Iris, Francis Picabia Transparencies Series



Executed in 1929, Iris is a captivating example of Francis Picabia’s celebrated Transparency paintings, a series of works named for their simultaneous depiction of multiple transparent images, dramatically layered atop one another in an effect reminiscent of multiple-exposure photography. The artist had previously played with superimposition in the illusory cinematographic techniques of his 1924 film, Entr’acte, as well as in his paintings from the Monsters and Espagnoles series, using the effect to plunge his viewers into a hallucinatory, sensual reverie filled with overlapping bodies and converging silhouettes. In paintings such as Iris, rather than using the painting as a window to another world, normalizing the illusionism at play, Picabia sought to stimulate the imagination by creating a surreal inter-lapping of imagery that confounded traditional reading. He traced the genesis of this fascination with the layering of transparent images to a revelatory moment in a café in Marseille where, on the glass of a window, the reflection of the interior appeared superimposed upon the outside view (quoted in D. Ottinger, ed., Francis Picabia dans les collections du Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée d’art Moderne, Paris, 2003, p. 71). Created while the artist was living a hedonistic existence in the South of France, these paintings have been interpreted as witty and disguised critiques of the lifestyle on the Côte d'Azur, contrasting the frivolous, modern reality of the holiday resorts of the Mediterranean with its elegant Classical past.

Picabia drew on a multitude of visual sources for the Transparencies, using prints and reproductions of classical sculpture, Renaissance paintings and Catalan frescoes to build his compositions. Picabia’s son, Lorenzo, recalls his father having ‘a trunkful of art books in his studio,’ from which he most likely appropriated the majority of these images (Lorenzo Everling, quoted in M. L. Borràs, Picabia, transl. by K. Lyons, Paris, 1985, p. 340). Towards the end of the 1920s, the art of antiquity became particularly prominent in the Transparencies, with classical sculpture groups often appearing as the base image upon which the rest of the composition was subsequently built. In Iris, the Hellenistic sculptural group of Pan and Daphnis from the Museum of Naples, in which the god of the woods teaches the young Daphnis to play his pipes, appears to act as the central image over which the rest of the composition converges. Tracing the basic outlines of the sculptural form, Picabia subtly alters the subject, replacing the set of pipes in Daphnis’s hands with a surreal, vacant mask reminiscent of those worn in classical Greek theatre. Although some scholars have seen the use of these classical sources as relating to the retour à l’ordre which had swept through the European art world in the aftermath of the First World War, Picabia’s Transparencies seem to work more as provocative pastiches rather than reverent homages to the past. As he once proclaimed: ‘Our back is enough to contemplate the respectful past’ (Picabia, quoted in S. Pagé & G. Audinet, eds., Francis Picabia: Singulier idéal, exh. cat., Paris, 2003, p. 314).

One of the most striking elements of Iris is the interplay of disembodied hands which weave between and around the different layers of images. In several instances, the outline of a hand is placed in such a way as to create the impression that it is caressing one of the figures, while in certain sections of the canvas they appear to gesture directly at one of the characters. One of the most common motifs to appear in the Transparencies, these hands not only suggest a strange tactility, but also serve to connect each
of the individual layers, often crossing the boundaries of several figures as they weave through the composition. Their presence only adds to the visual riddle, complicating the relationships between the individual figures and confounding our reading of this intricate web of imagery.

As with many of Picabia’s Transparencies, Iris appears to have been made according to a personal code of imagery that only the artist himself could recognise and interpret. Indeed, in the introduction to an exhibition of his work in December 1930, Picabia somewhat humorously declared that they were expressions of ‘inner desire’, ultimately intended to be read by himself alone. Here, the sources for many of the figures included in the composition remain a mystery to the viewer, their forms just as likely to have been plucked from a kitsch contemporary postcard as a Renaissance masterpiece. Chosen for the mysterious effects of their juxtaposition with one another, the layered images in Iris combine to form an enigmatic, dream-like subject. By divorcing his source material from their original narrative and allegorical contexts, the artist forces these figures to enter in to new, mysterious relationships with one another. Creating a labyrinth of forms, Picabia mixes the sacred with the profane, the old with the new, to generate a mischievous work that plays with the viewer’s eye, the density of the overlapping images confounding all attempts to pick apart and understand the fragments of images and narratives that fill the canvas.

Iris was acquired directly from the artist in 1930 by the influential art dealer and gallerist Léonce Rosenberg, who staged an important retrospective of Picabia’s work in his Galerie L’Effort Moderne in December of that year. Rosenberg’s enthusiasm for the Transparencies was reflected by the fact that he commissioned Picabia to create several panels in this style to be included in his ambitious decorative project for his large and elegant flat in the fashionable sixteenth arrondissement. Rosenberg had instigated the project with the intention of making a grand aesthetic statement, bolstering his professional image by dedicating an entire space to new works from artists represented by his gallery. Works by Léger filled the entryway, De Chirico occupied the central hall, while Metzinger took over the lounge. As in Iris, the Transparencies that Picabia contributed to the Rosenberg home were filled with allusions to the art of antiquity, their surfaces rendered in delicate washes of colour to create a fresco-like appearance. Viewed en-masse, these imposing, intricate paintings conjured up a strange, otherworldly atmosphere within the Rosenberg home, their multi-layered superimpositions creating the impression of a continuously expanding space beyond the surface of the walls.

The Transparencies signalled an exciting development in Picabia’s practice where, he claimed, 'all my instincts may have a free course' (Picabia, quoted in W. Camfield, Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, 1979, pp. 233-234). His novel appropriation and subversion of the art of the past to create these personal dream-like worlds was, moreover, a response to what he felt was the increasing monotony of much modern art in Paris. In this, the Transparencies foreshadow techniques employed by many Post-modern artists of the latter half of the Twentieth Century and were to profoundly influence the work of the painter and photographer Sigmar Polke.

Francis 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.

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