- Francis Picabia
- signed Francis Picabia (lower right)
- oil on card laid down on board
- 53.5 by 38cm.
- 21 by 15in.
Mr & Mrs Arnold H. Maremont, Winnetka, Illinois (purchased at the above sale. Sold: Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York, 1st May 1974, lot 14)
Galerie Jan Krugier, Geneva (purchased at the above sale)
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1976
Bern, Kunsthalle; Venice, XXXVII Biennale Internazionale d'Arte di Venezia; Brussels, Société des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts; Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle; Paris, Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs; Le Creusot, Musée de l’Homme et de l’Industrie; Malmö, Konsthall & Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, The Bachelor Machines, 1975-76, no. 210, illustrated in the catalogue
Berlin, 15. Europäische Kunstausstellung, Tendenzen der Zwanziger Jahre, 1977
Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle; Zurich, Kunsthaus & Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Francis Picabia, 1983-84, no. 28, illustrated in the catalogue
Francis Picabia, Máquinas y Españolas (exhibition catalogue), IVAM Centro Julio González, Valencia & Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, 1995-96, no. 90, illustrated in colour
Painted circa 1918, Ventilateur is an exceptional example of Picabia’s rare and profoundly influential machinist compositions from his Dada period. The use of the mechanical forms and the sensational associations they evoke are fundamental to the artist’s perception of art’s role in the modern, industrialised epoch. During his second visit to the United States in 1915, Picabia announced: ‘The machine has become something more than a mere appendix to life. It has come to form an authentic part of human existence ..., perhaps its soul. In my search for forms to interpret ideas through which certain human characteristics may reveal themselves, I have finally discovered the form that seems to me, from the plastic point of view, the most convincing and the most symbolic. I have taken over the mechanics of the modern world and introduced it into my studio’ (quoted in M. L. Borràs, op. cit., p. 153). The symbolism to which he refers relates directly to the present work in which the ventilation machine depicted is analogous with a potent female sexuality. Picabia shared this approach with his friend Marcel Duchamp, who produced a number of machinist works which similarly referenced women in terms of machines such as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even of 1915-23 (fig. 1).
As both a visual artist and a writer of considerable force, Picabia often gave his paintings titles that offer some insight into the underlying meaning of the works themselves, even if the intimation is obscurely self-referential. In 1916 Picabia stated: ‘In my work the subjective expression is in the title, the painting the object. But this object is nevertheless somewhat subjective, because it is the pantomime – the appearance of the title’ (quoted in William A. Camfield, 'The Machinist Style of Francis Picabia', in The Art Bulletin, vol. 48, September-December 1966, pp. 314-315). The title ‘ventilator’ therefore refers to the Heath Robinson-esque contraption depicted in the present work, but it also refers, in Picabia’s idiosyncratic vocabulary, to a character trait he admired, especially in women.
In 1915 Picabia executed a Dada portrait of his erstwhile lover and fellow artist Marie Laurencin, entitled Portrait de Marie Laurencin, Four in Hand (fig. 6) which featured the same mechanical device of a ventilator that he went on to use in the present work. This complex prose and image portrait was composed out of symbolic phrases and motifs which related to aspects of Laurencin’s character and circumstances. As William A. Camfield explains: ‘Portrait de Marie Laurencin seems to have less to do with Dadaist comments on aesthetics and machines than with Picabia’s established preoccupation for symbolism, in this instance symbolic reference to Marie Laurencin and the condition of her life in Barcelona. […] The machine forms, though improvised and not very comprehensible in themselves, also represent a deliberate selection. Mme Buffet-Picabia recalled that Picabia associated the freshness of Marie Laurencin with the effect of a ventilator (the major form in the drawing), and that the subtitle Four in Hand might have referred to the men in her life’ (W. A. Camfield, Francis Picabia, His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, 1979, p. 100). In referring to Laurencin as a ‘ventilator’, he was praising her defiant, out-spoken nature – quite literally ‘a breath of fresh air’.
Picabia’s Dada compositions and their faux-naïve mechanical constructions are reminiscent of the trompe l’œil technique that Picasso and Braque employed in their Synthetic Cubist works, in which the faux-collage elements were painted to mimic actual objects or materials. The aesthetic of Ventilateur acts as a precursor to the constructions of Kurt Schwitters, whose use of industrial detritus and printed ephemera from 1919 onwards (fig. 3) determined the deliberately anti-art stance he took, which was in stark contrast to the Cubists’ devotion to the traditional still-life genre. Picabia’s own feelings toward the Cubists were frequently aired in his publication 391 and he vehemently expressed a sense of Dadaist superiority over the Cubists working in Paris in the late 1910s and early 1920s, although he did separate Picasso and Gris from his otherwise vitriolic abuse of their fellow Cubists. Although Picabia’s protean manner was very much part of his conception of Dada, the years 1915-1920 saw him produce a series of exceptional works of art, all characterised by both his literary and artistic interest in the mechanics of the modern world (figs. 4 & 5).
The present work once formed part of the collection of Mr and Mrs Arnold H. Maremont, who assembled one of the finest collections of contemporary art in the Mid-West. The Maremont’s collection included exceptional works by Picasso, Gris, Klee, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock. The collection was exhibited at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1961, and many of the key pieces are now in museums and public institutions across the world including The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and Tate, London.