Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction
Museum of Modern Art, New York
November 20, 2016 – March 19, 2017
Francis Picabia’s art continues to confound. To simply read the reviews for the recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art confirms this assessment. No matter whether the writer’s views lean toward the positive or the negative, the critiques are alike in adopting an unusually cautious tone. Some critics search the artist’s life seeking answers, while even the most enthusiastic of the reviewers refrains from postulating a unifying philosophy, unless one counts Picabia’s utter refusal to define himself. For he will not. Not stylistically. Not technically. Not conceptually. In spite of having produced so many highly influential works, it is hard to deny that the artist’s stylistic flippancy is not just enigmatic but unnerving. Even grouping his works in rooms by time period, as they were in this exhibition, gives no hint as to how he leapt from one work to the next. Six decades since Francis Picabia died and we’re still left asking: What was he thinking?
Let us briefly pause to note that by the early 20th century it was not unusual or even necessarily considered problematic for artists to frequently change styles; witness that Picasso and Matisse did so with impunity. Of course in the case of these two the motivation for their constant change in styles was (or at least appears to be) self evident: aesthetic innovation, distillation, refinement. This was not an argument one heard from Picabia or on behalf of Picabia. His motivation was (or at least appears to be) to provoke, disrupt, and undermine our aesthetic expectations.
Which his work continues to do. For regardless of Picabia being a lifelong playboy born into wealth and privilege, the fact remains that he was exceptionally talented with a keen intelligence and created fascinating, sublimely beautiful artworks. It’s just that there appear to be veritable chasms of non-sequitur separating his stylistic shifts.
So we accept Picabia’s various style periods à la carte, as it were. We pick and choose what we like and ignore the rest. And what a large menu we are given.
Maker of Multitudes
That Picabia was a gifted draughtsman and painter is not in question. By his mid-twenties he was producing very good if not ground breaking Impressionist paintings. In 1910, at the age of 31, Picabia met Marcel Duchamp, who in turn introduced him to Guillaume Apollinaire, and the conceptual aspects of his work began to rapidly evolve. In short order he eschewed both observational imagery and classical perspective to produce a series of muscular Cubist landscapes which just as quickly leave landscape behind and move toward pure abstraction. By 1915 he is producing his Dada works, the first of his stylistic periods where he is clearly an innovator. The paintings during this time (Picabia was also working with film, producing magazines, drawing, and working with collage) feature machine imagery, intentional flatness, allusions to advertising illustration and mechanized reproduction, and artificial color.
Although the Dada works were much lauded at the time and continue to be today, by 1921 Picabia felt he had exhausted its potential and publicly announced his separation from the movement, declaring “One must be a nomad and traverse ideas as one would travel through countries and cities” and “Dada will live forever!…and I will stay Francis Picabia!”. Casting aside the machine imagery, Picabia began experimenting with figuration, a time that included the creation the simple, elegant, and ever so slightly demented “Spanish Woman” series of watercolors.
This relatively suave period ended with Picabia again pirouetting stylistically toward a significantly coarser, more abstracted figuration. These paintings, often of embracing couples, with their bright colors, bold strokes, and heavy outlines such as can be seen in Idyll, 1925-27, appear brutish relative to the “Spanish Woman” works. They are vaguely reminiscent of the Fauve or Blue Rider Group, but considerably more disconcerting in their compositional irreverence.
From here, Picabia’s rate of change only accelerated. Tacking once more toward refinement, he produced the series known collectively as the “transparencies”, typified by Atrata, 1929. Making use of the sophisticated drawing skills and minimal palette displayed in the “Spanish Woman” series, Picabia layered multiple images and compositions to create a true hybrid of abstraction and figuration, forcing the viewer’s eye to continuously move back and forth between the larger abstract composition and figures floating within. Monumentally influential to contemporary artists, David Salle and Sigmar Polke to name but two, this period is now seen by many as his most significant, a status formerly held by his Dadaist period works.
While the artist continued to overlay images for the next ten years, the imagery moved from the sublime integration and restraint of Atrata to the more overt composition and colors of Woman and Face, 1935-38, or eerily proto-Pop Art Superimposed Heads, 1938.
At this point, one could assert that the artist gave stylistic choice no more weight than switching media. He could produce boldly graphic works like Superimposed Heads and simultaneously more traditional, if disquieting, works like Portrait of a Woman, 1935-38. The question arises: has any other artist shown such apparently total indifference to the concept of an identifying style conveying something important about meaning? And if in answer, we arrive at the works done during the time of the German occupation of France, the time of the Gestapo and Vichey, the Resistance and collaborators.
The “War” Paintings
While one might debate whether Picabia’s Dada works are more influential than his Transparencies or vice versa, few have made any case at all for the paintings made during the war; in fact, quite the opposite. Produced while Picabia was living and working in Golfe-Juan, a small fishing village on the French Riviera near Cannes, and coinciding very closely to the time period between the German’s entering and leaving Paris, no works have caused critics and historians to question the artist’s aesthetics and personal beliefs more than these. If, as stated above, Picabia’s perplexing stylistic shifts allowed his admirers the freedom to choose from his prodigious output à la carte, in the case of the “War” paintings the choice has most often been to try and ignore them. A series of soft-core kitsch paintings closely based on soft-core porn photographs, we might be forgiven for thinking that the artist’s apparent goal was to see if, by rendering them in garish colors and including overtly sexual props, he could produce works even lewder and more embarrassing than the source materials on which they are based. And it could even be argued that if this was his goal, he succeeded wonderfully – or should we say horribly?
In painting after painting done at this time, scantily clad or completely nude women cavort on beds with dogs, pose with tropical flowers artfully covering their privates, or bathe in sybaritic abandon by the sea. Even when the subjects are conservatively clothed, for instance in Portrait of a Couple, 1943-43, floral scenery none-the-less overflows with prurient color while lovers frolic in the background.
Viewing the “War” paintings, perhaps it is inevitable that we question whether the evidence before us reveals nothing less than a brazen attempt by a pampered playboy artist to sell out to his new Nazi overlords.
Yet to hold this view necessarily requires an assumption that our contemporary opinion of these works, our persistent faint revulsion, was not shared by Picabia and his audience at the time. But how likely is it that the same sophisticated artist and viewers of Modern Art that appreciated the artist’s previous works would not feel the same way we do? Not likely at all. One might even posit that no one except those holding the same perverse Nazi aesthetic would find these paintings beautiful.
So the dichotomy found among viewers of Picabia’s “War” paintings can be expressed as follows:
First, anyone who shares the twisted aesthetics of the Nazis can only see in Picabia’s “War” paintings something beautiful.
Second, anyone uninfected with the Nazi’s perverted vision see these paintings as kitsch.
Third, this dichotomy is intentional. Picabia uses the Nazis own aesthetic to camouflage his repeated accusations of their moral bankruptcy; a damning critique hidden in plain sight.
The disadvantage of a protest art of this type is that it requires a certain level of ambiguity to succeed, and therefore depends on the intellectual acuity of the viewer to discern its double-sided nature. There are other notable examples of protest art of this kind, for instance Our Grand Circus by Iakovos Kambanellis, written and performed in Greece during the period of the military dictatorship, extolled the importance of the Greek history favored by the Junta while simultaneously delivering a blistering critique of the regime unnoticed by the Colonels themselves. How much easier though, if less subversive, for an artist to wear their outraged protest on their sleeve.
On the other hand, the advantage of Picabia’s form of protest art is that, precisely because it is psychologically obscured from the subject of its derision, it is not censored but allowed to enter into the culture. Once embedded, it continues to broadcast its critique to all not blinded by the warped aesthetic of those in power. If we accept this analysis of Picabia’s “War” paintings, then we must also necessarily shift our view of them and the artist, moving them both from the category of collaborator to that of resistor.
An Invisible Thread
If this understanding of Picabia’s intention and ability to compress conflicting messages into his “War” paintings is true, might we next ask how this insight illuminates the artist’s overall body of work? Let us assume that the “War” paintings, rather than representing a particularly disappointing moment in the artist’s vast and wildly dissimilar stylistic oeuvre, represent Picabia at his most conceptually clear-eyed. More than that: the “War” paintings represent a culmination for Picabia of his aesthetic investigation to explore art’s ability to hold layered and contradictory ideas in a single image.
Working our way in reverse, through the artist’s earlier works, can we find this thought consistently expressed? In the somber Portrait of a Woman, 1935-37, we become aware that the black dots are not simply a visual oddity, but a physical manifestation of the growing anxiety over European life in time of Hitler and Mussolini. Portrait of a Woman is an image of distress superimposed over an image of beauty.
With compression of multiple concepts as the main idea rather than style, we find that the “transparencies” paintings have more in common with the Superimposed Heads than we originally thought. Not only can the same can be said of Idyll, but it might be asserted that because Picabia was fixated on exploring art’s ability to hold and present multiple overlapping ideas in a single artwork, the development of a given style would belie, even undermine that understanding. So, rather than an inability to stick with a particular way of painting, Picabia is intentionally switching out styles to explore how different approaches to image making impact how compressed information can be accessed and understood. In the same way, perhaps we need to understand that rather than confuse our expectations by switching styles, the artist was underlining the point – don’t stop at the surface, look deeper. And indeed, we find that we can continue to follow this thread going back even further. The “Spanish Woman” series pushing figuration and abstraction into a single image. Amorous Parade layering a colorful if flat mechanical illustration on top of lines meant to convey three-point perspective. The early bold landscapes like the Spring merging multiple ideas about nature, abstraction, and motion into a series of singular images. Even the earliest impressionist works foreground idea over image in that many were painted not from nature but found postcards.
The cover of the catalogue for this exhibition features Picabia’s strange and wonderful The Cacodylic Eye, 1921. It is a collage of a few small photographs, painted images, and dozens of signatures by other artists besides Picabia.
A one-off piece, it yet beautifully encapsulates the artist’s emerging concept of idea compression; it makes an abstract totality out of individual signatures and images, it questions the role and importance of the individual in the artwork, it makes a sly joke about the value an artist’s signature confers upon a work (if an artist signature confers value, then a painting with dozens of signatures must be dozens of times more valuable). The Dada movement, of which Picabia was a key player, for the first time brought ideas to the forefront of what visual art can and should be about. Whether consciously or not, Picabia saw early on that ideas could be combined the same way individual brush strokes can create a image while still retaining their meaning as brush strokes.
In the end, we see that Picabia’s work is only confusing, the chasms between periods only insurmountable, if we limit our dialog to simply discussions of style. Conceptually, as the “War” paintings reveal, Picabia pursued a single, deepening investigation from 1910 forward. You just have to know how to stand in more than one place to see it.