The first few works of this cycle were painted in 1927 and shown at the Galerie Théophile Briant in 1929, the famous exhibition in which Médea was featured. These complex, poetic compositions, which drew from the aesthetic canons of the Italian Renaissance and Greco-Roman Antiquity, immediately captivated a wide audience.
The year 1929, during which Médea was made, marked the beginning of the second period of transparencies, with works of increasing complexity and refinement. As Michel Sanouillet observes, “We must approach the ‘transparencies’ in the following way: they present themselves at first, as an inextricable and more or less graceful interlacing of lines and volumes that one must surrender to appreciating merely as vague impressions or with a feeling of confusion. Gradually however, these groupings both unify and separate, enabling a deeper perception of the painting and pulling us in, in a requisite leisurely manner.”
A work of breathtaking virtuosity, composed of intertwined faces alongside figures of animals and vegetation, Médea depicts one of the most famous ancient myths, that of Jason and Medea. As William Camfield points out, Médea is one of the few transparencies where there appears to be a clear connection between the title and the image. The ram’s head, the dragon, the ancient mask and the numerous snakes that Médea had the power to charm, all allude to this episode of Greek mythology in which Médea, the daughter of King Aeëtes, uses her magical powers to help Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece.
As with most of the transparencies, the work is dotted with several pictorial references. For Medea, Picabia drew more heavily from Sandro Botticelli, his favourite artist. Two of the faces in the composition were thus inspired by Botticelli’s Madonna of the Pomegranate (1497, Florence, Uffizi Gallery) while the features of the third look exactly like those of Venus in Venus and Mars (1483, London, The National Gallery). The roses scattered throughout the composition and the representation of the blast of wind are undoubtedly based on the famous painting The Birth of Venus (1483, Florence, Uffizi Gallery), while the goat’s head, which is visible in the centre of the work, echoes the deer represented by Botticelli in his fresco The Trials of Moses (1481-82, Rome, Sistine Chapel). A composition of exceptional complexity, Médea stands out not only as a magnificent tribute to one of the greatest masters of the Italian Renaissance, but also as a work that provides a total immersion into Francis Picabia’s dreamlike world.
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