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Impressionist and Modern Art / FRANCIS PICABIA (1879-1953) L'église de Montigny, effet d'automne (Painted in 1908)

Lot 25
L'église de Montigny, effet d'automne
11 October 2018, 17:00 BST
London, New Bond Street

£350,000 - £550,000

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L'église de Montigny, effet d'automne
stamped with the artist's signature, inscribed and dated 'l'église de Montigny, effet d'automne 1908' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
65 x 81cm (25 9/16 x 31 7/8in).
Painted in 1908


Private collection (probably acquired directly from the artist circa 1910).
Anon. sale, Sotheby's, New York, 12 May 1993, lot 153.
Private collection, Milan (until 1998).
Private collection, Zurich.

Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, Exposition de tableaux par F. Picabia, 17 - 30 March 1909, no. 6.

W. A. Camfield, B. Calté, C. Clements & A. Pierre, Francis Picabia, catalogue raisonné, Vol. I, 1989 - 1914, Brussels, 2014, no. 355 (illustrated p. 283).

Picabia lived many artistic lives throughout his career. He is perhaps best known for his Dada period, but he was also a major contributor to the Surrealist movement (collected by André Breton himself), was a pioneering abstract painter, as well as a participant of Art Informel. What is perhaps less well-known are Picabia's exceptional Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist paintings from the early twentieth century. Indeed, even the artist's friends were surprised to discover this chapter in his oeuvre. As William Camfield rightfully points out, 'virtually every artist who contributed to 'modern' art during the first decade of the twentieth century passed through an Impressionist or Neo-Impressionist phase in his career;' but what distinguishes Picabia, is 'the fact that for him, Impressionism was not merely a passing phase but a major period' (W. A. Camfield, Francis Picabia His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, New Jersey, 1979, p. 8).

During his lifetime Picabia's Impressionist period afforded him critical acclaim and financial success. While somewhat eclipsed in recent decades by his Dada and Surrealist activities, the Impressionist paintings are now receiving the institutional and commercial attention that they deserve, not simply in recognition of the consummate skill with which they were executed, but also as a key stage in the establishment of Picabia's unique artistic voice.

L'église de Montigny, effet d'automne was painted in the autumn of 1908 at a pivotal moment in his early career. By this point, Picabia had already exhibited throughout Europe and counted some of the most illustrious public figures in France among his patrons and collectors. A highly successful show at the fashionable Galerie Hausmann in 1905 had launched the young artist into prominence, where he received almost universal praise for his Impressionist landscapes reminiscent of Alfred Sisley and Camille Pissarro. Commenting on the reception of the exhibition the Le Figaro stated 'There are new exhibitions every day, but not all are lucky enough to draw the crowds, as has been the case with the show of landscapes by M. Picabia, which has attained the proportions of an important event. Only a week ago those who follow the Salons in a casual way, paying no attention to works by artists they do not know, would have said: 'Picabia? Who is he?' But now that this painter has exhibited sixty-odd works at the Galerie Hausmann it is a very different story. One hears praises on all sides; everyone wants to have seen him and many claim to have discovered him' (M. L. Borràs, Picabia, London, 1985, p. 49).

By 1908 however, Picabia was exploring new possibilities in his art, a pursuit which coincided with his chance introduction to the young musician Gabrielle Buffet in September of that year. Gabrielle was to play a critical role in Picabia's conceptualisation of his painting at this juncture. She had a precocious musical talent and, following her training in Paris, had travelled to Berlin to advance her studies. It was here that she was exposed to radical ideas which emphasised the importance of personal freedom in the composition of music as opposed to conventional practice and the dictates of the academy.

Their meeting was opportune. As Gabrielle recalled, Picabia spoke ardently about his frustrations with painting at this time 'declaring that it in fact bored him' and that he desired 'another sort of painting...[one in which] Forms and colours [are] freed from their sensorial attributes; a kind of painting that would reside in pure invention and would re-create forms according to one's own will and one's own imagination' (Gabrielle Buffet quoted in M. L. Borràs, ibid, p. 53). Gabrielle provided Picabia with the stimulus to strike out in a new direction with his painting. Through the course of their conversations in the autumn of 1908 (no doubt propelled by the theories of her musical instruction), she helped to reinvigorate Picabia's practice, and it was at this moment that he began to paint his Neo-Impressionist canvases.

It was through the work of Paul Signac that Picabia first began to employ the Divisionist method, moving away from the feathery brushwork of Impressionism towards a more experimental formal approach. Picabia had in fact met Signac during a visit to St Tropez, where just a few years earlier Henri Matisse had also succumbed to the Neo-Impressionist technique under the influence of Signac and Henri Edmond-Cross - a sojourn that culminated in his great masterpiece, Luxe, calme et volupté (1904). In the same way, Picabia began to simplify his compositions, breaking down the paint surface into uniform blocks of colour and infusing old sites with a newfound sense of luminosity.

The relinquishment of his successful Impressionist style was a bold move toward authenticity. It precipitated a violent break with Galerie Hausmann and a termination of his contract. A hasty auction was arranged at the behest of the galley at the Hôtel Drouot on the 8th March 1909 in which their Impressionist stock of over a hundred paintings was effectively disposed of. Fortunately, Picabia found in Galerie Georges Petit a willing outlet for his new work and, just one week after the Hôtel Drouot auction, Georges Petit held a solo exhibition which showcased his latest canvases, 'announcing, quite as glamorously as the auction, that the painter of 19th Century landscapes was no more' (M. L. Borràs, ibid, p. 54).

L'église de Montigny, effet d'automne was featured in this landmark exhibition and is a consummate, early example of Picabia's Post-Impressionist style. Painted at the same time as his meeting with Gabrielle Buffet, it depicts the church of Montigny bathed in autumnal sunlight through the newly adopted Neo-Impressionist technique, whereby the scene is transformed into a mosaic of horizontal and vertical lozenges of pure colour. Yet, in contrast to the orderly process of optical mixing advocated by Paul Signac and Georges Seurat, L'église de Montigny, effet d'automne is galvanised by an expressivity and boldness of palette which has more in common with the seminal Neo-Impressionist work which heralded the radical intensity of Fauvism - Matisse's Luxe, calme et volupté, than Signac's delicate and subdued canvases.

In accordance with the Fauvist technique, Picabia also appears to structure the composition according to his visual imagination rather than depicting a more immediate representation of the precise location. The harmony and balance of the composition, with the church elegantly framed by tress on alternate sides of the meandering river, appears carefully composed. Picabia was well-known to work up sketches in the studio, or to use photographic postcards rather than painting en plein air, a method which enabled him to be more inventive in the final realisation his scenes.

From 1908 Picabia began to create paintings which appear as hybrids of the Fauvist and Neo-Impressionist style. At the same time, Picabia also retained a lingering Impressionist emphasis in his paintings as witnessed through his continued desire to convey the same location during different seasons or times of the day. In L'église de Montigny, effet d'automne, the Neo-impressionist technique and Fauvist application of colour and composition is underpinned by an Impressionist concern for capturing the seasonal light and the transience of nature. Picabia here not only refers to the season within the title (a typical Impressionist device), but is also at pains to convey the particular atmospheric effects of the scene, describing the fall trees and church illuminated by the cool light of a low sun through a chromatic range of cadmium reds, ochres and pinks offset by royal blues and violets. As Gordon Hughes explains 'between 1908 – 1911 Picabia updated his look several times, shifting from Sisley's Impressionism, Paul Signac's Neo Impressionism and to Henri Matisse's Fauvism as his primary source of influence' (G. Hughes, 'Francis Picabia, Once Removed' in Francis Picabia, Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, exh. cat., New York, 2016, p. 29).

Indeed, as has recently been argued, it was this ravenous desire for appropriation which was to lay the foundations for his involvement of with the Dada movement and to define Picabia as a distinctively modern artist. As Anne Umland, curator of the celebrated 2016 MOMA retrospective, elucidates 'Picabia's practice of parody, quotation and appropriation... introduces the idea that reproduction, replication and outright plagiarism can all be considered as generative strategies. This attitude firmly aligned him with the younger artists and poets who were at the heart of the Dada movement' (A. Ummel, 'Francis Picabia, An Introduction' in ibid, p. 14).

As one of the greatest avant-garde artists of our time, Picabia mastered almost every major artistic movement in the first half of the twentieth century. Despite his early success, his desire for authenticity remained unabated and it was through his voracious implementation, hybridisation and critique of earlier styles that he was able to establish his uniquely modernist approach. Writing in the preface of the 1909 Galerie Georges Petit exhibition of which L'église de Montigny, effet d'automne formed a part, the notable critic Roger-Milès detected, even at this early stage in his career, Picabia's rigorous and interrogative approach: 'he returned to the places he had previously interpreted, and studied them more stringently. He searched for their significance within form...he applied himself to presenting his new insight in a formula in which no touch would be a virtuoso's arpeggio thrown in a burst of inspiration, but in which each brushstroke corresponded an essential orchestration of harmonious colour values' (Léon Roger-Milès quoted in W. A. Camfield, op. cit, p. 8).

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