Francis Picabia - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 7, 2024 | Phillips

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  • “Picabia painted wonderful women who exude an astonishing sensuality and an indefinable impression that make us sure they could only have been painted by him.”
    —Jacques-Henri Levesque

    Dramatic and darkly beautiful, Untitled (Femme et Fleurs) is particularly elegant example of French-Cuban artist Francis Picabia’s fascinating foray into a more realist, figurative style during the 1940s, coming to auction for the first time having been in the same family since the 1960s when it was acquired from Picabia's former lover and collector Germaine Everling. Focused almost entirely on portraits of beautiful women gleaned from the glossy pages of fashion magazines, erotica, and advertisements and rendered with a precision and clarity that both imitated and recreated the visual qualities of these mass-reproduced found images, these naturalistic portraits shocked audiences well-versed in his more straightforwardly avant-garde gestures. And yet, in turning back to such traditional subjects of the female nude and a close-cropped mode of portraiture characteristic of the Tête de Femmes works and confounding expectations in such a radical manner here, Picabia was perhaps presenting viewers with an even more provocative challenge than before. 


    Picabia and Pin-Ups


    Leaning her weight onto her forearms as if looking out of a window, her head uptilted and cocked slightly to one side, the faraway gaze of the woman grants the work a compelling ambiguity, hinting at the mysterious interiority of this noir beauty. Although the identity of the subject here remains unknown, her dramatic makeup and face-framing curls vividly recall the iconic fashions of the era, immortalised by so-called screen sirens such as Danielle Darrieux, Josette Day, and Hollywood starlet Muriel Evans, both subjects evocatively captured by Picabia during this period. Working from widely circulated studio photographs reprinted across a range of magazines focussed on fashion and film such as Paris Cinéma and Paris Magazine, and more erotic material, known affectionately as ‘magazines de charme’, Picabia generated a hedonistic and glamourous celebration of sensuality and beauty which, in René Magritte’s words ‘escape from any fixed idea [and] inaugurate a new reign of pleasure which must be placed within the limits of our life.’i


    Despite her unmistakably modern confidence and allure, the delicate collection of daisies arranged at the lower edge of the composition also visually recalls Sandro Botticelli’s delicate rendering of flower details throughout his iconic depictions of ideal female beauty in works such as The Birth of Venus and Primavera. A master of the Italian Renaissance, Botticelli’s painting – alongside examples from Romanesque and Classical traditions - had been an important touchstone in the sinuous sense of line and delicate beauty evident in the celebrated Transparencies series that preoccupied Picabia throughout the previous decade, persisting here in the work’s smoothly painted surface, luminescence, and clearly delineated forms. 


    [Left] Sandro Botticelli, Primavera (detail), 1477-1478, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Image: Photo Scala, Florence - courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Culturali e del Turismo
    [Right] Cover of Paris Sex Appeal. Image: © Serge Jacques / DACS, London 2024

    As the storm clouds of war started to gather over Europe once again in the closing years of the 1930s, Picabia’s hitherto social and glamourous life in the Midi became more unstable and peripatetic. Where there had once been yachts, endless string of soirées, and glamourous get-togethers, there was now rationing, dispersal, and anxiety as the war advanced daily. It is perhaps unsurprising that these years also marked such a remarkable shift in Picabia’s practice and while these portraits certainly capture a sultry glamour that must have seemed out of reach during these tumultuous years, they also evoke an a distinctly Noirish atmosphere well-suited to these tense times.


    Photography and the Modern Woman 


    The distinctive atmosphere and dark eroticism of Picabia’s nudes and Tête de Femmefrom these war years can be explained somewhat through artist’s long-standing interest in photography and photographic techniques. Arguably one of the most consistent aspects of this infamously inventive artist’s practice, an application of photographic logic informed aspects of both his early Dada experiments and the superimpositions of the Transparencies and is evident again here too in the distinctive contrasts, close-cropping, and stark lighting used to such powerful effect in film noir and the studio photography of the era. As Michel Perrin eloquently put it the ‘pictures Picabia was painting in March 1942 were so precise, with colours so true to life, that the acerbic critics exclaimed “But this is photography.’ii Working directly from found images of movie stars, cabaret stars, and models in this manner Picabia transgressed and blurred the line between high and low, subverting ideas around artistic originality that had proved so central to early modernism and the avant-garde and pointing the way for artists such as Andy Warhol and Richard Prince. 


    Alongside photography, Picabia’s fascination with the figure of the ‘Modern Woman’ was another consistent theme throughout his career, one that he returned to with renewed focus in these 1940s works. An early mecanamorphic portrait of American journalist Anges E. Meyer from Picabia’s New York Dada days exemplifies the artist’s playful erotic vision. In the drawing first published in Alfred Steiglitz’s 291 magazine, the unnamed Meyer is imagined here as a sparkplug, a symbol of sexual modernity capable of both igniting the imaginations of men and keeping them perpetually satisfied, themes returned to and developed in this important series. 


    [Left] Francis Picabia, Portrait d'une jeune fille américaine dans l'état de nudité, 1915, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
    [Right] Francis Picabia, Femmes au bulldog, circa 1941, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris

    Through vivid colouring, rich, velvety tones, and a confident sense of line, Picabia brought these modern women into striking life, the daisies here both anticipating the artist’s slightly later ‘flower period’, where the daisy motif was extended across the whole of the composition in several works, anticipating his turn back to a mode of abstraction after 1945. As Jean van Heecken eloquently put it in relation to the nudes from this series, the women of these wartime compositions, ‘life-size and almost photographic in their realism’ have a magnetic appeal ‘thanks to the strangely natural quality of their gestures, colouring that is at once normal and unexpected, and their inherent haunting mystery. Sumptuous in their material expression, they are among Picabia’s most extraordinary pictures […] they could be called presences.’iii


    Collector’s Digest


    • Restlessly inventive, Francis Picabia developed many different and highly distinct visual styles throughout his career. A leading figure of both Dada and Surrealism in the early decades of the 20th century, by the 1940s Picabia had turned to a strikingly realist style, explored primarily through portraits of women borrowed from magazines and printed media.  


    • An exhibition of Picabia’s drawings, Francis Picabia, Women: Works on paper 1902-1950 is currently on view with Michael Werner Gallery in London. 


    • The present work is coming to auction for the first time, having been held in the same family collection since the 1960s. 


     René Magritte, exh. cat., 1946

    ii  Michel Perrin, quoted in Maria Lluïsa Borràs, Picabia, London, 1985, p. 423. 

    iii  Jean van Heeckeren, quoted in Willaim Camfield, eds., Francis Picabia: Catalogue Raisonné Volume IV, 1940-1953, London, 2022, p. 44. 

    • Provenance

      Collection of Germaine Everling-Picabia, Cannes
      Private Collection, London (acquired from the above in 1964)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Literature

      William A. Camfield, Beverley Calté, Candace Clements and Arnauld Pierre, Francis Picabia: Catalogue Raisonné Volume IV, 1940-1953, Belgium, 2022, no. 1820, pp. 280-281, 470 (illustrated, p. 281)

    • Artist Biography

      Francis Picabia

      Few members of the 20th Century avant-garde are as paradoxical as Francis Picabia. Though best known today for his work as a Dadaist, his oeuvre is characterized by the many disparate styles he switched embrace over the course of his fifty-year career. He first garnered attention for late Post-Impressionist works done in the style of Paul Signac but later assumed a Cubistic style as he participated in the advent of abstraction. Picabia then developed a more radical aesthetic through his friendships with leading members of the avant-garde like Marcel Duchamp, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Man Ray, creating mechanistic anatomies and Dadaist works that integrate text and refined abstract forms. He flirted next with Surrealism, creating dreamlike strata of layered imagery and later experimented with intentionally garish works based on found photos before rounding out his career by returning to expressions of pure abstraction. The only constant in Picabia’s career was his unwillingness to remain the same. 

      Picabia’s work has been widely celebrated during and after his lifetime with several significant retrospectives, including a landmark 2016 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Picabia’s work is held in the permanent collections of Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, Tate, London, and the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris.  

      View More Works


Untitled (Femme et Fleurs)

signed ‘Francis Picabia’ upper right
oil on cardboard laid on canvas
75.6 x 52.8 cm (29 3/4 x 20 3/4 in.)
Painted circa 1942-1943.

Full Cataloguing

£400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for £533,400

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 7 March 2024