Not on display
The term ‘transparency’ has a special reference here to photographic transparencies, reflecting the artist’s interest in photography and film and his preoccupation with notions of optics. In the illusionary quality and optical ambiguity of many of the transparencies Picabia plays on innovations in cinematographic techniques he had explored in 1924 in the film Entr’acte. The collaborative project with director René Clair and composer Eric Satie was produced as a ‘cinematographic intermission’ for Picabia and Satie’s ballet Relâche, and included sequences of image overlay. Picabia’s fascination with film may also be traced back to an earlier date. Writing in 1934, Gertrude Stein recalled Picabia’s description of his early introduction to photography:
Picabia, when he was a young boy, was always with his grandfather ... who was doing experiments with coloured photography at that time ... So they photographed all day and developed all night, and this early experience, so Picabia believes ... has had a great deal to do with the development of modern painting. Picabia got from the constant contact with photography ... something which did give him the idea of transparence and four dimensional painting, and this through him certainly has a great deal to do with everything. Even now in his later painting and his drawing he has achieved a transparence which is peculiarly a thing which has nothing to do with the surface seen.
(Stein quoted in Wilson 1989, p.13.)
Indeed, there is an ethereal quality to the transparencies which seems to evoke something beyond the physical surface of the artwork. This is not only created by the interweaving of linear imagery through which the viewer must visually traverse the compositions, but also Picabia’s unusual layering of paint with other media. In Otaïti he has achieved a sub-aquatic depth to the surface through the dual application of pigment with layers of varnish. The resulting antique-like patina has a watery, translucent appearance which appears to shift between suggestions of the visible and invisible.
Picabia painted Otaïti during the first half of 1930 at the Château du Mai, his house in Cannes in the south of France. It was in Cannes that the work was first exhibited in August of that year, at the Galerie Alexandre III: the painting can be seen in an installation photograph which shows the work hanging alongside other transparencies, all equally large in scale. The imposing canvas of Otaïti is dominated by the figure of a naked, kneeling woman with upraised arms. An over-sized hand – perhaps a reference to Michaelangelo’s image of the hand of God from the Sistine Chapel in Rome – points towards her from the right. A miniature winged horse floats above her, bringing to mind Pegasus, the legendary flying horse of Greek mythology. Born from the blood of the Gorgon Medusa, Pegasus gave his name to a constellation of stars, and perhaps more pertinent to this work, is frequently associated with the arts, due to his creation of a sacred spring dedicated to the Muses. However, despite this possible allusion to Greek myth, the painting offers no clear narrative and like so many of the transparencies it remains enigmatic. As one commentator has noted:
Picabia described the transparencies as spaces where he might express for himself ‘the resemblance of my interior desires’, as paintings ‘where all my instincts may have a free course’. But insofar as is known, he shared not one word of more specific explanation about his intentions, visual sources or titles with anyone, not even close friends and family. Accordingly, never was he more successful in painting for himself than in these works – transparent perhaps in form but veiled in content. (Camfield 1979, pp.233-4)
It is clear that in the project of the transparencies Picabia was intentionally reworking existing imagery. He is known to have had a significant collection of books and journals, including many art historical tomes, and it is likely that many of his images were drawn from these. In recent years art historians have gone far in identifying many of his sources. However, numerous remain unknown and further research is being undertaken to determine the basis for the female nude in Otaïti. Her highly feminised, yet athletic body, red lips and full breasts suggest she is a contemporary woman. Picabia had begun to incorporate glamorised visions of modern woman into his work during the 1920s, and the features of Otaïti’s central character correlate to the fashionable woman’s head Picabia painted over the portrait of The Handsome Pork-Butcher c.1924-6/c.1929-35 (T07108). Her physique also anticipates the kitsch nudes Picabia painted during the 1940s, figures which the artists lifted wholesale from entertainment journals and semi-pornographic magazines such as Paris Plaisirs and Paris Sex Appeal.
In addition to the central female figure, Picabia includes in Otaïti a collection of strangely juxtaposed motifs which form part of the wide vocabulary of signs he used throughout the transparencies. An identical double mask can be found located in exactly the same position on the canvas in Luscunia, c.1929, while an expanded version of the ram’s head is laid over the centre of the composition of Medea, c.1929. Other elements, such as hands, foliage, musical instruments and snake-like forms, all found in Otaïti, also feature regularly in various guises in other works from the transparency period.
Throughout his career, Picabia frequently painted the title of his works on the front of his canvases, and here the title can be seen at the top left-hand corner. This has often been thought to read TAÏTI. However, examination by Tate conservators has confirmed that the inscription reads OTAÏTI, and this title is corroborated by the earliest known written documentation of the painting in a catalogue of an exhibition of Picabia’s work held at the Galerie Georges Bernheim, Paris in 1931. In keeping with the specificity of his sources for the iconography of the transparencies, it is known that Picabia mined his titles from particular volumes (several, for example, are taken from a book on butterflies in Picabia’s possession, Paul Girod’s Atlas de poche des papillons de France, Suisse et Belgique, Paris 1912). However, like the source for the central figure, it is not yet known where Picabia first came across ‘Otaïti’ (an archaic French derivation of the island name Tahiti), nor what prompted him to use it for this particular painting.
Maria Luisa Borras, Picabia, London 1985.
William Camfield, Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, New Jersey 1979.
Sarah Wilson, Francis Picabia: Accommodations of Desire, New York 1989.
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Picabia’s so-called ‘transparency’ paintings – of which Otaïti is a prime example – have not been the subject of much …
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