In a statement nearly as inscrutable as the body of work it describes, Picabia once wrote that his Transparences allowed him to express “the resemblance of my inner desires” and served as outlets “where all my instincts may have a free course” (Francis Picabia: Trente ans de peinture (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., n.p.). It from this period of personal and artistic exploration between 1928 and 1932 which Briseis comes.
Diaphanously layered and intentionally obscured, this enigmatic composition embodies one of the most prodigious and productive periods of Francis Picabia’s career. Briseis, named after the Greek myth and painted circa 1929, emanates from a richly creative and individualistic period in the itinerant artist’s life. While Picabia’s earlier paintings contained styles as inclusive and yet as disparate as those of Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and Dadaism, his Transparences from this period reveal an increasingly personal foray amid an already experimental oeuvre.
The shift in his practices toward the kind of layered and transposed imagery in Briseis may be traced back to a 1927 visit to Catalonia where the artist witnessed frescoes which had recently been preserved and removed from the walls in such a way as to preserve the underlying preparatory drawings, or sinopie (see fig. 1). Perhaps inspired by the multiplicity of the finished frescoes and their foundational sketches, Picabia began building up his compositions with layers of translucent faces, bodies, animals and vegetation.
Though largely met with criticism in the spring of 1929 at its unveiling at Galerie Théophile Briant, Picabia’s newest works quickly captured the attention of another dealer in Paris, Léonce Rosenberg. Captivated by the complex imagery and delicate execution of these works, Rosenberg soon took up Picabia at his own gallery, arranging exhibitions dedicated to these experimental works and extending a number of commissions for his personal residence. In 1930, Rosenberg hosted the artist’s first major retroactive featuring three decades’ worth of Picabia’s work and highlighting his most recent Transparences, Briseis among them.
Prior to his Transparences, Picabia was perhaps best known for his mimetic works which often employed the purposeful recontextualization of popular imagery. This hallmark practice of Dadaism, with which the artist is perhaps most often associated, would carry into the artist’s later Surrealist works and beyond. Picabia often populated his scenes with poses lifted from postcards and cinematic works, as well as from scandalous (yet widely recognized) nude photos of the time. Even as Picabia turned inward for inspiration with his Transparencies, the artist’s technique of visual cooptation continued.
In keeping with this habit, Picabia’s works from this time often include myriad references to Classical sculpture, myth and Old Master paintings in varying degrees of decipherability. Briseis, the figure from whom our work takes its name, is a significant character in Homer’s Iliad, and stood at the center of a major dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon in the Trojan War. Though as William Camfield suggests, there are scant apparent connections between this work’s title and its namesake, there are clearer visual links to be found in other Greek legends, as well as in the painting of Botticelli.
In Briseis, a transparent face outlined in black emanates from the clouds behind, loosely connected to a floating hand which reaches out as if to embrace the outstretched figure. This delicate hybrid finds resonance in two particular works by Botticelli, as suggested in Boras’ catalogue raisonné. The large, skyward gazing face echoes a woodland nymph from Botticelli’s famed Primavera (see fig. 2), while the spectral hand with slightly overlapped fingers finds an evident parallel in the gesture of the Italian master’s slightly later work Portrait of a Youth (see fig. 3), albeit in an exaggerated interpretation of his proto-Mannerist style.
The present work is dominated at the center right by the arched and extenuated female figure, masked at the top by successive superimpositions of a moth and skull. From the neck downward, the soft and luminous central figure relates directly to a fifth century B.C. sculpture of a dying Niobid (see fig. 4). Picabia remains faithful to the statue in his rendering of the draped figure, from the dramatic serpentine pose to the cloth cascading down one leg. The symbol of the skull, a common memento mori, may also allude to the fate of the Niobid children, all whom died by arrow at the hands of vengeful gods. The fleeting nature of existence, a theme present from time immemorial, carries on to this day, perhaps no where more evident than in the unmistakable work of Damien Hirst (see fig. 5).
However apparent Picabia’s sources may seem, it is the artist’s dexterous and complex intertwining of imagery, and his allusion to myth and modern day alike, which leave his intent all the more mysterious. As Picabia scholar Arnauld Pierre describes, "his painting is crafted from the heaped leftovers of a blurred and overloaded memory, offering no clear, steady aesthetic program. Reduced to the inconstancy of their contours, the Transparencies recycle no more than the now empty forms of the great works of the past, wearing out their primary meanings without breathing new ones into them," (Transparence: Calder/Picabia (exhibition catalogue), Hauser & Wirth, Zurich, 2015, pp. 13–14).
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