In Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties, set during World War I, a British consular official dresses down his snarky manservant: “I will not have you passing moral judgments on my friends. If Mr. Tzara is an artist, that is his misfortune.”
Tristan Tzara was the dean of Dada, the anarchic art movement that derided both the authoritarian and democratic regimes then spewing hateful, ultranationalist propaganda and marching millions of young men off to mechanized slaughter. Tzara spent the war years in neutral Switzerland, where he was much impressed with the poetry and fanciful biomechanical drawings of another refugee from the conflict, Francis Picabia (born in Paris in 1879). The two met in Zurich in 1918, and Dada’s nihilistic deflation of classical standards, such as writing poems by pulling cut-up words from a bag or turning plumbing fixtures into sculpture, heartily appealed to Picabia, a self-proclaimed “Funny Guy.”
“Sardonic” may be the more accurate adjective, as MoMA’s wide-ranging retrospective illustrates. Picabia’s reputation has bounced around over the decades, not least because, as one museum director noted in the mid-1970s, some art-world professionals were put off by this “wildest individualist of the important modern artists and an inveterate egoist.” Scion of a wealthy family, Picabia shared with his friend Marcel Duchamp a love of the transgressive (they both were photographed in drag) and enjoyed skewering the refined status of art as a supposed uplifting and improving pursuit. But unlike Duchamp, who grew to disdain what he termed “retinal art,” Picabia was an irrepressible painter who began his career by mocking his elders through sly imitations of their work. In reproduction, Chestnut Trees, Effect of Sunlight, Munot, Nièvre (1906) appears a worthy, if late to the game, Impressionist canvas. In the flesh, however, the paint lacks that searching quality that emanates from a classic Monet of the 1890s, where the race to capture mood and atmosphere before the sun’s angle irrevocably changed led to swift decisions about color, stroke, texture, and opacity. Instead, Picabia gives the impression that his concern is to paint an idea of light and shade, his strokes more plotted than discovered, perhaps because he was working from photographs rather than en plein air. What he accomplished was image as intellectual stratagem rather than painting as lived experience, an arch appropriation of both the form and concept of Impressionism.
Picabia was as much dandy as Dadaist, reveling in fast automobiles and game women. He combined both obsessions in the 1915 watercolor Behold the Woman, in which a piston drives into the cylinder of an indeterminate machine, some of the surrounding flanges flaring pink and red. With its seemingly levitated, curved planes, another watercolor, The City of New York Perceived Through the Body (1913), achieves a perverse plasticity, as if the building façades were as raw as inflamed skin. Fleshy blobs populate larger versions of these cubist-inspired concoctions, lending a wobbly verve to a painting such as 1914’s Comic Wedlock.
Content was fungible to Picabia, who well understood the painter Maurice Denis’s 1890 dictum, “A painting — before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or an anecdote of some sort — is essentially a flat surface covered with colors, put together in a certain order.” Hence, in 1920, Picabia could splatter ink onto a page and label the drips The Blessed Virgin, having his way with pure abstraction while outraging Catholic sensibilities in the bargain. This double-barreled aesthetic has long appealed to painters who appreciate Picabia’s ability to goad viewers with Dadaist japes while also delivering the visual goods. Ever restless, he broke with Tzara in 1921, pronouncing in print, “Dada will live forever! And thanks to it, dealers will be rich, editors will buy themselves automobiles, and authors will have the Legion of Honor.” Picabia may have been genuine in taking a shot at the commodification of dissent as Dada gained acceptance in some of the same bourgeois circles it claimed to despise, but it was also easy for him to poke fun at the art market since he was backed by family wealth. “Art,” he once proclaimed, “is more expensive than sausages, more expensive than women, more expensive than anything.”
If Picabia’s Impressionism was stilted and his abstraction less fluid than Kandinsky’s and less graceful than Mondrian’s, he found his métier in the South of France, writing to a friend, “I work a lot amid the baccarat whirlwind, the legs whirlwind, the asses whirlwind, the jazz whirlwind.” In another letter, he confessed, “I play baccarat and I lose, but more and more I love this empty and sick atmosphere of the casinos.” Sick whirlwind aptly describes some of Picabia’s interwar output, including grotesque figures embracing during Carnival, where confetti at times falls in a deluge or lingers like Hell’s own dandruff. Oddly, though, these malformed couples appear devoted to each other, which, along with Picabia’s raucous designs and giddy colors, pushes the compositions past thrift-store kitsch and into sophisticated provocation — like Mae West in 1933’s I’m No Angel: “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.”
Later canvases, in which Picabia used outlines of clunky figures in multiple layers, are not better for being bad, instead often falling into muddy inertia. This strategy would nonetheless prove widely influential, resurfacing in David Salle’s turgid mishmashes of nudes in the 1980s and Cecily Brown’s figurative quagmires today. Sigmar Polke, however, was the rare painter who discovered clarity and dynamism in multiple overlays. The German virtuoso, whose endless, peripatetic search for materials and forms did more than any other artist to advance Picabia’s legacy, once said that Picabia taught him that he “did not have to take art so seriously.” This is high praise from an artist whose world-girdling influence has only grown since he died in 2010.
Like millions in Europe, Picabia had the ill fortune to suffer through a second world war. He spent the duration in Vichy France, where he summoned disturbing visions very different from his taunts at the ruling class two decades before. The two realistically painted female figures in Women With Bulldog (c. 1941) were sourced from such softcore porn magazines as Paris Sex Appeal and would not have been out of place amid the Nordic nudes favored by the pooh-bahs of the Third Reich. (Nor would some of the anti-Semitic comments Picabia made over the years.) In the truly unsettling Woman With Idol (1940–43), the German occupiers are an unseen but sadistic presence. A woman wearing only peek-a-boo panties, stockings, and heels climbs into an embrace with a dark-brown effigy, one of its eyes glowing demonically. By 1940 the world well knew of the Nazi purge of “decadent” art — meaning anything “primitive” or modern — from state museums. Was Picabia’s masterful, if salacious, tableau meant to tweak the foreign overlords, or did it seek to affirm their assessment that white female beauty is forever threatened by the Other? At one point Picabia was arrested by the Nazis, but he was shortly released. Others who were not so fortunate later accused Picabia of being the informer who landed them in a Nazi jail until the end of the war. The details have never been determined beyond the fact that the charges eventually faded away, as did Picabia’s photo-derived figuration. He finished his career scattering garish dots over slabs of mottled color, loopily engaging realms with such titles as Double Sun (1950). Picabia died in 1953 in the same Paris house where he had been born.
We all wonder what we would do should the Fascists come: Resist at risk of life and limb? Or collaborate? Or become internal exiles sending coded — not to say, enigmatic — signals to posterity? Maybe in the gilded excrescence of the coming years we will find out, as Picabia did, just what we are capable of.
Francis Picabia: ‘Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction’
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through March 19, 2017