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May 2017

Vol. 159 / No. 1370

Francis Picabia. Zürich and New York

Reviewed by Trevor Stark


FRANCIS PICABIA’S CAREER resists the tacit presumption of any retrospective survey, namely that the life’s work of an artist can be presented, if not judged, as a totality. Not only does Picabia’s work defy coherence of development or style, but its reception and historical evaluation has been overwhelmingly skewed toward a single decade of his roughly fifty-year long career: the Cubist and Dada works from 1912–24 are ranked among the century’s paradigmatic avant-gardist gestures, while the mass of paintings he subsequently produced until his death in 1953 have been mostly ignored or derided. The extraordinary exhibition Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, seen by this reviewer at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (closed 19th March), and previously on view at the Kunsthaus Zürich (19th May to 27th August 2016), curated by Anne Umland and Cathérine Hug, gave an implicitly polemical response to this situation merely by conferring equal weight to each major stage of his career, from juvenilia to deathbed confections.

This strategy raises a fundamental question, one from which the curators did not retreat, especially in the ambitious scholarly catalogue:1 what criteria could be used for reconciling or evaluating the extremes of Picabia’s art, if one is unwilling to simply chalk them up to changes in fashion or to the artist’s particularly kaleidoscopic sensibility? Rather than considering his work in terms of good or bad, progressive or regressive, one might investigate whether there is such a thing as a Picabia ‘worldview’ and, if there is, to track its transformations through shifting historical contexts. A starting-point towards isolating such a constant is suggested by the title of one of his late, near-monochrome dot paintings: Cynicism and indecency (cat. no.221). The totality of Picabia’s work, this reviewer would perhaps unwisely hazard, is determined by a stance of bourgeois negativity, entailing no stable aesthetic or political character, but crystallising differently in response to the changing times through which he lived.

Questions such as these arose immediately, as the exhibition opened with a series of Picabia’s ‘off-the-rack’ Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings (as Gordon Hughes calls them in his catalogue essay). These paintings were not only patently derivative in 1909 (pastiches of Sisley and Pissarro), they were painted from postcard photographs of the French countryside. A visitor informed about Picabia’s trajectory might appreciate his derivation of the Impressionist touches from a mechanically produced imitation. This visitor may wonder whether the paintings constitute sincere, if wooden, attempts at a belated Impressionism, or if they are rather self-consciously critical works that skewer an earlier generation’s plein air pretentions by rooting them in the cheapest of photo-commodities. One got the sense that the curators tend towards the latter explanation, in which case the paintings can be slotted into a line of continuity with the persistent immaturity of Picabia’s ‘mature’ work and legitimised through their very air of forgery and falsity.

The galleries that followed were devoted to Picabia’s Cubist and post-Cubist paintings, which make a spectacularly confident entry into the early history of abstract painting (a confidence manifested by his propensity for ostentatiously large canvases). Composed of tightly interlocked networks of canted facets or planes painted in brown and red hues, the paintings of 1912, especially La Source (no.13) and Danses à la source II (no.14), seem to court the popular reception of Cubism as a mode of fumisme or pastiche, which is to say, an elaborate hoax. Picabia’s tendency, shared with Marcel Duchamp, of writing his titles in bold script on the canvas stands as a provocation for viewers to ‘cherchez la femme’. These paintings revel in the discrepancy between their advertised subjects and the abstract fields of pulsing and writhing form.

In contrast to the frustrated promise of bathers and dancers in his early abstract paintings, a small series of watercolours executed upon Picabia’s arrival in New York in January 1913 filter biomorphism through urbanism or architecture – as evinced in the title The city of New York perceived through the body (no.16). These works unsettle the viewer’s stable and upright orientation towards the picture plane (mostly maintained in the large paintings of 1912), with floating structures that trigger associations with maps or (anachronistically) the landscape seen from an aircraft, anticipating the spatial paradoxes of El Lissitzky’s Prouns. These lessons were explored upon Picabia’s return to Paris in two massive paintings, Udnie (young American girl; dance) (no.22; Fig.84) and Edtaonisl (ecclesiastic) (no.23), that picture a world of roiling microscopic sexuality, of copulating proteins and RNA molecules, unfixable to any naturalistic point of view.

Following on this promise to depict desire unbound from anthropomorphism, the earliest mechanomorphs on view in the next gallery give form to abstract eroticism in the cold visual syntax of the mechanical illustration (no.53; Fig.85). Beginning with paintings executed with a variety of metallic pigments and often traced directly from technical manuals, the transformation to the status of drawing implied by the mechanomorphs soon infiltrated and defined the visual syntax of Dada print culture. The sheer range of printed matter on view was overwhelming, and testified to the possibilities opened for Picabia and for Dada by moving from the gallery wall to the magazine page. In the pages of Proverbe, 291, 391, Cannibale and Littérature, to name a few notorious publications, Picabia’s parallel production as a poet was integrated with the deskilled line of the mechanomorphs  to produce an abstract-calligrammatic form of ‘Dada drawing’. Operating in the space opened by Cubism and by post-Mallarméan poetry, the mechanomorphs led Picabia to propose the drawing as diagram, as equation, as cut or hole, and as guestbook signature in L’Oeil cacodylate (no.76; Fig.86).

The curators’ inspired decision to stage a selection from Picabia’s 1922 exhibition at the Galerie Dalmau in Barcelona in the middle of the retrospective allowed a glimpse of the motivations underpinning the artist’s seeming eclecticism. There, Picabia notoriously exhibited new works on paper that resembled the geometric abstraction then being forged by international Constructivism alongside a number of his so-called ‘Espagnoles’ (no.94; Fig.87). On the face of it, these paintings of Spanish women in stereotypal maja attire, smoking or staring out with vaguely crosseyed expressions, are only distinguishable from the sort of work sold to tourists on the street by how baldly they state their incompetence. Presented next to his cunning abstractions, the Espagnoles punctured the ambitions of groups such as De Stijl for abstraction to provide rigorous principles of construction with which to remake the built environment and the world. With this singularly negative gesture, Picabia stood as the avant-garde’s quintessential counter-utopian artist.

In the context of the exhibition, Picabia’s ballet Relâche and its filmic intermission Entr’acte, from 1924, were a riotous farewell to the avant-garde before he moved to the south of France and devoted the remainder of his life to painting. The first room of works ‘after the fall’ was titled ‘Collage and Monsters’ and demonstrated Picabia’s continued investment in travestying the aspirations of ‘advanced art’. In these works he adopted two of the trademark strategies developed by Picasso and Braque in 1912 to self-consciously garish effect, namely Ripolin enamel paint and collage. In the Ripolin paintings, Picabia confers the sheen of a new car onto monstrous figures engaged in various forms of revelry and self-display. And, at the moment that collage was being deployed in Dada as a form of political counter-propaganda by such artists as Hannah Höch and John Heartfield, Picabia produced kitschy assemblages out of pasta, matchsticks and paint tins. Just as Picasso was turning to the monstrous, Picabia rendered the world of socialites and the vacationing rich in Cannes into a horror show executed in vulgar hues and déclassé materials, as though the social face of monstrosity belonged to the very leisure class into which Picabia was in the process of assimilating himself.

The Transparencies of the late 1920s are a paradox: on the one hand, they represent Picabia’s last go at the modernist project of inventing a new technical or formal strategy for painting, and, on the other, they cannibalise a variety of historical styles, superimposing motifs cribbed from Catalan Romanesque painting or his own Espagnoles. Their chance linear juxtapositions make demands on and reward visual attention in a way that Picabia’s art – at its best and worst – rarely did, at least since his Cubist phase. Yet even his own concerted attempt to develop a rigorous painterly procedure in the Transparencies is quickly subjected to pastiche. In the next room (appropriately titled ‘Eclecticism and Iconoclasm’), the technique is inconsistently applied to a brigade of Georges Rouault-like figures, clumsy portraits, Spanish and Algerian women, and a clown, the ‘social archetype of the artist as an essentially powerless, docile and entertaining figure’, in the words of Benjamin Buchloh.2

No one can remain neutral in the face of the paintings that Picabia produced during the Vichy years, which are among the most hideously cynical, brazenly nebulous and patently off-putting works produced by any card-carrying member of the European avant-garde – which, of course, makes them extraordinarily interesting. The exhibition and catalogue made much of the fact that Picabia worked from softcore pornographic photographs for these paintings, perhaps wishing to claim for them a place between Dada collage practices and the luxury titillations of a Jeff Koons or John Currin. Faced with the vulval orchid flaring out from the pubic triangle of a model in Adam and Eve (no.182), the frolicking nudes of Five women (no.192), or the especially Currin-like Women with bulldog (no.187; Fig.88), one cannot avoid the fact that during the Nazi occupation of France Picabia busied himself by rendering Aryan Körperkultur as a lurid pornotopia.

In a timeline by Rachel Silveri that will serve scholars for generations to come, and an essay by Michèle C. Cone, the exhibition catalogue presents concrete facts about Picabia’s time in prison after the Liberation for collaboration with the Vichy regime, and cites his despicable griping in these years about Jews as ‘vulgar individuals with dirty egos who think only of their financial interest’.3 These facts are damning about Picabia the person, yet do not transform the Vichy paintings into Fascist propaganda: they are far too ‘cynical and indecent’ for that. Picabia’s commitment to negating all commitments, to ruthlessly miming and deflating all promises of aesthetic or political liberation, is the classic stance of the troll. The retrospective demonstrated how, depending on his target and on the contingencies of the historical moment, Picabia’s abiding negativity oscillated between the nihilist’s glee in puncturing false optimism and the reactionary’s complicit snigger in the face of horror.

1 Catalogue: Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction. Edited by Anne Umland and Cathérine Hug, with contributions by George Baker, Carole Boulbès, Masha Chlenova, Michèle C. Cone, Briony Fer, Gordon Hughes, David Joselit, Jean-Jacques Lebel, Bernard Marcadé, Arnauld Pierre, Juri Steiner, Adrian Sudhalter and Aurélie Verdier. 368 pp. incl. 250 col. ills. (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2016), $75 (HB). ISBN 978–1–63345–003–5.

2 B.H.D. Buchloh: ‘Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression’, in idem: Formalism and Historicity: Models and Methods in Twentieth-century Art, Cambridge MA 2015, p.139.

3 R. Silveri: ‘Pharamousse, Funny Guy, Picabia the Loser: The Life of Francis Picabia’, in Umland and Hug, op. cit. (note 1), p.336.