Tate conservator Annette King on the two different lives of this picture – The Fig Leaf by Francis Picabia:
It was painted first of all in 1921 and if you look very carefully at the surface of the painting you can see that there's a different image beneath the one that you see now.
At the top of the painting you can see two circles – a smaller one within a larger one. From the base of the circle a line comes down, through the figure's raised ankle, and there's another small circle which has a sort of fan-belt around it. And then it comes down to the lower left corner and if you look very carefully from the side you might be able to see a large hand holding the line as if it was drawing. This painting was called 'Les Yeux Chauds' or 'Hot Eyes'! And was a critique of the art establishment in 1921. It was inscribed with the words: 'Homage to Franz Jourdan' – who was the president of the Autumn Salon – 'Thanks to the Autumn Salon', rather ironically, and with a touch of farce he wrote: 'The onion has the force!'
There are only black and white photographs of the original painting so one of the surprising things we discovered in examining this painting is that actually it was probably very brightly colored. If you look at the left-hand edge, just inside the frame, you can see traces of turquoise paint. The hand can be seen in x-ray but also there's a tiny loss in the black of the ball which shows it was a bright pink colour.
In 1922 he painted over that first painting and we have the image that we see today. It was based on an artist called Ingres who painted a painting of 'Oedipus and the Sphinx' in 1808. Picabia takes the image of Oedipus – leaning on a boulder – but subverts it: so instead of having the left leg of the figure on the boulder, he puts the right leg up and save for the fig leaf that would have meant his genitals would have been on show.
The technique of the painting is very interesting. Surprisingly, when Picabia re-designed the painting instead of painting it all white first and then painting the figure on top, it seems he painted the figure first in the black paint. The white background was then painted up to and around the whole of the figure, the ball and the black line at the base. When that was dry Picabia painted the lettering. He then added another white layer which he then carefully painted all around the letters as well. And there are places you can see the white slightly overlaps the black but generally it's done with very great care.
At some point after this stage the painting has got very badly damaged – and if you look at the lower half of the painting you can see two large areas of tears. And Picabia instead of having these repaired just decided to paint over them – again with a layer of white.
So this painting is really a series of layers of Picabia's work. It's a very interesting look back on various areas of his life and the way he carried the painting through with him in his career.