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Impressionist & Modern Art

Satire and Sensuality in Picabia's Wartime Portrait

Francis Picabia’s figurative painting from the war years is today recognised for its true worth, after a period of disapproval by modernist critics. Already in 1933, the eminent art historian Robert Rosenblum described his pastiches of Cancan dancers and the various nudes inspired from popular magazines as "radically anti-modern". Though in looking at Picabia's 1942 work Danseuse de French Cancan, the viewer can see many other forces at play.

“My painting is increasingly like my life and like life but a life that does not want or cannot consider what is greedy and monstrous. Everything that was moral in art is dead, fortunately it is the only service that the cataclysm surrounding us has rendered."
Francis Picabia in a letter to Gertrude Stein

The veritable complexity of these works from the 1940s is today accepted and they are now seen as precursor to many contemporary artistic practices. As Sarah Cochran rightly indicates: "The paintings he made during the war are ironic, sardonic, badly painted, aggressive, serious, provocative, facile, subversive, humorous, scabrous , erotic, disconcerting, incomprehensible, repellent, very successful. Picabia knew how to handle ambiguity and contradiction and this endows his works with a perfectly contemporary resonance." (Sarah Cochran, La parade amoureuse: Picabia, la guerre et la culture populaire, Francis Picabia, les nus et la méthode, 1997-98, p.23)

During the Second World War, Picabia moved to the South of France and revisited sensuality and eroticism in his work. The painter elaborated his famous series of often-naked women presented in seductive poses, of which Danseuse de French Cancan is a perfect example. Lifting her frilly dress in a classic pose associated with the legendary show, this dancer is the image of lightheartedness and erotic frivolity, which contrasts with the harshness of the war years and Nazi occupation. It is evidently satirical in tone as many of the famous cabarets of Montmartre were closed by the Vichy regime in order to establish moral order.

Picabia’s sources are known: some are from beauty magazines and charm revues such as Mon Paris, Paris Plaisir, Paris Magazine, and Paris Sex-Appeal. For Danseuse de French Cancan, he drew the subject directly from a page of the January 1937 issue of Mon Paris. In fact, he produced two versions of the dancer; the present one where she is dressed in a blue top and a "topless" version closer to the photograph in the magazine.

With Picabia, kitsch and poor taste become part of a new aesthetic, far from the provocations of his mecanomorphic universe of the Dada period, but just as subversive. Danseuse de French Cancan perfectly expresses the artist’s multiform talent, whose continual changes in style are not synonymous with decadence but rather a permanent provocation, a constant rebellion in face of the supposed hierarchies of modern art.

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