Focus on Francis Picabia

[27 Nov 2018]

Enigmatic, paradoxical, unclassifiable, the work of Picabia was a key element in the strong wind of change that emerged in the early 20th century, especially through the Dada movement. A mainstay of the Western art market, Picabia’s work has never been subject to any major price hikes, but his prices have been progressing at a calm and stable pace.

« Funny Guy »

Born in Paris in 1879, Francis PICABIA began his career by studiously copying the works owned by his father (including paintings by Félix Ziem and Ulpiano Checa). “We sold the original paintings and replaced them with my copies… Nobody realized, so that’s how I discovered my vocation”. Whether or not this anecdote is true, it illustrates the artist’s capacity for mischievousness and provocation! The remark dates from 1923 when the wind of Dada was still blowing on the Parisian art scene. Underneath the baby-talk onomatopoeia of the term “Dada” there was of course a mosaic of forces trying to bring life back into art by making a clean sweep of the past. Dada’s principal catalyst, Marcel DUCHAMP, believed it was essential to break with conventions in the most irreverent way possible, to destroy the myth of the creative artist and accept that “it’s the looker who makes the painting”… Duchamp, like Man Ray, had a considerable influence on Picabia’s career, and the three artists formed a deep and lasting friendship and shared a common taste for word games and humour.

Much appreciated in New York

Before his adventure at the heart of the avant-garde, Picabia had a sensitive and even emotional approach to painting. At an early age he discovered Alfred Sisley and Camille Pissarro and produced hundreds of Impressionist paintings. These works of late Impressionism regularly appear on the market, especially in London and Paris, but fetch much lower prices than his Dada period works, which dominate the demand for his signature. Indeed, Picabia’s prices are much like his personality… not smooth. The substantial price differentials on Picabia’s works reflect the diverse styles he adopted during his lifetime.

Francis Picabia’s life was certainly not a ‘long calm river’. He was constantly seeking new paths and breaking with previous styles. He appears to have traversed and abandoned Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Orphism, Dadaism (member of the Section d’Or (Golden ratio), Surrealism (with his Transparences) and Realist Figuration during the war years, before returning to abstraction in his later years.… he was also the ‘author’ of various written and drawn scandals. A frequent traveller, especially to New York, his energy and hunger for change was much appreciated by Americans in the second decade of the 20th century… before conquering the French. In fact, Picabia was very quickly celebrated as a figurehead of the European avant-garde by New York’s cultural bigwigs. A century later, Picabia’s work still causes a sensation in New York. Two years ago (November 2016 – March 2017) the MoMA organised a fascinating retrospective with works mainly from American collections.

Picabia had greater difficulty breaking into the French market… considered too destabilizing! In 1921, the jury of the Salon des Indépendants refused to exhibit L’oeil cacodylate, a concentrate of signatures and comments on a canvas. To critics who said it wasn’t a painting, Picabia retorted “My painting is framed…is made to be hung on the wall and to be looked at; it can therefore be nothing other than a painting. If L’oeil cacodylate failed to convince when it was produced, today it hangs on a highly prestigious wall in the permanent collection of the Pompidou Center in Paris …

Today, Picabia’s best works sell in Paris and New York with the Americans gradually gaining ground. In 2000, the two marketplaces were neck and neck, but France’s share has since contracted to around a quarter in favour of the United States. While New York is considered more attractive for ‘high-end’ works (the most expensive), the French market is more interesting in terms of supply. More than half of Picabia’s works sold each year sell in France, with drawings more common than canvases. The drawings represent a good place to start for young collectors and lots of his original sheets are available for under $3,000. Others fetch more than $20,000 and some even reach beyond $100,000 if the subject is a portrait d’Espagnole or a Transparence. Picabia’s protean work is continuing its path on the international market with a slow but constant price evolution. Since 2000 his price index shows an increase of +393%.