In Les Baigneuses, femmes nues au bord de la mer
, a woman stands naked, hand upon her heart, surveying a horizon beyond the viewer, captivated by something unseen. In front of her sits a suited man, his head slightly titled to one side in a pose of unabashed voyeurism. Behind her, stand two further nudes: the first, a woman bending away from the viewer to display her behind which has been shielded by the bare chest of the woman in the foreground—this woman’s modesty protected by the nudity of another; in the distance stands the second, surveying the scene in the foreground but disconnected from it. Basing his figures on three portrait photographs from a 1930s edition of the The Paris Magazine
(figs. 1-3), Francis Picabia has elevated mass media photography and ‘low-brow’ culture to the realm of high art.Les Baigneuses, femmes nues au bord de la mer
belongs to a series of paintings that Picabia began in the late 1930s which came to be known as his ‘war-year works’. Often considered to be the first series of truly post-Modern works, this parody of the prevalent tastes and fashions of the art world pre-empted the work of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Richard Prince. The appropriation of unconventional subjects—and specifically mass media—had long been part of Picabia’s practice: following a visit to New York in 1915, Picabia produced a series of works on paper featuring a variety of mechanical contraptions. These ‘machine-drawings’, can be seen as the pre-cursor to Dada, and Picabia as the artist whose early experimentation ‘sounded the alarm which woke up the world of Modern art’ (Anne Umland & Adrian Sudhalter, eds., Dada in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art
, New York, 2008, p. 237). The French critic Arnauld Pierre concludes that Picabia’s war-year works, including Les Baigneuses, femmes nues au bord de la mer
, are a development of this, furthering innovating through the use of collage and other ‘aberrations optiques’
(Arnauld Pierre, Francis Picabia, La Peintiure Sans Aura,
Paris, 2002, p. 255).
Each of the source images for Les Baigneuses, femmes nues au bord de la mer
lifted from The Paris Magazine
is lit and shot in a different way and from a different angle. Instead of transposing the figures to canvas and bleeding the light into a harmonious composition the artist specifically juxtaposes the images against one other, creating a jarring and artificial aesthetic. This post-Modern concept of eschewing the viewer’s preconceived ideas of art enabled Picabia to generate something completely new. Its development can later be seen in Richard Prince’s first series of Cowboy
works in which the artist simply removes the text from existing Marlboro adverts changing the conceptual idea of the same image.
For the series to which the present work belongs, Picabia sourced images from a variety of magazines including Mon Paris, Paris Sex Appeal, Paris-Magazine and Paris Plaisir
. The images, and periodicals from which they came, are pornographic in essence and antithetical to notions of traditional source material of the time. Through his encyclopaedic knowledge of photography—his maternal grandfather had been one of Daguerre’s collaborators and inventors of the medium—Picabia selected his images with two ideas in mind: to compress multiple photographs together generating a new narrative in canvas; and to select images, which when combined, could still retain the photographer’s original lighting and perspective. Having selected his images, the artist would treat the material with a variety of handling techniques: he used a very smooth application for the skin tones with luminescent touches and an expressionist gestural technique for the background. This practice allowed Picabia to recreate an artificial photo-realist effect with the figures, whilst framing them in a classical painterly setting.
Picabia was able to fill the composition with movement. He selected imagery which created a dichotomy of stasis and motion. In Les Baigneuses, femmes nues au bord de la, the central figure stands statuesque but intent, whilst behind her a nude is engaged in some unknown activity. Much like Robert Longo would later achieve with his Men in the Cities series, Picabia here creates an image pregnant with motion within the photo-realist composition. Gertrude Stein was so struck by this she commented that Picabia’s work had ‘the feeling of movement inside the painting, not a painting of a thing moving but the thing painted having inside it the existence of movement’ (Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography, Cambridge, 1937, p. 321).
Picabia’s war-year pictures have long held a problematic position within his oeuvre. Due to their overtly Aryan aesthetic, displaying young athletic bodies with an almost kitsch realism, the works bear a relation to the Nazi-authorised propaganda pictures of the early 1940s. Because of stylised realism’s association with Fascist art, critics have often dismissed Picabia—and this series of works in particular—as sympathetic to the regime. However, a critical reappraisal of the series undertaken at the beginning of the 1980s unveiled the artist’s source material. The pornographic magazines from which he took his images flew in the face of the Nazi doctrines and this base culture would have been mired for its degenerate nature in the Third Reich. Michèle Cone concludes that Picabia was so successful at subverting the Fascist art form that it managed to be included in their canon of approved works. In 1983, a group of works from this series was exhibited at the Mary Boon/Michael Werner Gallery in New York where the scholar and critic Robert Rosenblum described them as ‘…a rebellious dissatisfaction with idées reçues of Modern art’s hierarchy’ (quoted in Michèle Cone, Francis Picabia (exhibition catalogue), Mary Boone/Michael Werner Galley, New York, 1983, pp. 226-27).
Perhaps more than any other artist, Francis Picabia was constantly reflecting upon his work and changing its formal elements to reflect his evolving conceptual interests. His defiantly anti-Modernist approach and subversion of classical figurative painting through the use of photography and collage paved the way for a new generation of artists such as Robert Rauschenburg, Eric Fischl and John Currin. His continual evolution and position as one of the most daring and innovative artists of the 20th Century is best described by the artist himself: ‘If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as you change your shirts.’