Picabia’s Monsters

Picabia’s Monsters

Even at his most iconoclastic, the French avant-gardist sought to paint life.


Who, really, was Francis Picabia? What kind of man painted the strange and often perverse works, currently on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, that are so perfectly encapsulated in the exhibition’s title: “Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction”? What sustained his willful inconsistency and aversion to commitment?

One thing’s for certain: The Picabia we meet in this show—curated by Ann Umland, Cathérine Hug, and Talia Kwartler, and on view through March 19—isn’t the one who would have been familiar to those of us who took our art-history lessons from MoMA in the 1970s and ’80s. The Picabia who counted then was a sometime abstractionist, sometime Dadaist; if not at the forefront of modern art, he was a close associate of those who were. He painted some of the earliest abstract paintings, such as La Source and Danses à la Source [II], both from 1912, which seem to marry the energy of Robert and Sonia Delaunay’s “orphism” with the somber, almost grisaille palette of Braque’s and Picasso’s early Cubism, but on a grandiose scale. Joining forces with the Dada movement, Picabia turned to painting deadpan diagrams of machine parts, spark plugs, and other such objects, adorned with legends designed to bring out their figurative associations—works like L’Enfant carburateur (1919). While the prewar abstractions, with their evocation of dance and its dynamism, possess infectious high spirits, these later “symbolic representations of man and human situations,” as Picabia scholar William Camfield calls them, contain a derisive power, interpreting feelings and personalities as merely hydraulic or electrical systems. One thinks of Henri Bergson’s famous observation that we laugh when we notice a mechanical element in human behavior. Picabia, eerily, leaves the laughter out.

But how Picabia occupied himself after the early 1920s and the dissolution of Dada as a movement was hardly known, at least to habitués of the major museums. Only in the 1980s, long after the artist’s death in 1953, did they begin to accord much honor to his later works. Before that, they were interesting primarily to a few fellow artists; Richard Hamilton, for instance, co-organized a 1964 exhibition at London’s ICA that included a few of Picabia’s later works. It wasn’t until 1976 that an exhibition at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris finally attempted to show the full range of work by a man whom the museum’s director, Pontus Hultén, could still rightly call “the most obscure of the great modern artists.”

By 1983, when another big Picabia retrospective traveled from Düsseldorf to Zurich and Stockholm, the influential critic Laszlo Glozer could proclaim his work “the bible of the young generation.” The ascension to prominence of artists like Sigmar Polke and Martin Kippenberger in Germany and David Salle and Mike Kelley in the United States—to name just a few—suddenly threw a spotlight on Picabia as an unexpected precursor. He came to be seen (as the Swiss artist Peter Fischli remarks in an interview for the catalog of the current MoMA show) as a “pre-postmodern,” thanks to that same stylistic inconsistency and attitudinal contrariness that had previously made him impossible to digest. Picabia “never set out to create an authentic, unique artistic persona” and “was a master of le bien mal fait—done badly in a good way,” as Fischli says.

This cultivated inauthenticity and deliberate wrongness was exactly what made him fascinating to so many artists. To grasp this means coming to terms with all of Picabia’s work, and especially with the paintings he made in the last three decades of his life. Here’s Salle, also interviewed for the MoMA catalog, on his first catching sight of the late Picabia in 1981—worth quoting at length because he sums up, with such infectious enthusiasm, the kind of reaction Picabia can still elicit:

Something about the style—so lurid and melodramatic and full of unlikely juxtapositions, not to mention the somewhat ham-handed way of painting, with its chiseled brushstrokes alternating with little curlicues, and the unabashedly eroticized magazine imagery presented front and center—all that struck a chord in me. I had never seen painting as untethered to notions of taste, or even intention; there was no way of knowing how to take them, or even whether to take them seriously…. The freedom in those pictures buoyed me up. It was an exhilarating feeling.

So that’s our Picabia: a painter whose very maladroitness can leave you feeling uplifted—provided you are willing to enter a profound state of unknowing. But even for those of us who sometimes like that feeling, there’s still a nagging question in the background: What is it that we’re allowing ourselves not to know when we’re enjoying this state of unknowing? That question brings me back to the one I started with: What sort of man was it who made these paintings?

Born in 1879 in Paris, Picabia came from a background of wealth—his mother’s family from the French bourgeoisie, his Cuban-­born father supposedly descended from Spanish nobility. He liked to play up this “exotic” strain in his bloodline, just as he liked to inhabit the role of the dissolute playboy driving fast cars, throwing lavish parties, and enjoying multiple lovers. Family money or no, Picabia began earning a living by painting at a young age. Hardly a rebel at first, he pleased the public by painting in the familiar fashion of the Impressionists, a couple generations older than himself. But he soon threw that over to join forces with the avant-garde.

Maybe they just seemed to be having more fun, but I can’t help wondering if there wasn’t something irritating about being a painter named Picabia in the Paris of the 1910s and ’20s: Almost every time you overheard someone saying, “Don’t you love those new paintings by Pica—” and your ears pricked up, you’d have to hear the sentence finished with “-sso” rather than “-bia” and live down the disappointment. But perhaps it was that Picabia also wanted to escape, in his painting, from his own personality as well as from the shadow cast by Picasso. In this way, Picasso and Picabia were alike: Their careers show more unpredictable changes of style than almost any other major modern painter.

Politics is another matter. Picasso was a leftist and eventually a member of the French Communist Party. Picabia was, at a minimum, apolitical, and while he lived through an era when it was seemingly impossible not to take sides, no one really knows what side he took. The crux of the question can be summed up by the title of an article by the French art historian Yve-Alain Bois, published in French in 1976 and in English translation eight years later: “Picabia: From Dada to Pétain.” If Picabia’s work was ignored for so long, Bois’s analysis of the “lamentable” arc of the artist’s career would suggest, that was because his work became not only stylistically regressive and disingenuous, but also prey to the worst kind of politically reactionary tendencies. But the facts are not so clear.

In her contribution to the MoMA catalog, Michèle C. Cone, an art historian who’s made a particular study of cultural life in Vichy France, finds Picabia’s political behavior during the war to be “murky: he befriended people on both sides of the political divide, frequented a restaurant that was a favorite haunt of the local Gestapo, took as a lover the wife of a man who worked for the Resistance, and gave shelter to a couple who had to live in hiding.” Some thought the kitschy realism of Picabia’s wartime paintings too close for comfort to the neoclassical aesthetic promoted by the Nazis, although it could just as easily be seen as a send-up of that. As with Picabia’s politics and ethics, so with his aesthetics: There’s often something that feels wrong, even corrupt about his paintings, but his stance toward not only what he paints but how he paints it can’t be pinned down—and anyway, whatever it is that arouses your suspicion, he’s sure to have dropped it for something completely different within a few years.

However murky Picabia’s intentions, his recurrent shifts in style turn out to make for a very clearly organized exhibition. The 11 sections of the MoMA show are clearly delineated—after all, almost every one of them could have been the work of a different artist. “Beginnings, 1905–1911,” shows Picabia practicing his counterfeit Impressionism. The young artist had considerable success at the time with these shameless imitations of Monet, Sisley, and others less known, but rather than doing them by studying natural-light conditions on-site, in accord with Impressionist method, he did his paintings from postcards.

The Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, among other critics, understandably denounced the imposture, and the pictures seem pretty ham-handed compared with their models. But you can’t say that Picabia was a Johnny-come-lately to the game of inauthenticity he would play with assurance for most of the rest of his career—in fact, in almost everything he did except for the work in the next section, “Abstractions, 1912–1914.” The best paintings of this period, notably the monumentally scaled pair from 1913, Udnie (Jeune fille américaine; danse) and Edtaonisl (ecclésiastique), are so brilliantly high-spirited that there can be no question of inauthenticity: Anything so physically tumultuous leaves all question of intention far behind.

With the exhibition’s third section, “Dada, 1915–1922”—the era of the so-called mechanomorphs—Picabia seems to have recovered his cynicism, the way someone else might have recovered his faith. But the cool humor of these pieces has an obviousness that might be its own form of unintentional sincerity; the attitude is “legible” in a way it would not often be in Picabia’s subsequent work—including the paintings in the immediately following fourth and fifth sections, covering the years 1922 to 1924, when Picabia began practicing—and exhibiting side by side—a multitude of styles: abstract and figurative, refined and hopelessly kitschy. Sometimes, as in the ink, watercolor, and pencil drawing Conversation (1922), with its fragmented torsos of female nudes floating higgledy-piggledy over a pattern of vertical black stripes, he combined opposing styles in one painting. It was at this time, too, that Picabia collaborated with Érik Satie on the ballet Relâche and its cinematic spin-off Entr’acte, made with René Clair.

It’s really in section six, “Collages and Monsters, 1924–1927,” that Picabia’s taste for the ersatz, underdeveloped since the days of his fake Impressionism, emerges in earnest. “Collages” here means not necessarily works on paper but canvases, sparingly painted with concisely linear, almost pictogram-­like images with small objects affixed to them—for instance, a woman’s head, with the hair indicated by matchsticks, or a still life of a potted plant whose stems are straws and the leaves, toothpicks. These are funny, elegantly irreverent paeans to improvisational light-footedness over the strictures of craft. They could almost be the work of an amateur hobbyist, though by putting some of them in ultra-opulent Art Deco frames, Picabia turned these materially poor relief pictures into objects of suspect luxury. The “Monsters,” by contrast, are heavily worked canvases, often made by editing his own oil paintings with flat, inexpressively colorful dashes of enamel; images of embracing lovers copied from sentimental postcards are transformed into fascinatingly hideous grotesques.

By this point, Picabia had abandoned Paris for the Côte d’Azur, where he was spending as much time gambling as painting. “I play baccarat and I lose,” he wrote to the poet Robert Desnos in 1924, “but more and more I love this empty and sick atmosphere of the casinos.” It’s exactly this attraction to the “empty and sick” that distinguishes the “Monsters” and much of Picabia’s subsequent work: the “Transparencies, 1927–1930,” with their woozily overlapping, sometimes almost-inextricable layers of imagery; the blunter, less elaborate works prolonging the caustic impulses behind the “Monsters” and “Transparencies” that he was making in the mid- to late 1930s, which at MoMA are grouped under the rubric “Eclecticism and Iconoclasm, 1934–1938”; and above all, the wartime “Photo-Based Paintings, 1940–1943,” which, in contrast to his works of the late ’20s, no longer need their found imagery doctored to bring out its monstrousness.

All the more surprising, then, that the exhibition’s final section (1946–1952) finds the elderly artist now returning to abstraction. But his last works are as different from the symphonies of heaving movement he’d painted in the years before World War I, or the geometrical drawings that crop up amid the tacky Spanish ladies and so on in his try-anything period of the early ’20s, as they are from his monstrous figure paintings. The post–World War II abstractions come in two distinct species: Some are dark, brooding compositions with biomorphic forms, sometimes reminiscent of masks or weathered bones (Kalinga, 1946; Niagara, 1947), while others form a group sometimes referred to as “Points,” which feature small dots or circles floating in heavily textured, often monochromatic grounds.

These last paintings, which somehow look offhand and overworked at once, suggest that Picabia had lost interest in shocking or provoking his audience. (If he had any interest left in it at all, he would give offense only through the art of disappointment.) “Does showing works so slight mean Picabia sees abstract art as a dead, expiring cadaver?” one critic wondered. For another, there was little more in the paintings of this period than “matter that has been fairly fiddled with…irritating when we see it tirelessly repeated.”

I wasn’t irritated, but rather amazed. These are the skin and bones of painting without the sinews to hold them together, and yet somehow they don’t fall apart. Maybe it’s nothing more than what the title of one of them, from 1948, calls Cynisme et indécence—­cynicism and indecency—that motivates them, but Picabia’s late-late period needs to be looked into a little more deeply. Several of the titles for his work then, as well as much of the poetry he was writing at this time, are cribbed from Friedrich Nietzsche, who in The Gay Science exclaimed: “How close work and the worker are now even to the most leisurely among us! The royal courtesy of the saying ‘We are all workers’ would have been cynical and indecent as recently as the reign of Louis XIV.” Nietzsche’s dig at “workerism” would have been catnip to Picabia, who might have been ambiguous in his attitude toward fascism but was definitely horrified by communism. But I wonder if he knew that, around the same time that Nietzsche was writing The Gay Science, Karl Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue was composing The Right to Be Lazy, whose very title seems to evoke Picabia’s willingness to let his last works grow so slight. And yet they are works, and, judging by their more than “fiddled with” surfaces, more labor went into them than they at first show.

Rightly or wrongly, Picabia—who had spent so many years playing the cynic—was sure that it wasn’t he who was cynical and indecent, much as he may have wanted to be. If his late works so often seem to approach pure vacancy, or what Arnauld Pierre in the MoMA catalog calls “a collection of non-interventions that leave nothing more than a near-anomic space,” the painter is neither laughing it off nor making a drama out of it, but simply putting in exactly the amount of effort—no more, no less—that he needed to maintain his fidelity to an entirely disenchanted materialist vision. At the very bottom of his cynicism, it seems that Picabia had found, if not exactly something to believe in, then at least something to count on: not thoughts, which proved circular enough to be inscrutable, but matter—which is, after all, something that can’t be faked.

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