Tracing the line : Francis Picabia's Transparencies in context



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Following his 1924 break with the Paris avant-garde, Francis Picabia (1879-1953) decamped to the French Riviera and soon began work on his radically new Transparency paintings. This series, which occupied Picabia from approximately 1928 to 1933, drew on classical imagery of biblical and mythological subjects, layering disparate human forms and natural motifs in sensuous compositions remarkable for their ambiguous pictorial space and sinuous lines. The Transparencies' resistance to narrative or allegory--notwithstanding their apparent clarity of reference--parallels the paintings' evasion of formal interpretation in spite of their classical beauty; both of these characteristics have made Picabia's Transparencies one of his most inscrutable and misunderstood bodies of work. To avoid treating the Transparencies as a non sequitur or as a conservative abandonment of earlier modernist goals, it is important to understand the sources of the concepts underpinning these works but originating in Picabia's earlier Cubist and Dada periods. Dimensionality, appropriation, figuration, and a rigorous commitment to individualism are all themes from Picabia's acclaimed work in the 1910s and early 1920s that continue into the Transparencies. Particularly relevant are the multivalent interpretations of the spatial fourth dimension--scientific, philosophical, and occult--that Picabia had first encountered in the context of Cubism and the Stieglitz Circle and, later, in his friend Marcel Duchamp's optical experiments. In the Transparencies Picabia's layered outlines both deny linear perspective and suggest projections of interior worlds. In 1936, Picabia affirmed his interest in the fourth dimension, referring specifically to the Transparencies' superimposition at the time he signed Charles Sirató's "Manifeste Dimensioniste." Picabia's visual synthesis of decades of avant-garde concerns in the Transparencies appealed to the American expatriate writer Gertrude Stein, who became one of Picabia's closest friends and confidantes in the early 1930s after she saw his recent paintings. Stein's commentary on Picabia's work and their friendship in "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" and "Everybody's Autobiography" reveals the painter's impact on Stein at a turning point in her career, but also elucidates their shared search for new verbal and visual expressions of the human figure and higher dimensionality.