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Word Play

Discover how Dada artists challenged and manipulated the rules, syntax, and symbols of language.


Francis Picabia
(French, 1879–1953)

1920. Oil and enamel paint on cardboard, 50 3/4 x 35 3/8" (129.2 x 89.8 cm)

In this painting, Francis Picabia delivers a barrage of puns, transforming the language of fine art into something far less refined. Linseed oil (l’huile de lin) is a commonly used binder in oil paint, but an inscription at the top proclaims this portrait a product of castor oil (l’huile de Ricin), a toxic, foul-smelling substance that can cause intestinal pain. Another inscription reads Ratelier d’artiste (the artist’s false teeth), a play on atelier d’artiste (artist’s studio). Peinture crocodile (Crocodile painting) associates art with the hypocrisy of crocodile tears. The mechanical imagery in red reflects Picabia’s interest in optical devices and other machines, including the automobile, whose function he evokes in the title phrase “M’Amenez-y” (Take me there).

A paint in which pigment is suspended in oil, which dries on exposure to air.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.

A component of paint that creates uniform consistency or cohesion.