Picabia was able to fill the composition with movement. He selected imagery which created a dichotomy of stasis and motion. In Les Baigneuses, femmes nues au bord de la, the central figure stands statuesque but intent, whilst behind her a nude is engaged in some unknown activity. Much like Robert Longo would later achieve with his Men in the Cities series, Picabia here creates an image pregnant with motion within the photo-realist composition. Gertrude Stein was so struck by this she commented that Picabia’s work had ‘the feeling of movement inside the painting, not a painting of a thing moving but the thing painted having inside it the existence of movement’ (Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography, Cambridge, 1937, p. 321).
Picabia’s war-year pictures have long held a problematic position within his oeuvre. Due to their overtly Aryan aesthetic, displaying young athletic bodies with an almost kitsch realism, the works bear a relation to the Nazi-authorised propaganda pictures of the early 1940s. Because of stylised realism’s association with Fascist art, critics have often dismissed Picabia—and this series of works in particular—as sympathetic to the regime. However, a critical reappraisal of the series undertaken at the beginning of the 1980s unveiled the artist’s source material. The pornographic magazines from which he took his images flew in the face of the Nazi doctrines and this base culture would have been mired for its degenerate nature in the Third Reich. Michèle Cone concludes that Picabia was so successful at subverting the Fascist art form that it managed to be included in their canon of approved works. In 1983, a group of works from this series was exhibited at the Mary Boon/Michael Werner Gallery in New York where the scholar and critic Robert Rosenblum described them as ‘…a rebellious dissatisfaction with idées reçues of Modern art’s hierarchy’ (quoted in Michèle Cone, Francis Picabia (exhibition catalogue), Mary Boone/Michael Werner Galley, New York, 1983, pp. 226-27).
Perhaps more than any other artist, Francis Picabia was constantly reflecting upon his work and changing its formal elements to reflect his evolving conceptual interests. His defiantly anti-Modernist approach and subversion of classical figurative painting through the use of photography and collage paved the way for a new generation of artists such as Robert Rauschenburg, Eric Fischl and John Currin. His continual evolution and position as one of the most daring and innovative artists of the 20th Century is best described by the artist himself: ‘If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as you change your shirts.’
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