealth of artistic, cultural and natural references, the meanings of the transparencies remain deliberately obscure and ambiguous, and their power lies in their evocative beauty and elegance of execution. Much of the allure of these works is in the richness and intricacy of the composition; whilst Picabia places emphasis on the mesmerising figure of the man that dominates the work, closer inspection reveals that he is surrounded by other figures as well as a number of cryptic and arcane motifs. Bestowing this central figure with the title ‘Mendica’ – a typically Picabian pseudo-Latinate name which derives from the proper term for a mendicant – Picabia both enhances the Classical connection and adds to the mysteries of the work, as the powerfully built man appears closer to an oneiric Pan-like or Orphean figure than the beggar of classical tradition. An oblique reference to Orpheus seems particularly possible given that the seated position and frontal posture of the man is typical of classical iconography relating to the mythical musician and poet, but it is also hard to believe that Picabia did not have Picasso’s 1923 work La Flûte de Pan (Musée National Picasso, Paris) in mind when he conceived this composition. Intriguingly, ‘Mendica’ is also a name given to a number of species of moth and Picabia’s allusion to this alternative meaning is characteristic of the way in which the artist combined references to the natural world with classical imagery in this series. These double meanings also contribute to the enigmatic quality of the Transparences, which remain among Picabia’s most complex and cryptic works. As Camfield explains: ‘Picabia describes his transparencies as spaces where he might express of himself “the resemblance of my interior desires”, as paintings “where all my instincts may have a free course”. But insofar as is known, he shared not one word of more specific explanation about his intentions, visual sources or titles with anyone […]. Accordingly, never was he more successful in painting for himself than in these works – transparent perhaps in form but veiled in content’ (ibid., pp.233-234).
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