Francis Picabia

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Francis Picabia with his Danse de Saint-Guy [1919], 1922. [1] [2]
Born January 22, 1879(1879-01-22)
Paris, France
Died November 30, 1953(1953-11-30) (aged 74)
Paris, France
Web Dada Companion, Wikipedia

Francis Picabia (born Francis-Marie Martinez de Picabia, 22 January 1879 – 30 November 1953) was a French avant-garde painter, poet and typographist. After experimenting with Impressionism and Pointillism, Picabia became associated with Cubism. His highly abstract planar compositions were colourful and rich in contrasts. He was one of the early major figures of the Dada movement in the United States and in France. He was later briefly associated with Surrealism, but would soon turn his back on the art establishment.

Life and work[edit]

Francis Picabia was born in Paris to a Spanish father and French mother, both of whom came from wealthy, bourgeois families. He grew up in the household of his mother's family and was raised primarily by his father and maternal grandfather after his mother passed away. Picabia was intent on painting, and in 1895 he entered the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs. His early paintings were of Spanish figures and landscapes. By 1902 he had come under the influence of the post-impressionist painters Alfred Sisley and Camille Pissarro and painted in this style until 1909, when his encounter with cubism led him to reevaluate his work. From 1909, to 1912 he experimented with various combinations of cubism, fauvism, and orphism. In 1913, due to his independent financial means, Picabia was able to accompany his works to the Armory Show in New York, where his abstract paintings and radical aesthetic theories gained him considerable attention. He and his wife, Gabrielle Buffet, stayed there until April, becoming good friends with Alfred Stieglitz, who opened a one-man show of Picabia's works at his gallery, 291. The year between the Picabias' return to Paris and the outbreak of World War I was spent in the company of the lively Parisian avant-garde and was especially productive for Picabia.

When war was declared, Picabia was briefly in uniform, as the French prepared for a possible assault by the Germans on Paris. Through family connections, he was reassigned as chauffeur to a general who participated in the government's temporary retreat to Bordeaux. In early 1915 Picabia faced being assigned to the infantry and again drew on family connections to serve on a military assignment to the Caribbean. When his ship stopped over in New York, he abandoned his mission, becoming a deserter. Although Buffet arrived in the fall of 1915 to escort him to Panama to fulfill his duty, his military status remained unresolved until the autumn of 1917, when Buffet arranged a passport for him to return to France.

For the next several years, Picabia went back and forth across the Atlantic, spending two significant periods of time in New York, first from 1915 to 1916 and again for the greater part of 1917, interrupted by a stay in Barcelona. In New York Picabia developed the mechanomorphic style of abstraction he related directly to his arrival in America, when, as he says, "it flashed on me that the genius of the modern world is machinery." In August 1915 a series of Picabia's mechanical portraits depicting himself and his American friends as technical apparatuses was published in 291. The mechanomorphic paintings exhibited in January 1916 at the Modern Gallery developed a theme that had already appeared in the mechanical portraits: the analogy of human, especially feminine, sexuality with the functioning of a machine.

During his stay in Barcelona in early 1917, Picabia published the first issue of his magazine 391, named in homage to Stieglitz' 291. Over the next seven years, another eighteen issues of 391 appeared, published wherever Picabia lived at the moment, and often in collaboration with artists in New York, Zurich, and Paris. Already positioned as an international forum, the magazine gained circulation through friends and like-minded artists who frequently exchanged publications. Beginning with Picabia's sardonic attacks on the artistic and literary establishment of Paris in the first issue, 391 served as a platform not only for his poetry, but also for his acerbic criticism. In its determinedly independent stance, 391 also represented Picabia's free and sometimes dangerous disregard for nationalistic affiliations.

After a stay of three weeks in Zurich in early 1919, during which he collaborated on the publication of Dada 4-5 with Tristan Tzara and edited the eighth number of 391, Picabia returned to Paris to become one of Dada's leading protagonists. His mechanomorphic paintings, exhibited at the Salon des indépendants in January 1920, established a visual identity for Dada art in Paris and set a precedent for the public controversy and agitation that would accompany nearly all of Picabia's Dada activities. Even before L'Oeil cacodylate [Cacodylic Eye], a collaborative work consisting of the signatures and graffiti of over fifty of Picabia's friends and fellow artists, was exhibited at the 1921 Salon d'automne, rumors had circulated about the explosiveness of Picabia's intended submissions. His virulent pictorial and literary attacks on art, society, and religion made him the target of the press and of Salon committees, with whom he was happy to engage by writing public letters of protest and distributing inflammatory handbills at the doors of the Salon.

During 1921 and 1922, Picabia gradually became disenchanted with the feuds taking place among the Paris dadaists (largely the consequence of disagreements between Tzara and André Breton) and published a series of renunciations of the movement, devoting a special issue of 391 to insulting those who sustained it. Picabia continued to participate sporadically in the Parisian avant-garde, collaborating on projects for film and ballet. In the twenties and thirties, with the exception of one group of abstract works, he painted figurative pictures in many different styles, some of which self-consciously appropriated the art of the past. Throughout this period, Picabia lived primarily in Cannes, settling again in Paris after World War II. Toward the end of his life, he suffered several strokes, and he declined steadily before he died in 1953. (Source)


  • editor, 391, 19 numbers, 1917-1924. Magazine. (French)


  • William A. Camfield, Francis Picabia, New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1970. (English)
  • Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, ed. Anne Umland, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2016. [3] [4] (English)


  • The Artwork Caught by the Tail: Francis Picabia and Dada in Paris, MIT Press, 2007, 496 pp. [5] (English)

See also[edit]