For some time the work was thought to belong to Picabia's Dada period (c.1915-21); indeed, the canvas is dated 1921 on the stretcher. However, the work appears to have been one of a group of paintings with collaged elements made between 1924 and 1926, in which Picabia lampooned traditional art and, through using everyday real objects, aimed to integrate the spheres of art and everyday life. Although many of these collage-paintings of the mid-1920s have been mistakenly antedated, experts now agree that, in comparison with earlier Dada works, they have much simpler subjects, are executed in a more direct and sensuous manner, and demonstrate a gentler humour.
It is possible that this work was intended as a satirical portrait of the prominent French intellectual and politician Raymond Poincaré, Member of the French Academy, President of the French Republic 1913-20 and Prime Minister in 1922-4 and 1926-9. Certainly, the painting was described as such in a letter of 1926 by the artist El Lissitzky who included the work in an exhibition he organised in Dresden in that year. (A photograph of the work as installed in this exhibition is reproduced in El Lissitzky 1890-1941: Retrospektive, exhibition catalogue, Sprengel Museum, Hanover, January-April 1988, p.48.) If this work was indeed a satirical portrait of Poincaré, Picabia may have intended the work to echo the sentiments expressed by the leader of the Surrealist movement André Breton who wrote in 1926: 'We consider the presence of M. Poincaré at the head of the French government to be a serious obstacle to all serious thought, an almost gratuitous insult to the spirit and a ferocious joke which should not be allowed to pass.' (quoted in Maria Lluïsa Borras, Picabia, London 1985, p.292). However, in 1927 the painting was exhibited at the Galerie Van Leer, Paris, simply as Portrait. It is therefore not clear how seriously or for how long Picabia himself regarded the work as a portrait of Poincaré.
By the time of the 1926 Dresden exhibition the work had acquired a distinctive frame made with sandpaper and corrugated cardboard. This was designed by Pierre Legrain, who made a number of unusual frames for Picabia in this period. In 1928 the painting and its frame were reproduced in the British periodical Artwork. An accompanying article commented on the work: 'Picabia's use of materials other than oil-paint, as in the portrait reproduced, with its combs, pins, etc., surely needs no defence. It is a trick, as oil-painting itself was a trick when first used. Constant renewal of technique is one of the principal means by which an artist escapes the prison of his own style, as much a necessity as escape from the prison of another's style.'
Some years later - it is not known exactly when - Picabia reworked the whole image. He pulled off all the collaged elements except the measuring tape, exposing in the process areas of bare canvas. He then painted the man's features in black, replicating the shapes of the original collaged elements, and stuck on new, larger combs in the area of the man's hair. Most dramatically, he painted in outline over the man's face the head and hands of a glamorous woman, with blue eyes and full red lips. Such overlapping of different images was a feature of Picabia's 'Transparency' paintings, the first of which date from the late 1920s. This technique allowed Picabia to create complex works, evocative at times of dream-like states of mind. In the case of this work, the two images of the man and the woman occupy the same space but nonetheless remain separate and incongruous.
It is known that this process of repainting was completed by mid-1935: a photograph of Picabia's studio, taken in the summer of that year, shows the work in its revised form but still with the original Legrain frame (now lost). Strangely, the work in its original state was reproduced in the French review XXe Siècle in May 1938, without its original frame and wrongly dated 1915. It acquired its present title by March 1949 when it was exhibited at the Galerie René Drouin, Paris.
With its layering of different images and combination of styles, The Handsome Pork-Butcher resists straightforward interpretation. To avoid the trap, as he saw it, of repeating himself, Picabia made many distinct shifts in style over his career, and chose to reinterpret and renew past work by repainting many of his old canvases. Two other paintings by Picabia in the Tate's collection, The Fig-Leaf, 1922, and Portrait of a Doctor, 1935-8, for example, were either totally or partially repainted. William Camfield, author of many texts on the artist, has described Picabia's decision to repaint this particular work as a dumbfounding, and essentially dadaist, 'act of self-liberation' (Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, New Jersey 1975, p.220).
William Camfield, Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, New Jersey 1975
On page 220, note 16, Camfield writes that this painting was probably exhibited in the 1927 show as 'Combs, Needles, Rubbers and Feathers'. The work was reproduced in Artwork with this title, but this seems to have been simply a mistake. The title has been attributed to another work (repr. Borràs no.50), which, unlike this portrait, incorporated all these items, including feathers.
Maria Lluïsa Borras, Picabia, London 1985