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The grandfather of Post-Modernism

Picabia at his most brilliant, perverse and energetic

by Alexander Adams  |  17 March 2017
Francis Picabia, if he was taught in the schools at all, was a footnote in the social history of the avant-garde; a sportif playboy and Dadaist provocateur who helped give the teens and early 1920s their savour, but hardly someone to be taken seriously as a painter

The second volume of Francis Picabia’s detailed catalogue raisonné takes us through the artist’s Dada period and the spectacular flourishing of his art in the 1920s. When volume I ended, Picabia was a painter of Orphism (a branch of Cubism) and had followed a clear career progression up to that point. Stranded in New York by the outbreak of war, Picabia became part of the anti-war Dada movement in America.

He drew enigmatic mechanical diagrams with allusive titles. He called these nonsense machines “mechanomorphs”. Mechanomorphs fuse disparate ideas. First, there is the idea of art and humanity progressing and being perfected in a manner similar to the internal combustion engine and electric dynamo. Second, the drawings equate machinery with sexual intercourse and allude to erotic attraction. Third, they undermine authority by turning scientific explanation into nonsense.

With Alfred Stieglitz, Marius de Zayas and Marcel Duchamp, Picabia produced the avant-garde publication 291. When Picabia returned to Europe, he published his own Dada journal 391 along the same lines. Picabia shocked the conventional by entitling an ink spatter “The Holy Virgin”. He shocked the avant-garde by describing a stuffed monkey as a portrait of Rembrandt/Renoir/Cézanne.

In 1922 Picabia staged an exhibition in Barcelona featuring Dada mechanomorphs and kitsch espagnoles (conventional portraits of women dressed in traditional Spanish attire). The exhibits were intended to appeal to collectors of differing tastes. Picabia would work in multiple styles parallel to each other and also mix styles in single pictures. Liberated from the straitjacket of genre and style, Picabia began to experiment ever more widely. He used collage, gilding and ink splashes. He painted on bare plywood and glass. He requested artist friends add graffiti inscriptions to a canvas. He made whimsical collages of buttons, feathers, matchsticks, combs, paint-can lids, drinking straws and real butterflies. Picabia is considered the most important precursor of Post-Modernism, but his wit, invention and facility place him above Post-Modernists.

The great diversity of styles and materials in Picabia’s art were echoed in his other activities. He wrote polemics and poetry and published his journal 391. He appeared in the anarchic film Entr’acte (1924, co-directed by Picabia and Réné Clair, with a score by Erik Satie), which used absurd humour, social satire and trick photography to disrupt viewers’ expectations. He collaborated on the successful ballet Relâche, also with Satie. He travelled widely in Europe.

In his Kiss series, Picabia used movie publicity photographs and studio photographs of couples as sources for paintings. The paintings are crude, comic and full of vitality. So powerful were the paintings that they inspired Picasso to create his own Kiss paintings. Picabia also produced unpublishable erotic drawings, crisp portrait drawings and garish landscapes. Turning the pages, one never knows what one will encounter next. Picabia’s last innovation before 1927 was the “transparencies”. In these paintings, Picabia superimposed images over other–seemingly unrelated–images (for example, Byzantine saints over a kitsch espagnole). The multiple images do not blend, but conflict, neither image taking priority, thereby creating an uncomfortable tension in the viewer’s mind. Our readings never become settled because we cannot properly see both images simultaneously. Generally, there is no clear thematic link between the two images: the registers and tones of the images usually clash.

This volume includes a detailed discussion of Picabia’s activities over the period 1915-27 and situates the artist’s work in historical and biographical context. There are special essays, one of which is on the mechanomorphs. Pierre Arnauld notes that animated optical devices are referenced in a number of Picabia’s works and Picabia made drawings of abnormal eyes at a time when blinded veterans were being integrated into civilian life. Another essay covers Picabia’s poetry. The essays are in French and English; the catalogue section is in English only.

The catalogue reproduces paintings, collages and important drawings in high-quality illustrations, all with detailed data. Some illustrated letters are also included. Drawings are also shown as they appeared on the covers and pages of their original publications. Lost, destroyed, reworked and unexamined works are generally not included in catalogue, though exceptions are made for important pieces. In this period, specially designed frames relate to the pictures they surround and care has been taken to reproduce pictures in their original frames when possible. The research is thorough and the expert authors guide us through Picabia’s concepts, often identifying sources in Old Master paintings or magazine photographs. The care and effort expended are evident in this book, which is important for understanding not only Picabia, but also Dadaism.

• Alexander Adams is an artist and poet based in Bristol. His latest book, On Dead Mountain, is published by Golconda

Francis Picabia: Catalogue: Raisonné, Volume II (1915-27)
William Camfield, Arnauld Pierre, Candace Clements, Beverley Calte, Aurelie Verdier and Pierre Calte
Mercatorfonds/Yale University Press, 550pp, £175 (hb)

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