Sale: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 26th October 1945, lot 110
Sale: Guy Loudmer, Hôtel George V, Paris, 13th December 1974, lot 76
Maurice Weinberg, Paris (purchased at the above sale)
Thence by descent to the present owner
Paris, Galerie de l’Effort Moderne (Léonce Rosenberg), Francis Picabia: trente ans de peinture, 1930, no. 43
Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Francis Picabia, 1976, no. 184, illustrated in the catalogue
Paris, Palais des Congrès, Picabia. Dandy et Héraut de l’art du XXe siècle, 1980-81, no. 16, illustrated in the catalogue
Brussels, Musée d’Ixelles, Picabia, 1983, no. 40, illustrated in the catalogue
Nîmes, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Francis Picabia, 1986, no. 76, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Antwerp, Ronny van de Velde & Majorca, Fundació Pilar y Joan Miró, Francis Picabia, 1993, no. 34, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Francis Picabia, Singulier idéal, 2002-03, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Krems, Kunsthalle, Francis Picabia. Retrospective, 2012, illustrated in the catalogue
Zurich, Kunsthaus & New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, 2016-17, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
William A. Camfield, Francis Picabia. His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, 1979, fig. 326, illustrated
Maria Lluïsa Borràs, Picabia, London, 1985, no. 527, fig. 683, illustrated p. 354
Philippe Dagen, L’Art Français, Le XXe siècle, Paris, 1998, illustrated in colour p. 47
Modern Antiquity: Picasso, de Chirico, Léger, Picabia in the Presence of the Antique (exhibition catalogue), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2011-12, pl. 53, illustrated in colour p. 120
Beverley Calté (ed.), Album Picabia. Olga Mohler Picabia, Brussels, 2016, illustrated
Jean Van Heeckeren, 1929
‘In the late 1970s, Picabia was much discussed by the new generation of younger artists, and one of the main figures who fuelled this interest was, without doubt, Sigmar Polke. Picabia’s Transparencies provided a formal point of reference, but there was a much stronger connection between the mentalities of these two artists.’
‘… these transparencies with their corner of oubliettes permit me to express for myself the resemblance of my interior desires… I want a painting where all my instincts may have a free course.’
Rich in imagery and historical references, mysterious in mood and delicate in execution, Atrata is one of the most stunning examples of Picabia’s Transparences. Created in the late 1920s and early 1930s, this body of work derives its name from multiple layers of overlapping imagery, combined with great virtuosity and achieving a cinematic effect. In the present painting, several faces, animals and fruit are amalgamated into an image of timeless and enigmatic beauty. Despite their transparent quality, the meaning of the faces remains unknown, and the composition appears to be a seemingly impenetrable allegory with characteristics of a dream or a mystic vision.
Transparences draw their iconography from a wealth of sources – natural phenomena as well as antique sculpture, Romanesque frescos, Renaissance painting and Catalan art. Following his experimentation with Dada and abstraction, in the 1920s Picabia turned away from the aesthetic of shock towards a kind of painterly ‘renaissance’, creating figurative images of mysterious, evocative beauty. As William A. Camfield wrote: ‘The transparencies are complex paintings with multiple layers of faces, figures, hands, birds and foliage. The images are here transparent and there opaque, disparate in scale and orientation, charged with mysterious relationships or private symbolism and fraught with ambiguities of form and space similar to those in multiple film exposures. Despite such complexities, most of the early transparencies are imbued with a serene melancholy conveyed by cool color harmonies, ephemeral forms, fluid pigment and, above all, by ideal, classicizing figures. […] Picabia drew heavily on visual sources from Classical art and Italian art of the Renaissance and Baroque epochs. Until 1930, Botticelli was his primary Renaissance source’ (W. A. Camfield, op. cit., 1970, p. 41).
Camfield has identified the specific historic sources that Picabia used in the present composition: ‘In Atrata Picabia has […] appropriated, modified and recombined diverse models. The prominent head in the upper center and the hands below it, with thumbs touching near the center of the painting, are adapted from Botticelli’s Portrait of a Man with a Medal [fig. 1]. Layers of forms beneath those images include a Roman statue of Atlas [fig. 2], but the large hands around the globe of Atlas are again Botticelli in origin – as is the hand with grapes at the lower left [fig. 4]’ (W. A. Camfield, op. cit., 1979, p. 236). Spanning almost the entire height of the panel, the central figure of Atlas holding a globe on his shoulders was based on the Roman marble of the Greek mythological figure, which Picabia would have seen at the Archaeological Museum in Naples.
While Picabia reached back to Old Masters for inspiration, his art was both revolutionary and iconoclastic at the time, and it continues to influence generations of artists to the present day. In 2016-17 Picabia’s art was the subject of a major and highly acclaimed retrospective held in Zurich and New York, and in the exhibition catalogue Cathérine Hug analyses his impact on contemporary art: ‘Picabia has long been described as an artist’s artist, his influence seen in the work of a long and varied list of talents across the past several decades that defies easy summarization, a forebear of such diverse ate twentieth-century currents as Pop art, Neo-Expressionism, and Conceptual art – indeed, an artist whom Peter Fischli aptly characterizes as “pre-postmodern” and one who continues to fascinate a younger generation of artists today.’
Discussing the reception of Picabia’s work in the 1980s, Hug continues: ‘As the era of postmodernism dawned, the inveterate eclecticism that had marked Picabia’s entire career and which had drawn the ire of numerous critics during his lifetime instead bean to be seen as a personification of the aesthetic discourse that would dominate much of the following two decades’ (C. Hug in Francis Picabia: Our Heads are Round so our Thoughts can Change Direction (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., pp. 294 & 297). Whilst the influence of various groups of works within Picabia’s œuvre is wide ranging, the German artist Sigmar Polke’s works from the 1990s (fig. 3) certainly reflect the inspiration found in the overlapping imagery of Picabia’s Transparences.
In this series of works, Picabia often chose titles based on Biblical characters and Greco-Roman mythology, as well as on names of insects and animals. The Latin word atrata - meaning ‘clothed in black’ - is used to designate several animal species, and may well have been taken from the Atlas de poche des papillons de France, Suisse et Belgique by Paul Girod, a small volume of which Picabia owned a copy and to which he often turned in search of exotic titles.
Picabia created his first Transparences in 1928 and the early examples from this series were exhibited at Théophile Briant’s gallery in Paris in 1928. Having been dismissive of Picabia’s earlier Dada production, the dealer Léonce Rosenberg was highly impressed with these new works. He not only immediately bought three of them, but also commissioned Picabia, alongside Léger and De Chirico, to create decorative panels for his Parisian home. Rosenberg passionately promoted Picabia’s art executed during this period, and it was thanks to his efforts that Atrata was included in two important early exhibitions: in October-November 1930 it featured in Produktion Paris 1930, according to Maria Lluïsa Borràs ‘a very ambitious exhibition’ that included works by Arp, Delaunay, Ernst, Gleizes and Mondrian among others. In December of the same year Rosenberg included Atrata in a show at his own gallery in Paris, Picabia’s first major retrospective covering several decades of his opus. Having been sold at auction in Paris in 1974, Atrata has remained in the same private collection for over forty years.
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