The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2017

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FEB 2017 Issue

When the Dada Daddies Got Real; Or, How I Turned Picabia Inside Out

In 1999, I had an exhibition of my recent paintings at a gallery in Paris. At dinner following the opening, I was seated next to an art collector who spoke minimal English to complement my minimal French. Still, she managed to tell me of her two recent acquisitions as a collector: an Eric Fischl painting of nudes and one of Francis Picabia’s late paintings of nudes. She also managed to tell me that she found my paintings eccentric, and wondered what they meant. Sensing that she was not about to add one of my works to her collection, I blurted out that I had turned Picabia inside out. Then I spent the rest of the dinner trying to explain, in a mix of languages, that Francis Picabia and his friend Marcel Duchamp first determined their subject matter then found the technical means with which to realize it in painting—whereas I start with the technical part and let the subject matter be interpreted however a viewer wants.

Francis Picabia, Parade amoureuse (Amorous Parade), 1917. Oil, gesso, metallic pigment, ink, gold leaf, pencil, and crayon on board. 38 × 29 inches Neumann Family Collection. © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging.

I explained that, more than a half century earlier, as a student at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, I had written a master’s thesis on Picabia. About halfway through my research, Picabia died. Briefly, I was the leading authority in the English language on Picabia, and published a major article in Arts magazine in 1954 that contained the central idea of my thesis, summed up by the title “The Secret Language of Francis Picabia.” However, because Picabia and Duchamp were such close intellectual collaborators from 1910 to 1920, the article and the thesis were as much about Duchamp as about Picabia.

In the spring of 1955, almost a year after the article was published, I presented the first draft of my thesis to my acting faculty advisor, Dr. Horst W. Janson. (My faculty advisor of record, Dr. Jose Lopez-Rey, was on leave.) After a cursory reading, Dr. Janson asked me to reorganize the material in chronological order, rather than the scheme of grouping ideas that I had worked out. As this was in the stone-age time of hand-written first drafts and badly typewritten second drafts, it was about six months until my next meeting with Dr. Janson. The thesis was accepted, and I felt my career in art history had ended. I felt that I now knew all about the history of modernist art, and it seemed to belong to a faraway past. I would now concentrate on my own development as an artist.

My undergraduate career had been interrupted by World War II, when I was drafted into the U.S. Infantry. Before I was shipped off to Italy, I spent several months creating charts of the workings of infantry weapons and paraphernalia for the army. When the war was over and I returned to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, I worked as a low-level graphic designer doing what were called “mechanicals” (trial sketches of page layouts, some drafting of images, preparing the final page designs for the printer) for catalogues of Alcoa aluminum architectural products and American Standard plumbing units. In college, I did a number of paintings based on shapes I had taken from these catalogs. The experience of drafting all these images led to my interest in the Dada works of Picabia and Duchamp, in which they used the same kind of mechanical shapes.

After graduating college in 1949, I did a group of proto-Pop paintings that included images of the Statue of Liberty, the American Eagle, and Superman. However, by 1955 the paintings I was producing were based on generalized landscape themes, for which I had adopted the Abstract-Expressionist calligraphic use of paint. This was interrupted when I spent the 1958 – 59 academic year on a Fulbright Fellowship in Italy, where I made a series of drawings of Roman ruins that were realist (though the paintings I developed from them remained Abstract Expressionist in technique).

After my return to New York, the nude human figure replaced landscape as my chief subject, simply because it was easier to find models I could hire to come to my studio than to find the kind of landscapes I would have liked to paint. By 1960 I had abandoned the Abstract Expressionist calligraphic paint handling, and found myself labeled a “Super-Realist” as I concentrated on painting nude models from direct visual observation in my own studio. Over time the paintings evolved from simple figure studies to complex compositions. The study I had made of the ideas that motivated Francis Picabia in the first quarter of the 20th century became a faded memory.

During the early 1950s, the time my thesis was done, the New York University Institute of Fine Arts was home to a group of Europe’s leading scholars of art history that the school’s director, Dr. Walter W. S. Cook had appointed during World War II. Dominant among these historians, a committee of whom had to approve the student proposals for their thesis projects, was Dr. Irwin Panofsky, who studied the symbols and signs embodied in a work of art that give it its meaning in relation to the society that produced it. Picabia and Duchamp’s work from 1910 – 20 fit that prescription perfectly, and my proposal was accepted. However, as a young artist I was frustrated by that emphasis on societal values. I wanted to know how the work of art was done, so my thesis aimed to demonstrate the manner in which the symbolism embedded in the work of art influences the technology of the artist.

Philip Pearlstein, Nude with Red Model Airplane, 1988. Oil on canvas. 60 × 48 inches.

By the early 1950s, Picabia and Duchamp were neglected by the educated art public. (Duchamp, who lived in New York, had a reputation as an eccentric who played chess in Washington Square.) The fact that both would later become cultural icons was not predictable in 1955. Nor was the fact that the last works of both were to be Realist. At that point, Picabia’s paintings of female nudes copied from erotic magazines were unknown. Duchamp’s three-dimensional installation of the figure of a naked woman lying on her back with her crotch exposed to the observer (who must look through a knothole in a barn door to see it) was not yet installed in the Philadelphia Museum.

I spent three years analyzing their works, and I realized that their signs and symbols were so esoteric and arbitrary that they would always be open to new interpretations. Along the way, I educated myself in major aspects of the various technologies they borrowed, enhanced or invented out of Cubism, Futurism, and Symbolism.

This aspect of invention in modernist painting continues to fascinate me, but in 1955 I felt saturated with modernism. The big lesson I had learned from writing the thesis was: though the character of a work of art is determined by its subject, its value as a work of art is determined by the elegance of its technology. For the next few years I decided to concentrate on the technology of the style of painting that most excited me then: Action Painting or Abstract Expressionism. I concentrated on the carpentry of putting together the image, and let the meanings of my subjects take their chances with whoever looked at the paintings.

I spent my evening in Paris in 1999 talking my way out of the surprised response I had made to my dinner companion at the mention of Picabia. Because now I was confronted by the fact that my paintings of the nude figure were viewed by this collector as being in direct commercial competition with the nudes by the Dadaist who had been the subject of my thesis half a century earlier.

I believe that the newly aroused taste for Picabia’s nudes can be seen as an after-effect of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe multiples. Though created decades before the Warhols, they were hidden away during a protracted legal battle around the settlement of Picabia’s estate (there were at least two successive legal wives). If they had been seen at the time of their creation, I believe that they would have been seen as the last twist in a career of many stylistic changes. Like Duchamp’s installation in the Philadelphia Museum of Art of the young lady with spread legs, they would have been seen as a nose-thumbing gesture aimed at the art-loving audience, not as Pop before the historical fact of Pop art.

It is important today to realize that Picabia was important in other ways to the history of modern art. He was a major force in the United States in creating public awareness of Cubism and Futurism. He seems to have been the prime originator of the second phase of Cubism, usually referred to as “synthetic” Cubism. Alongside André Breton, he was a pioneer in the exploration of ideas foundational to Surrealism. He was just as important in the history of early 20th-century poetry as in painting, co-editing the poetry magazine The Little Review with Ezra Pound. In her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein named her friend Picabia the greatest of modern painters.

Picabia was born in Paris in 1879. His father was Spanish, his mother French. His family was wealthy and he lived the life of a playboy until the 1930s. His last years were spent in ill health, comparative seclusion, and poverty. He died in Paris on November 30, 1953. Perhaps because of his wealth, he apparently never felt the need to build a professional career as an artist, indulging in any artistic deviation he dreamed up, as obscure and oblique in symbolism as he wished. Many of his works are private jokes, understood only by his circle of friends. He could afford to live, he said, “as a nomad, to traverse ideas as one does countries.” He summarized his attitude in the title of his 1949 retrospective show in Paris, 50 Ans de Plaisirs [50 Years of Pleasures], and in his statement in the catalog, explaining that painting for him could be “what opium is to others.” Until 1908 his paintings were Impressionistic, followed in 1909 by landscapes that approach abstraction. But then, also in 1909, he made a leap into his future, painting in watercolor Caoutchouc [Rubber], which has historically been honored as the first abstract painting, but which I demoted when I decided that it has a bouncing rubber ball as its subject. It was his first work to embody characteristics identified with Cubism and Futurism. (I now feel that this painting may have originated as a spoof of early Cubism and Futurism.) And he now became increasingly concerned with abstraction (though the word “abstraction” was not yet in use in 1909). Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, his wife until their divorce in 1919, wrote that when they first met in 1908, he spoke “of revolutionary transformations in pictorial vision…a painting endowed with a life of its own, exploiting the visual field solely for the sake of an arbitrary and poetic organization of forms and colors...”

Philip Pearlstein, Two Models with Swan Decoy and Carved Garuda Figure, 2013. Oil on canvas. 72 × 48 inches. Courtesy the artist.

By 1911 Picabia was a member of the Cubist group and had found an intellectual playmate: Marcel Duchamp. As the two artists exchanged ideas and paralleled one another in their paintings, I found it necessary to consider Duchamp’s concerns with motion, simultaneity, and machine imagery and symbolism alongside Picabia’s.

Picabia arrived first at many of these ideas in the 1909 Caoutchouc, which displays movement, transparency, and abstraction. In 1911 Duchamp painted Moulin a Café [Coffee Mill], which became the prototype of both his and Picabia’s drawings and paintings of machines. I found it odd that Duchamp never spoke of Picabia as an influence, but later named Raymond Roussel, a philosopher, metaphysician, and poet, as among his main influences. Duchamp said that “as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter and Roussel showed me the way.” Duchamp’s culminating work, painted on glass panels, La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même [The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even], was thematically based on a play by Roussel.

In 1912 Picabia also became friendly with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire who, as an art critic, became the chief spokesman for the Cubist painters. During the following year, a three-way exchange of ideas about painting and society among Picabia, Duchamp, and Apollinaire led to Picabia’s attitudes and subject matter for the next decade.

In 1913, this exchange of ideas led Apollinaire to set up a second main branch of Cubism in his discussions of the Cubist aesthetics. The first main branch, Scientific Cubism, was concerned primarily with the analysis of real objects. He called the new branch Orphic Cubism, and defined it as an art of the mind: the forms the artist paints are of his own invention, unrelated to forms in nature; the artist is concerned with the meaning conveyed by the subject matter. Apollinaire wrote: “The work of the Orphic artist must simultaneously give a pure aesthetic pleasure, a structure which is self evident and a sublime meaning, that is, the subject.” The idea of publishing a book came about one evening when, according to Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, “Picabia, always eager for arguments, action, and planning campaigns, conceived the necessity of a publication in which Apollinaire would analyze in detail the present state of the New Painting. […] Picabia would pay the cost of publication, and Apollinaire would bring together essays that he had already published, and would add a study of each artist with reproductions. […] The project ran into much bickering and opposition. […] Apollinaire made a very good best of a bad job.” The book, Apollinaire’s The Cubist Painters, remains the basic text of the Cubist movement.

In January 1913, Picabia was the only major European artist to come to New York to attend the Armory Show, which introduced the work of many modern artists to America. In New York, Picabia immediately became part of the circle around Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer, publisher, and gallery owner who pioneered presenting modern art to the American public. During his stay in New York, Picabia made a series of statements to the press expressing his aesthetic philosophy. He also made a series of abstract watercolor paintings conveying his excitement about New York City that were given an exhibition at the Steiglitz Gallery.

The importance of Picabia’s influence on the definition of modern art in the United States is exemplified by my memory of a 1930s movie starring Shirley Temple in which a suave actor dressed in an artist’s smock and beret sings a song explaining “modern art” to a room full of elegantly dressed people at a cocktail party. Appropriate paintings are on the walls to illustrate his song-lecture. One line went something like: “We don’t paint the whistle, but the sound of a whistle,” illustrated by a painting of spirals. The song made a number of such comparisons. The message was a basic art education for most Americans—it certainly was for me. Now I realize that the song was a simplistic presentation of the ideas Picabia expressed in the newspaper interviews given during the exhibition.

Francis Picabia, Udnie (Jeune fille américaine; danse) [Udnie (Young American Girl; Dance)]. 1913. Oil on canvas, 114 3/16 inches × 208 1/8 inches. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne—Centre de création industrielle, Paris. © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Georges Meguerdtchian/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, New York.

These interviews were widely circulated. Picabia, briefly, was Mr. Modern Art, and his statements were crucial to the evolution of aesthetic opinion in this country largely by way of a couple of teachers: A. J. Eddy and Arthur Wesley Dow, at Columbia University’s Teachers College. A textbook used at Teachers College for many years paraphrased Picabia’s statements. I believe that the most significant passage in Picabia’s statements is the following: “You of New York should be quick to understand me and my fellow painters. Your New York is the Cubist, the Futurist city. It expresses in its architecture, its life, its spirit, the modern thought. […] [You] are Futurists in word and deed and thought. […] Because of your extreme modernity you should easily understand the studies which I have made since my arrival in New York. They express the spirit of New York as I feel it, and the crowded streets of your city as I feel them, their surging, their unrest… You see no form? No substance? Is it that I go out into your city and see nothing? […] I see your stupendous skyscrapers, your mammoth buildings and marvelous subways, a thousand evidences of your great wealth on all sides… The tens of thousands of workers and toilers, your alert and shrewd-looking shop girls, all hurrying somewhere. I see your theater crowds at night gleaming, fluttering. […] But I do not paint these things which my eye sees. I paint that which my brain, my soul sees. I walk from the Battery to Central Park. […] I hear every language in the world spoken, the staccato of the New Yorker, the soft cadences of the Latin people, the heavy rumble of the Teutonic, and the ensemble remains in my soul as the ensemble of some great opera. […] I absorb these impressions… I let them remain in my brain, and then when the spirit of creation is at flood tide, I improvise my pictures as a musician improvises music. The harmonies of my studies grow and take form under my brush, as the musician’s harmonies grow under his fingers. His music is from his brain and his soul just as my studies are from my brain and soul. Is this not clear to you?” I remember wondering when I first read this if Picabia really spoke in English so eloquently, or if some one at his side translated.

Later I became acquainted with some of the watercolor paintings of New York that Steiglitz had exhibited when I spoke to the groundbreaking art dealer Leo Castelli about Picabia shortly after my article appeared in 1954. He offered to show me some of those paintings (the ones that were in his collection), and he gave me black and white photographs of several of them. Of those watercolor paintings, Chanson Nègre was the one that most successfully demonstrated to reviewers the capacity of his psychic perception to invent the proper symbols.

Radical as it may have seemed in 1913 to his American audience, Picabia’s idea of the direct expressiveness of the aesthetic elements was commonly accepted in 19th-century France, and was elaborated in Baudelaire’s poem Correspondences. Though attempts to establish a scientific basis for the theory were never successful, the symbolist poets and painters accepted it as fact. In Correspondences, Baudelaire wrote that “scents, colors and sounds answer to one another.” Picabia’s statement that “We must devote ourselves to setting down on our canvas not things, but emotions produced in our minds by things” has its parallel in Mallarmé’s maxim that the artist must “paint not the thing itself but the effect it produces.”

In a 1913 interview, Picabia seems to speak directly to the painter that I have become, painting only what my eyes see. He said: “Art, Art, what is Art? Is it copying faithfully a person’s face? A landscape? No, that is machinery. Painting nature as it is not art, it is mechanical genius.” My paintings of nude figures are painted from the people posing in front of me, and my primary concern is the faithful depiction of the forms in that particular pose and the space and light of my studio. In contrast with my paintings from direct observation, Picabia’s late paintings are from reproductions of photographs and paintings that he chose for their subject of naked figures. They are an extension of the readymades of the Dada years, as is Duchamp’s figure in the Philadelphia installation (which was probably assembled from parts cast from life, as is evidenced by his sculptures that are cast impressions of small sections of the model’s body, usually of areas where deep creases occur).

Francis Picabia, L’Œil cacodylate (The Cacodylic Eye), 1921. Oil, enamel paint, gelatin silver prints, postcard, and cut-and-pasted printed papers on canvas. 58 1/2 × 46 1/4 inches. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne—Centre de création industrielle, Paris. © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Georges Meguerdtchian/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, New York.

The paintings Picabia created in the first half of 1913 are characterized by the sharp contours of the abstract shapes that compose them. These shapes may be seen as his response to the 20th-century “machine aesthetic.” However, he did not actually depict machine forms until after his return to Paris. (As noted, Duchamp did the first painting of a specific machine in 1910: Moulin à café, which diagrams the mechanical workings of a coffee grinder.) It is then, in late 1913, that a shift in Picabia’s subject matter also occurred. Until then his subjects had derived from such ordinary experiences as going to a nightclub. For most of the next decade, he drew his subject matter from his attitude toward society at large, developing with Duchamp and Apollinaire what would be defined later by the word Dada: the observation of the futility and contradictions inherent in all aspects of human endeavor resulting from industrialization, along with a condemnation of what were felt to be the false values held by bourgeois society, including the values of “High Art”—usually expressed with great wit, but with no political agenda involved.

This exchange of ideas between Picabia, Duchamp and Apollinaire, in which they tried to outdo one another in their blasphemes, was described by Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia as “forays of demoralization, witticism and clowning. Better than by any rational method, they pursued the disintegration of the concept of art, substituting a personal dynamism, individual forces of suggestion and projections, for the codified values of formal beauty. … this climate of invention contained all the germs of what later became Dada.”

Picabia and Duchamp saw that machines and machine parts could resemble parts of the human body, as well as serve as a visual symbol for modern society, and created images of machine parts caricaturing human relationships and attitudes. Picabia’s drawing La fille née sans mère [The Girl Born Without a Mother] was his first depiction of the machine as “woman.” Drawn on the back of a New York hotel dining-room menu, it became the compositional basis of the large-scale painting Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie (which I translated as “I See My Dear Udnie Again in Memory”), his earliest work to function this way. The first of Marcel Duchamp’s was La passage de la vierge à la mariée [The Virgin Becomes the Bride].

In Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie, I saw the machine elements as analogous to sexual organs. As this painting has its compositional origin in the drawing La fille née sans mère, I assumed that the “fille” of the drawing is implicit in the painting. According to Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, behind Picabia’s imagery of the “daughter born without a mother” is the idea that the machine was conceived in the mind of man, born into the world through the efforts of his body, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. I thought that this child of man’s intellect being feminine was due to the fact that in French the noun “machine” is feminine, and that reference to a machine as “she” is common throughout the world. Having created this female being, man uses her body: she becomes his mistress.

Picabia’s public participation in Dada activities began during his second trip to New York, after his induction into the French army. According to Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, Picabia served as a general’s chauffeur until an influential friend arranged an important mission for him to Cuba. He was to go by way of New York, and sailed with Gabrielle in April 1915. Meeting Marcel Duchamp and a group of old friends in New York, he forgot his mission and stayed. As a soldier in the French army, this long stay should have meant trouble, but he fell seriously ill (due to alcoholism). He got a series of medical leaves of absence that carried him to the end of the war. Gabrielle wrote of their New York years: “No sooner had we arrived than we became part of a motley international band that turned night into day, conscientious objectors of all nationalities and walks of life living in an inconceivable orgy of sexuality, jazz and alcohol. …a group of artists, mostly European, whose leading lights were Duchamp and Picabia, gathered in the gallery of Alfred Steiglitz […] or at the home of Walter and Lou Arensberg.”

Sometime in 1952 I visited Walter Arensberg in his home in Hollywood, California. We had tea and cookies, surrounded by the crates that contained his collection, which were soon to leave for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He told me that early on, Picabia and Duchamp were extreme alcoholics, and that in the early 1920s Picabia’s doctor told him that his badly damaged liver was about to kill him. Picabia and Duchamp both stopped drinking, and with that, in Arensberg’s opinion, their creative genius left them.

The paintings and drawings Picabia began in 1915 in New York are of mechanical forms executed with objective precision, with words and phrases lettered on their surfaces. He participated in illustrating, writing, and editing Steiglitz’s newly founded magazine, 291 (the street number on Fifth Avenue of the Steiglitz Gallery), which embodied the Dada spirit, though the word Dada had not yet been coined. It was invented the following year, 1916, by a group of artists and poets in Zurich who shared the spirit and aims of the group in New York, but who were yet unknown to them.

Philip Pearlstein, Models in the Studio, 1965. Oil on canvas. 72 × 53 inches. Private Collection New York.

In January of 1917, Gabrielle and Picabia left New York for Barcelona, where they met another group of artists who were also refugees of the war. In Barcelona, Picabia began to publish 391 as a sequel to 291. The cover of the March 1920 issue carried one of the most famous of all Dada works, the reproduction of the Mona Lisa on which Duchamp had drawn a moustache. Duchamp later said of this reproduction that it is a copy by Picabia of Duchamp’s original, which wasn’t available, and that the letters of its title, L.H.O.O.Q., make an obscene pun when pronounced in French.

In 1918 Picabia went to Switzerland for medical treatment, and while there he published Poèmes et dessins de la fille née sans mère and other books of poetry. These books brought him to the attention of the Zurich Dadaists. This Zurich group had made the Cabaret Voltaire their headquarters. They originally organized to be a focal point of avant-garde art, but soon the expression of the senselessness of the war and their hostility towards and ridicule of society dominated their activity.

Many of the techniques used by the Dadaists had their roots in the work of 19th-century writers and poets who experimented with automatism—in which the subconscious dictates the flow of words—and played with the surprise of chance juxtapositions, allowing the sounds of words to dictate their use, inventing words when necessary. The Dadaists transposed these literary principles to their graphic work. As I was working in the field of graphic design at the time, I admired Picabia’s inventiveness with typography and page layout in publications. But Picabia had probably found a prototype in Mallarme’s poem Un coup de dés, which was printed with varied type faces, sizes, and spacing, guiding the reader to place aural emphasis on different words.

It occurred to me, as I translated the poems and calligrams that illustrate Poèmes et dessins de la fille née sans mère, that Picabia and Duchamp had each created the story of a young woman. Duchamp’s story line goes through the 1912 Bride and The Virgin Becomes the Bride, to the large painting on glass, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even of the 1920s.

Picabia’s fille née sans mère traveled to America and has her portrait painted in 1913 as une jeune fille américaine. Then she is presented again as a graphic in the Portrait d’une jeune fille américaine dans l’état de nudité [Portrait of an American Girl in the State of Nudity], in which Picabia peeks at her as a spark plug. Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia wrote that the spark plug is a “kindler of flame.” The spark plug is hopefully labeled “fore-ever.” I relate the nudité in the title of this image to “Udnie” of the earlier paintings, a pig Latin version of the word “nudie.” And in this pig-Latin sense, it is a predecessor to the paintings of nudes that Picabia did in the 1940s. Back in 1917, Udnie finds love in Parade Amoureuse [Display of Love], and has a child, L’Enfant carburateur [The Child Carburetor]. Then in 1918, Picabia endowed his “daughter” with an intellect and published her book, Poèmes et dessins de la fille née sans mere, which includes eighteen drawings and fifty-one poems. Until now, the machine had been viewed by man; this book was her opportunity to view man.

While Duchamp began his epic with various studies that led to a culminating monumental work, Picabia started with several monumental paintings, then scaled down to small paintings and graphic illustrations. As seen before, a number of Picabia’s paintings and graphic works are similar in nature to Duchamp’s readymades. The anti-social implications of the readymades lie chiefly in the joke against traditional artistic means of expression, as well as in the choice of objects that insult bourgeois taste, as in Duchamp’s urinal. Picabia’s readymades are usually drawings or photographs copied or cut out from catalogues and advertisements. The Portrait d’une jeune fille américaine dans l’état de nudité (the spark plug) is an example. A more sensational readymade by Picabia is the 1920 stuffed monkey pulling at his tail, which is sticking out from between his legs. It is titled Portrait of Cezanne, Portrait of Renoir, Portrait of Rembrandt. It blasphemes the values of “high art,” while an ink blot entitled La Sainte Vierge blasphemes religious sentiment. That these works of Picabia and Duchamp were meant as private jokes—and thus bound to remain “unread” by the multitudes whose values and mores it ridiculed—did not disturb them. I now see a great irony in the fact that Picabia’s and Duchamp’s antisocial gestures led fifty years later to the Pop art movement: the most accessible, democratic, and commercially successful art movement of the 20th century.

Francis Picabia, Femmes au bull-dog [Women with Bulldog], ca. 1941. Oil on board, 41 3/4 × 29 15/16 inches. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne—Centre de création industrielle, Paris. © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Jean-Claude Planchet/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, New York.

In 1919, after the end of World War I, the Dadaists centered their activities in Paris, where their demonstrations attracted large audiences. At one demonstration Picabia shouted: “What are you doing here, plunked down like serious oysters—because you are serious, aren’t you? The ass, the ass represents life like fried potatoes, and all you serious people smell worse than cow flop. Dada smells of nothing, it is nothing, nothing, nothing. Whistle, shout, bash my face in, and then what? Then what? I’ll just go on telling you that you are all fools.” For Picabia, Dada had become a successful art movement, and thus had outlasted its purpose of negation. He then announced his withdrawal from the movement in a series of articles insulting his former friends. For a while he worked with André Breton, who was then formulating Surrealism, on the magazine Littérature. But he really did not share Breton’s enthusiasm for Surrealism, and after they published the First Surrealist Manifesto, he published several issues of 391 attacking Surrealism. He did some paintings, such as Animal Trainer and Night and Day, that are ambiguous in meaning but probably reflect his take on Surrealism. I think they are among his strongest works.

The paintings Picabia created during the following decades until the outbreak of World War II continue to vary in style, but evoke no concern with social problems. The most interesting works are those he called “transparencies.” In these, separate images are superimposed, reflecting what was a dominant concern among 20th-century artists: depicting simultaneous events. The symbolism is obscure, but many of the faces and nude figures are copied from Italian Renaissance paintings, offering a field day for future art historians. They also send up a signal, which I did not receive back in 1955, that eventually Picabia would paint images of female nudes.

During the years of World War II, Picabia is reported to have painted realistic, expressionistic scenes of the horrors of war. These have not yet surfaced, though there is one of a monster’s Minotaur-like head (perhaps it is a realist version of Picasso’s Minotaur) with the saluting hands of an adoring crowd that may be a reference to that era’s destructive dictators.

The first exhibition I saw of Picabia’s work was at the Rose Fried Gallery in New York in early 1950. It was mostly made up of small paintings with solid colored surfaces on which brightly colored dots are scattered, while at one end of the small gallery was the very large painting Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic), which is now in the Art Institute of Chicago. That painting was too tall for the height of the room and was leaning forward. I remember how puzzled I was by the contrast of the recent small dot paintings with the monumental, complex painting of forty years earlier. Eventually I decided that the answer lies in Picabia’s pronouncement that “our heads are round to allow thought to change its direction.”

In 1970, at the time of the Picabia retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, I wrote an article for Art News magazine called “Hello and Goodbye, Francis Picabia.” Now I must say “hello again,” but to a new persona that had been hidden from me. Now I must regard him as my fellow realist painter, and even wonder whether I had unwittingly anticipated his last stylistic turn, based on my subliminal memories of putting together the ideas of the thesis.

By the way: my dinner companion in Paris did not add one of my paintings to her collection.


Philip Pearlstein


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2017

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