The Imperfectionist

The Imperfectionist

Reconsidering the life and legacy of avant-garde artist and poet Francis Picabia.


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.

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.

In the great essay he wrote to introduce his translations of poems by Reverdy, Kenneth Rexroth distinguished between Apollinaire’s collagelike technique, in which “the elements, the primary data of the poetic construction, are narrative or at least informative wholes,” and Reverdy’s more extreme reduction of those elements to “simple, sensory, emotional or primary informative objects capable of little or no further reduction.” Picabia’s method differs as much from Apollinaire’s as does Reverdy’s rapt essentialism. In fact, it is impossible to generalize about the fundamental constituents of Picabia’s verbal structures. In his case, for that matter, these poetic molecules tend to be internally twisted or fractured: they have what poet Ron Silliman recently called torque, a tendency to veer off unpredictably, producing effects “of far greater power than referential”–think Apollinaire–“or abstract meaning”–as in Reverdy–“would lead one to suspect.”

Take a relatively simple poem like “Alas!” from Picabia’s second collection, Poems and Drawings of the Daughter Born Without a Mother (1918). It starts out with a sort of list whose world-weary tone seems not very different from that of some of Apollinaire’s lyrics, yet in its fifth line takes an unexpected turn that by line seven has become very sharp indeed:

Women men
A country ambitious
For sovereignty
I love it when someone folds the eyes
Of troubles
Especially in the sea of the thorax

That seventh line is the pivot: proto-Surrealist, torqued sharply within itself, it lends a ricocheting motion to the poem as a whole, which then doubles back and begins critically taking apart the poetic voice he started out with, only to subside into his initial melancholy:

But I’m telling disinterested lies
It’s almost the same thing
The soul’s truth
Is the great cowardice of academic arrogance
Looking into your eyes
I’m content
In my forgotten solitude

Other poems, even quite long ones, are much more densely packed, torquing from line to line or within each line the way only the central one of “Alas!” does. One might imagine the results could be exhausting, leaving the reader with no point of reference, but more often Picabia offers a remarkably vivid experience of such poetic turns as phenomena to be savored–poetic plasticity as an end in itself. This is particularly true of extended works like “The Mortician’s Athlete”–one better comprehends its highly charged disjunctiveness upon learning that its five “cantos” were composed by taking a quantity of short independent poems and mashing them together without their titles–and Picabia’s early masterpiece, “Purring Poetry,” over 800 lines of giddy, unpunctuated, uncapitalized, free-associative poetry on love and the gloom of the wartime that had just ended, to which is appended the following note: “This poetry has no beginning or end; imagine that there’s no cover and that it is bound with copper rings.”

For Lowenthal, the disjunctiveness of Picabia’s poetry should be seen as a form of abstraction, comparable to that which would be periodically manifested in his paintings. Which is fair enough, except that in poetry the word “abstraction” connotes something dry, detached and possibly pedantic–“personal removal by the poet,” as Frank O’Hara famously put it. Picabia is actually closer to the “personism” that O’Hara set in opposition to abstraction, but which he only half-jokingly considered “so totally opposed to this kind of abstract removal that it is verging on a true abstraction for the first time”–wrongly, since Picabia got there first.

Picabia briefly bruited a post-Dada movement to be called Instantaneism, and what Lowenthal rightly calls his “adherence to the present” is really the substance of what may seem the incoherence or arbitrariness of movement from line to line in his poems. He is so radically focused on the immediate presence of each line that the connections between them can be left to fend for themselves. Meaning exists in the instant, and the instant is continually born anew. As Picabia explained in 1920 to a journalist from, of all places, the proto-Fascist newspaper L’Action française, “We paint without worrying about depicting objects, and we write without taking heed of the meaning of words. We seek only the pleasure of expressing ourselves, but we give the sketches we make, the words we string together, a symbolic meaning, a translation value: not just apart from every common convention, but through an unstable, rash convention, which lasts only as long as the very moment we are utilizing it.” This adhesion to the instant is linked to the second factor in Picabia’s abstraction, which is also a personism, namely, that Picabia’s verse rarely lets go of an intense and implicit specificity of address–usually the addressee is a woman–that allows the most important things to remain unsaid, or to be shamelessly revealed, equally, and thanks to which the poem, as O’Hara put it, “is at last between two persons instead of two pages.”

Between the two stages of Picabia’s poetic career lies his break with Dada and disaffection with any collective avant-garde. Not that he returned to the dreary conservatism of his young manhood; he simply cut his ties and went adrift on his own. Like Giorgio de Chirico, he became one of those artists whose later works were ignored by art history; likewise, his influence as a poet was forgotten. And also, as with de Chirico, his late paintings have since the ’80s undergone recurrent spasms of rediscovery that still have not produced a clear picture of his developing thought as an artist. Baker, too, consigning the later work, literary as well as pictorial, to “the cold, hard land of regression and pastiche,” turns away from it with relief. If Picabia’s early poetry awaits rediscovery, his later work, to some extent, is only now being discovered for the first time.

While Picabia began writing in the shadow of World War I, it merely hovered in the background of most of his early poetry. Twenty-five years later, things would be different; dread of war was the subject that moved him to start writing again: “Since September 1939/the sun seems to have set/everything has grown suspect/everything has grown older/events are nothing more than rumors.” Even living in neutral Switzerland, he felt the threat of violence as a personal threat, but also the spur to expression. Poems of Dingalari, the posthumously published book written in late 1939, ends with these lines: “One can imagine/a long-range shooting/an exceptionally long one would be needed/for the bullet/to remain in my head/and serve me as a quill/to write this book.” Picabia was now writing much differently from twenty years before. His poetry during and after World War II has a new plainness and directness. The exuberance that energized even the most agitated and disturbing images–for instance in the suicide poem “Poison or Revolver”–has turned to a naked melancholy expressed with epigrammatic simplicity.

This new aphoristic tendency is at the heart of what Lowenthal seems to consider his great feat of literary detective work, the discovery that some of Picabia’s late writing, and in particular much of Chi-Lo-Sa, a book of brief aphorism-like poems published in 1950, is taken directly from Nietzsche. Is Lowenthal right to see Picabia’s book as a simple plagiarism of The Gay Science? Even those who agree with Picabia that “if the work of another translates my dream, his work is mine” might concur with Lowenthal that Chi-Lo-Sa makes for “an uncomfortable reading experience” once one recognizes the recurrent source. And yet a comparison between Picabia’s versions and the “originals” cited in Lowenthal’s notes shows that Picabia has adapted and sometimes inverted Nietzsche’s thought to a degree Lowenthal does not acknowledge.

Given that Lowenthal seems to have finished his labors having less respect for Picabia than he may have started out with, it is all the more remarkable that he has presented such a scrupulous translation, one certain to be a standard work for a long time. But it is not the work of a poet. Compare Lowenthal’s version of the first poem from Are We Not Betrayed by Seriousness with the same one from a version of the book (Are We Not Betrayed by Importance) recently published in a microscopic edition by the Massachusetts-based poet Geoffrey Young. Here’s Lowenthal, who titles the poem “Incapable Intoxication”: “I fear that your memory/is going with you/your lips are going to leave/my lips/your heart/left/just like the rest.” And here’s Young’s version of the same work, called “Drunken Stumbling”:

I’m afraid that your memory
will go when you go
your lips
will leave
my lips
your heart
be gone
with the rest

Both versions accurately convey the sense of the original, except for Young’s slight but justifiable liberty with the title, but Young’s brings it into sharper focus while maintaining an intimacy that gets lost in Lowenthal’s translation. Likewise, within I Am a Beautiful Monster itself, the one piece translated by a different hand, Jesus Christ Rastaquouère, shows a distinctly higher level of linguistic verve in a version by poet and art critic Raphael Rubinstein (who, I should disclose, for a long time used to edit my occasional contributions to Art in America). Still, the completeness of Lowenthal’s edition makes it invaluable, and it will be a benchmark against which future translations of particular works can be measured, and which one hopes at least some of them will surpass.

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