(Arnauld Pierre in Francis Picabia, singulier idéal (exhibition catalogue), p. 279, translated from the French)
Executed circa 1925-26, Couple amoureux belongs to one of the most celebrated series of works in Francis Picabia’s œuvre: the Monstres. Dubbed the ‘Monster’ paintings by Marcel Duchamp, the series is notable for Picabia’s preoccupation with rhythm and symbols which are given precedence over and above any other pictorial element, including line, mass and colour. Unrestrained by the rules of human and animal anatomy, the fantastical deformations and distortion of features in the works that ensued were utterly unlike anything that came before.
The ‘Monster’ series also marked an important return to the medium of painting for Picabia. Having broken off from the official Surrealist movement, Picabia left Paris in 1925 and moved to the Midi, where he built the Château de Mai. Here, he abandoned the experiments with various media and techniques that had characterised his Dada years and spent his days in the château’s vast studio painting with great verve in both oil and Ripolin. Taking inspiration from themes that abounded in popular imagery at the time, Picabia reimagined romantic motifs into more subversive and often provocative compositions that arrest the gaze. The present work belongs to a group of ‘Couples’, highly stylised depictions of men and women, often embracing, that, as Maria Lluïsa Borràs notes, resemble stills advertisements from contemporary films: ‘This protracted series of couples transformed into notable examples of signic automatism may have had its origin in the film and play reviews that filled so many pages of Comoedia, which were nearly always illustrated by photographs of the two leading characters in the work under review – almost invariably represented with their heads very close together’ (Maria Lluïsa Borràs, Picabia, London, 1985, p. 290). Other influences include Old Master paintings that Picabia returned to at this time as well as ancient frescoes, such as those displayed in the collections at the Museo Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (fig. 2). No doubt fascinated by the distortions that resulted to figures depicted in flattened planes and the rhythm of the compositions that were unrestricted by the rules of naturalistic representation, Picabia seems to have sought to emulate their exaggerated features, notably the recurrent sign of an eye.
In the present work, the artist uses warm pink tones to emphasise the couple’s passionate aura whilst behind them, an intricate pattern of lines and shapes—in greens, blues and yellows—blend subtly with other graphic elements, situating the elegant silhouettes within a pastoral landscape. The simplified forms and lines painted in black and white and surrounded by bright colours are used to signify various elements of the composition, a style that came to be known as signic automatism. Freeing his hand from all control by reason, Picabia submitted himself to the rhythm of line, mass and colour. The multiple contours that emanate from the couple’s heads further resemble representations of an “exteriorisation of sensibility”, which Picabia likely encountered thanks to his contemporary Marcel Duchamp’s fascination with the illustrated drawings of occult researcher Albert de Rochas. Although Picabia continued to work in the field of automatism, however, most recent critics, including Bernard Noël warn against any anachronistic Surrealist reading of Picabia’s experimental lines. Instead, he argues, Picabia’s work of this period was distinguished by its associative-destructive practise, which differs to the Surrealists’ aims in that ‘automatism aims to translate the workings of the mind and thereby benefits from a deliberate mental orientation, while Picabia’s works abandon themselves to incoherence, surrendering themselves to destiny to provoke the unconscious.’ (quoted in Andrew Rothwell, ‘“Je détruis les tiroirs du cervau” : Reading Incoherence in Picabia and Automatic Writing’ in Dada and Beyond, New York, 2015, vol. I, p. 226, translated from the French).
Picabia’s highly revolutionary and radical practice had an immediate and profound effect on Pablo Picasso who had spent much of the summer of 1925 with Picabia and his family. During this summer, Picasso instantly adopted Picabia’s use of crude paints such as Ripolin enamel, and applied the figurative assemblage-like language of the Monstres to some of his most celebrated works, including Les Trois danseuses (1925) and Le Baiser (1925). Maria Lluïsa Borràs emphasises Picabia’s influence on Picasso’s own visual and aesthetic ideas : ‘The critic writing for Cahiers d'Arts, a review very close to Picasso, who revealed the influence of the latter on Picabia, could not see that our painter was in fact fifteen years ahead of the creator of the Demoiselles d'Avignon, who would later take inspiration from works by Cranach, Altdorfer, Poussin and Courbet. He was indeed ahead of Picasso, who—in the 1950s—went on to transform works by El Greco, Delacroix, Velàzquez and Manet using a process that was not fundamentally different from the one employed by Picabia in the 1920s’ (Maria Lluïsa Borràs, Picabia, Paris, 1985, pp. 292-93).
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