Francis Picabia

Conversation I


Not on display

Francis Picabia 1879–1953
Watercolour and graphite on paper
Support: 595 × 724 mm
frame: 648 × 772 × 30 mm
Purchased 1959

Display caption

Picabia associated himself with the subversive, anti-rational Dada movement, and made this work during a visit to Zurich when he first met fellow Dadaists Tristan Tzara and Jean Arp. In inking-up the cogs of a clock (a key Swiss product), Picabia undermined the rational measuring of time upon which the social order was based. Conversation, made three years later, also links the measurable (the carefully delineated stripes) and the sensual (the nude female torsos).

Gallery label, July 2011

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Catalogue entry

Francis Picabia 1879-1953

T00305 Conversation I 1922

Inscribed 'CONVERSATION' t.l. and 'Francis Picabia' b.r.
Watercolour and pencil on card, 23 3/8 x 28 1/2 (59.5 x 72.4)
Purchased from Mme Simone Collinet through the Matthiesen Gallery (Knapping Fund) 1959
Prov: With Mme Simone Collinet (Galerie Furstenberg), Paris, purchased from the artist c.1923-4
Exh: Quelques Oeuvres de Picabia (Epoque Dada 1915-1925), Galerie Artiste et Artisan, Paris, November-December 1951 (not in catalogue); Picabia, Galerie Furstenberg, Paris, June-July 1956 (22); Art Abstrait: Les Premières Générations (1910-1939), Musée d'Art et d'Industrie, Saint-Etienne, April-May 1957 (50, repr.); Francis Picabia 1879-1953, Matthiesen Gallery, London, October-November 1959 (30, repr.); Francis Picabia, Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, March 1964 (27); ICA, London, April 1964 (27); Francis Picabia, Guggenheim Museum, New York, September-December 1970 (76, repr.) as 'Conversation I'; Francis Picabia, Grand Palais, Paris, January- March 1976 (115, repr.)
Lit: Ronald Hunt, 'The Picabia/Breton Axis' in Artforum, V, September 1966, pp.19-20, repr. p.20
Repr: Studio, CLIX, 1960, p.109; Yve-Alain Bois, Picabia (Paris 1975), p.62 in colour

This is one of a small group of watercolours and oils with colour-striped female nudes or abstract shapes superimposed on a black-and-white striped background. The most closely related works are:

'Optophone I' (watercolour, 72 x 60cm)
A single full-length reclining nude, with part of the body painted yellow, against a background of concentric black and white circles, like a target.

'Chariot' (watercolour, 60 x 70cm)
A full-length seated nude with part of the body painted red against a background of vertical black and white stripes of equal width.

'Conversation II' (oil on hardboard, 46 x 61cm)
Four stubby female torsos, viewed from the back and partly painted in different colours, against a background of horizontal black and white stripes of slightly varying widths.

'Volucelle II' (oil on canvas, 198.5 x 249cm)
Eight circular discs of different colours, with clusters of small black rings inside them, against a background of vertical black and white stripes; the black stripes diminishing in width from left to right in a manner very similar to those in T00305.

All these works are undated. 'Optophone I' was the only one included in Picabia's exhibition at the Galerias Dalmau in Barcelona in November-December 1922, which consisted mainly of watercolours all done within the previous few months. It was therefore probably the first of the series and the only one then in existence. The large oil painting 'Volucelle II' was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in February-March 1923. The present work would appear to have been painted shortly after 'Optophone I' and before 'Volucelle II', which has a background which appears to have been based on it, and can therefore probably be dated November or December 1922, or at the very latest, January 1923. Although it is inscribed 'Conversation', it is now known as 'Conversation I' to distinguish it from the later, revised version in oils which is inscribed 'Conversation II'.

Marcel Duchamp, who had himself begun to experiment with optical effects with his 'Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics)' in 1920, wrote of Picabia's 'Optophone I' in his preface to the sale of 80 works by Picabia at the Hôtel Drouot, Paris, on 8 March 1926: 'He seeks optical illusion by means which are largely "black and white": spirals and circles which act on the retina. This amusing branch of physics finds at his hands its aesthetic formulation.'

An optophone is an instrument which converts light variations into sound variations so that a blind person may estimate varying degrees of light through the ear and actually 'read' printed matter. William A. Camfield, who points out that 'Picabia's "Optophone" seems to be a comparable instrument that "converts" electrical energy into sexual energy', writes of 'Conversation': 'Picabia's intentions remain mysterious, but in the headless, limbless figures entitled "Conversation" it is possible to note a taste for ironic contrast which extends to the formal properties of the painting - optical tensions between two and three-dimensional space and contrasts of forms that are organic and abstract, soft and hard, static and moving, positive and negative' (cf. the catalogue of the Guggenheim Museum's Picabia exhibition, pp.34-5 and 119). The 'conversation' alluded to in the title may be the dialogue between these contrasting elements.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.590-1, reproduced p.590


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