Elle danse, 1948
Olga Mohler Picabia (1905 – 2002), the artist’s wife.
Prof. Enrico Baj (1924 – 2003), Milan, by 1961.
Camillo Grandini, Milan, acquired from the above by 1967.
Private Collection, Italy, by descent.
M. Tapié, 491: 50 Ans de Plaisir, exh. cat., Galerie René Drouin, Paris 1949, p. 5, no. 119.
Documento – Sud, Rassegna di arte e di cultura di avanguardia, Year II, no. 6, 1961.
Picabia, exh. cat., Städtisches Museum, Schloss Morsbroich, Leverkusen, 1967, no. 46.
W. Camfield, Francis Picabia, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1970, p. 44.
W. Camfield, Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, 1979, pp. 270-71, no. 404.
M.-L. Borràs, Picabia, Paris, 1985, p. 453, no. 1074 (illus.)
S. Wilson, ‘The late Picabia: Iconoclast and Saint’, in Picabia 1879-1953, exh. cat., Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 1988, pp. 38-39 (illus.).
Paris, Galerie des Deux Iles, Francis Picabia, œuvres de 1948, 15 Nov. – 4 Dec. 1948, no. 7.
Paris, Galerie René Drouin, 491: 50 Ans de Plaisir, 4 – 26 March 1949, no. 119.
Leverkusen, Städtisches Museum, Schloss Morsbroich, 7 Feb. – 2 April 1967, no. 46; this exhibition later travelled to Eindhoven, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, 21 April – 4 June 1967.
Milan, Palazzo Reale, Jarry e la Patafisica, 27 May – 20 Aug. 1983.
(Possibly) Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle, Francis Picabia, 29 Oct. – 4 Dec. 1983; this exhibition later travelled to Zurich, Kunsthaus, 3 Feb. – 25 March 1984 & Stockholm, Moderna Museet, 7 April – 27 May 1984.
Milan, Studio Marconi, Picabia, Opere 1898-1951, Feb. – March 1986 (curated by Enrico Baj), no. 43.
Nîmes, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nîmes, 11 July – 30 Sept. 1986, no. 131.
(Possibly) Tokyo, Isetan Museum of Art, Francis Picabia, 12 Aug. – 7 Sept. 1999; this exhibition later travelled to Fukushima, Iwaki City Art Museum, 17 Oct. – 14 Nov. 1999 & Osaka, Museum of Art, Kintetsu, 26 Jan. – 9 Feb. 2000.
Francis Picabia was the son of a Cuban-born Spanish father and a French mother. He began his artistic training at the École du Louvre and the École des Arts Decoratifs in 1895, where he studied alongside Braque and under Corman, Carrière, Humbert and Wallet. In response to his grandfather’s remark that the newly invented medium of photography would ultimately replace painting, the young Picabia declared ‘You can photograph a landscape, but not the forms I have in my head’. Beginning in 1902, Picabia entered his Impressionist phase, absorbing the influences of Pissarro and Sisley. He exhibited at the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants, and in 1905 he signed a 3-year contract with Gustave Danthon at the Galerie Haussmann. Early fame and fortune followed quickly, with Picabia lauded as ‘a young artist who perfectly merits his success’ as early as 1905, while at his first solo show in 1907 critics observed: ‘Never would we have dared imagine that M. Picabia could arrive so quickly at this maturity, this mastery.’ In 1909, Picabia broke with Danthon and exhibited at Galerie Georges Petit, and the same year he married his first wife, Gabrielle Buffet. The following year he began attending meetings of the Puteaux Cubists.
Although Elle danse was executed towards the end of Picabia’s career, it relates to his earlier work, and is in fact painted on top of a 1918 Mechanical period composition. This was in no way unusual for Picabia, who often reworked his paintings. The origins of the Mechanical period coincided with Picabia’s arrival in New York in January 1913 to participate in the Armory show. While the most vocal criticism was directed at Marcel Duchamp’s notorious Nu descendant un escalier no. 2, Picabia’s abstract works elicited derisive reviews, with one critic comparing a picture to ‘a cat having fits in a patch of tomatoes’. Regardless of the tenor of the reviews, however, the show earned Picabia a great deal of attention.
Elle danse can be related to Picabia’s 1914 Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie, which depicts vaguely mechanical elements in an abstract composition. It has been suggested that the ‘Udnie’ referenced in the title is Audrey Munson, at the time a famous artist’s model, who also posed for Calder and for civic statues adorning Beaux-Arts buildings around New York City. Munson recalled how she ‘posed for [Picabia] for several days, but never in still position. He had me walk about the studio in different lights, taking different postures. He wanted to paint me in action, he said, not in repose.’ An alternate narrative maintains that the painting was inspired by a Polish dancer on board the steamship that carried Picabia and his wife to New York, Stacia Napierkowska.
Elle danse can also be compared to Picabia’s 1947 composition Bal Nègre, painted as an homage to the artist’s favourite night club in Paris. As Picabia’s biographer William Camfield described the scene, ‘Picabia and his closest friends gathered at that popular nightclub to enjoy the extraordinary Negro dancers and Martinique music, to drink, talk and observe all of Paris in attendance. It was the memory of those evenings which he sought to re-create in the abstract forms, thrashing rhythms, bold colors and sensuous pigments of Bal Nègre.’ Both Bal Nègre and Elle danse are large, bright, dynamic and eye-catching, and both evoke the frenetic environment of a nightclub.
Elle danse was included as number 119 in the 1949 Picabia retrospective, 491: 50 Ans de Plaisir, held in Paris at the Galerie René Drouin in March. A total of one hundred and thirty-six works were included. A magazine published to accompany the show was entitled 491, after Picabia’s own magazine 391 (published between 1917 and 1924). It included a contribution from André Breton, the Surrealist author and poet. Picabia declared to his former partner Germaine, with whom he remained in contact, ‘This will be an extraordinary exhibition. This evening will be the entire year.’ Critic reception seemed to support his immodest evaluation, with one reviewer calling it ‘one of the most attractive, original and instructive shows in Paris’. And Breton referred to Picabia as ‘an explorer of art, revolutionary and non-conformist, always looking for the new and unknown.’
The first owner of this painting was Olga Picabia, née Mohler, Picabia’s second wife and third long-term companion. Picabia and Olga met in 1919 when the Swiss-German Mohler was engaged as nanny to Picabia’s son Lorenzo, whose mother was Germaine Everling, the artist’s companion between 1917 and 1933. Olga joined the Picabia family at the newly-constructed Chateau de Mai, in Mougins (a town where Picasso also lived for a time) in the hills behind Cannes. Picabia and Olga began their affair some three years later, and she became his frequent muse. There was a considerable overlap with Germaine, however. Picabia and Olga did not move in together until 1933, the year he and Germaine finally separated, at which point they relocated to a yacht off the coast of France. They were married in 1940. In September of 1944, after the liberation, Olga was suspected of being an enemy agent and arrested due to her nationality. Picabia likewise fell under suspicion, although he was confined to a hospital in Cannes after suffering a brain haemorrhage. Both were ultimately exonerated, and they returned to Paris in January of 1945.
Elle danse was subsequently owned by the Italian print and collage artist and author Enrico Baj. He was close to the Dada and Surrealist movements, and in 1951 he founded the Arte Nucleare group together with Sergio Dangelo. Although it is not known when this work entered Baj’s personal collection, he was the author of a 1986 book on Picabia and in regular contact with Olga, who presumably either gave or sold Elle Danse to him.
Picabia was a ground-breaking member of the Surrealist group, to the extent that the artist’s close friend Gertrude Stein called him ‘The Leonardo da Vinci of the Movement’. After his death, Breton wrote by way of eulogy ‘Francis…your painting was the succession – often despairing, neronian – of the most beautiful fête that man has ever given himself. An oeuvre based on the sovereignty of caprice, on the refusal to follow, entirely based on freedom, even to displease…only a very great aristocrat of the spirit could dare what you have dared.’
This work is accompanied by a certificate from the Comité Picabia, signed by Ms Beverley Calté, dated 28 March 2018 under reg. no. 732.