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The Imperfectionist | The Nation

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The Imperfectionist

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If a conservative cultural critic were to concoct a derisive portrait of the characteristic avant-garde artist, it would probably turn out to look something like Francis Picabia. Or so one gathers from Marc Lowenthal's account: the sometime Dadaist was "something of an overgrown infant when it came to politics and responsibility," "in many ways a true reactionary," "a scandalmongering nihilist," "a self-proclaimed egoist" who discarded "morality itself...along with all notions of taste, science, idealism, reality." As a painter he was facile; as a friend and lover, treacherous. He was a poet who didn't like to read, a coward who urged on others the Nietzschean commandment to "live dangerously," a self-promoter whose overwhelming desire for attention led to fierce resentment of anyone sharing the limelight. He was a neurasthenic and, at one point, a drug addict. Above all, he was not only unoriginal--dependent for whatever intellectual weight his work had on the ideas of his more cerebral buddy Marcel Duchamp--but a plagiarist: his most famous paintings were copied from technical drawings of machinery and later ones from girlie magazines, while the aphorisms in which he appeared to be summing up the wisdom of his old age were cribbed from Nietzsche's Gay Science.

About the Author

Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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If Lowenthal's aim was to bury Picabia, he certainly picked an odd way to do it: translating some two-thirds of the artist's published writings, including all of his poetry, some of which is not even available in the French edition of the poems (published by Editions Mémoire du Livre in 2002 and edited by Carole Boulbès). Possibly the clue to Lowenthal's intention lies in the title he has given his selection: I Am a Beautiful Monster. His commentary shows us the monster while the translations reveal the beauty. And yet Lowenthal, who has previously translated the work of Raymond Queneau, nowhere hints that his book was a labor of love for its subject. For him, the fascination with Picabia is rather precisely as a case, that of the "nihilistic spirit" who claimed "the distinction of being the anti-artist par excellence." And yet he might well have asked for Picabia the sort of absolution the painter's great friend Guillaume Apollinaire begged for in his poem "La Jolie Rousse": "Be indulgent when you compare us/To those who have been the perfection of order/We who seek everywhere for adventure.../Pity us who always fight in the front lines/Of the limitlessness and the future/Pity our errors pity our sins." Not that Picabia, who signed himself "Cannibal, Funny Guy, and Failure," would ever have asked for pity, mind you. It was more his style to throw his errors and sins in your face. "Francis Picabia always attacks himself," according to one of his aphorisms.

It wasn't always that way, however. Following an academic training and a Salon debut in 1899, Picabia began painting unpromising landscapes and portraits in a manner based on an already conventional Impressionism and Post-Impressionism; Lowenthal quotes a dispiriting 1907 interview in which the 28-year-old Picabia shows himself to be quite the young fogy: "The first thing a landscapist must be is a conscientious artist.... One should not want to bowl over the public, as so many young people do." By the beginning of the next decade, however, he'd become attached to a Cubism that he practiced without consistency, but he forged friendships with Apollinaire and Duchamp--the latter being nearly the only figure to whom he would remain entirely faithful for life.

For Lowenthal--as for art historian George Baker, an editor at October who has written The Artwork Caught by the Tail, an ambitious new study of Picabia's work "from the end of the First World War to the beginnings of Surrealism in 1924"--all this is just background. After all, Picabia's first publications date from 1917. Moreover, Lowenthal dates Picabia's Dada years from 1919, and it is the artist's relation to this movement, "one of the finest expressions of nihilism in the twentieth century," that really counts for him. He divides Picabia's production into pre-Dada, Dada and post-Dada phases. Yet consider that Picabia, born in Paris in 1879, was 32 when he met Duchamp, 37 when Dada first emerged at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1917, 38 when his first book of poems was published. Picabia was a generation older than many of his fellow Dadaists, such as Tristan Tzara (born in 1896), Marcel Janco (1895), Richard Huelsenbeck (1892) and Hannah Höch (1889). So while the prevailing image of Dada as a movement of angry young men (and a few women) in revolt against the collective madness of the Great War is not wrong, it hardly describes Picabia, who was already middle-aged when the war began and who escaped it, like Duchamp, by decamping to New York. Whatever brought about the massive change from his earlier conservatism, the motivations must have been very different from those of a 20-year-old like Tzara.

In any case, a reading of Picabia's remarkable poetry suggests that using Dada as a key to unlock it would be misleading at best. It may be more than just a reluctance to cross the boundary between academic disciplines that kept Baker, whose study comprises knotty but original and often illuminating chapters on Dada drawing, Dada painting, Dada photography, Dada abstraction, Dada cinema and Dada montage, from attempting an analysis of Dada poetry as well, despite the fact that his book covers the years when Picabia produced far more poetry than art. It's as though Picabia's poetry was never quite Dada. And even as far as art goes, Baker eventually has to entertain the possibility that "Dada for Picabia had been one great detour."

Although each of Picabia's books or smaller collections of poetry, from Fifty-Two Mirrors in 1917 to Are We Not Betrayed by Seriousness in 1950, has its own particular tone or structure, there are really just two phases to Picabia's poetry. He began writing the poems collected in Fifty-Two Mirrors in 1914 but achieved a furious productivity in 1917-20, following that first book with as many as three in 1918 and two each in 1919 and 1920. Picabia's poetic production was then sporadic through the rest of the '20s and apparently nil for the next decade until the breakout of another war in 1939, when a second phase began that would last nearly the rest of his life.

What characterizes the poetry of Picabia's first phase, right from the beginning, is a degree of syntactic and semantic disjunctiveness utterly unique at the time, and certainly surpassing the collagelike effects found in other formally restless French poetry of this period, whether by friends such as Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars or by figures antipathetic to Picabia, such as Pierre Reverdy, each of whom adhered in his own way to Rimbaud's momentous call for "a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses." Moreover, some of this work gives every indication of having been produced by techniques of automatic writing that the Surrealists liked to think had entered literature with André Breton and Philippe Soupault's The Magnetic Fields in 1920. Picabia was really a forerunner of both Dada, the movement he joined and later rejected, and Surrealism, from which he kept his distance, yet his writing could be far more unpredictable and emotionally pungent than that of most adherents of those movements.

There has probably never been a poetry at once as massively energetic yet as coolly nonchalant as Picabia's in this first phase. But where is the fire-breathing nihilist of legend? His verse contains as much tenderness as fury, as much lyricism and sarcasm--though undoubtedly more bitterness than joy. Breton was on the mark when he wrote to Picabia in 1920, "What always amazes me about you is precisely the opposite of how you were always described to me, that is, your rare ability to love. I told a friend, rather clumsily, that your books have been written in the language of love." Although Picabia had been feverishly devoting himself to poetry in these years, it was of a sort that never would have been written by anyone who considered himself a poet: the poetry of a dilettante. Picabia maintained his work's freshness prepotently by making productive use of distractedness.

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