When Dada Daddies
When the DADA Daddies Got Real, or How I Turned Picabia Inside Out
Philip Pearlstein, March 18, 2002
Three years ago I had an exhibition in Paris of recent paintings at a commercial gallery. At a dinner following the opening, the woman I sat next to spoke minimal English to compliment my minimal French. However she managed to tell me of her two recent acquisitions as a collector: an Eric Fischl painting of nudes and one of Francis Picabia’s late paintings of nudes. She also managed to tell me that she found my paintings eccentric, and wondered what they meant. Sensing that she was not about to add one of my works to her collection, I blurted out that I had turned Picabia inside out. Then I spent the rest of the dinner trying to explain (in a mix of languages) that Francis Picabia and his friend Marcel Duchamp first determined their subject matter, then found the technical means with which to realize it in painting. Conversely, I start with the technical part and let the subject matter be interpreted however a viewer wants.
I explained that almost a half century ago, in 1955, I completed an MA thesis on the work of Picabia, which I had started in 1952. About halfway through my research, for which I was learning to read French in order to translate most of the material, Picabia died. Briefly, I was the leading authority in the English language on Picabia, and I published a major article in “Arts” magazine in 1954 that contained the central idea of my thesis, summed up in the title, “The Secret Language of Francis Picabia”. Because Picabia and his younger friend Duchamp were such close intellectual collaborators during the decade 1910-1920, the article and the thesis were as much about Duchamp as it was about Picabia. They were the artists who were most central to the DADA movement during the years of World War 1.
I was then enrolled as a student of art history at the New York University Institute of Fine Art. In the spring of 1955, almost a year after the article was published I presented the first draft of my MA thesis to my acting faculty advisor, Dr. Horace G. Janson. My faculty advisor of record was Dr. Jose Lopez-Rey who was away on leave. After a cursory reading, Dr. Janson asked me to reorganize the material in chronological order, rather than the scheme of grouping ideas that I had worked out. As this was in the stone-age time of hand-written first drafts and badly type-written second drafts, it was about six months until my next meeting with Dr. Janson. The thesis was accepted, and with the acceptance of the thesis I felt my career in art history had ended. I felt that I now knew all about the history of modernist art, and it seemed to belong to a far away past. I would now concentrate on my own development as an artist.
The paintings I had done after leaving undergraduate school in 1949 were a group of proto-Pop paintings. These included images of the Statue of Liberty, the American Eagle, and Superman. The images of a few earlier paintings were based on shapes I had taken from the industrial catalogs that I was then employed on as a low-level graphic designer doing what were then called “mechanicals”. These paintings were based on Alcoa aluminum architectural products, and on American –Standard plumbing units. Even earlier, as a draftee into the US Infantry in 1943 during WW 2, I had spent several months creating charts of the workings of infantry weapons and paraphernalia. It was these images that I had drafted that led me to my interest in the DADA works of Picabia and Duchamp in which they used the same kind of mechanical shapes. However, by 1955 my paintings were based on generalized landscape themes and the Abstract-Expressionist calligraphic use of paint came to dominate them. Then during a year spent in Italy I made a series of drawings and paintings of Roman ruins that became increasingly specific.
After my return to New York the nude human figure replaced landscape as my chief subject, simply because it was easier to find models I could hire to come to my studio in New York than to find the kind of landscapes I would have liked to paint. By 1960 I was labeled a “Super-Realist” as I concentrated on painting nude models from direct visual observation in my own studio. Over time the paintings evolved from simple figure studies to complex compositions. The study I had made of the ideas that motivated Francis Picabia in the first quarter of the 20th century became a faded memory.
At the time the thesis was done, the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, was home for a brilliant group of Europe’s leading scholars of art history Dr. Walter W.S. Cook had appointed during World War 2, one of whom was Irwin Panofsky. Dr. Panofsky’s main thrust, as I understood it, was the study of the symbols and signs embodied in a work of art that give it its meaning in relation to the society that produced it. Picabia’s and Duchamp’s work from 1910-1920 fits that prescription perfectly. However, as a young artist I was frustrated by that emphasis of societal values. I wanted to know how the work of art was done –its technology: so my thesis aimed to demonstrate the manner in which the symbolism imbedded in the work of art influences the technology of the artist.
In the early 1950’s Picabia and Duchamp were forgotten, unknown as artists to the educated art public, though Duchamp, who lived in New York, had a reputation as an eccentric who played chess in Washington Square. The fact that both of these artists would later become cultural icons was not predictable in 1955. Nor was the fact that the last works of both were to be Realist. In 1955 Picabia’s paintings of female nudes that he had copied from erotic magazines were unknown. And Duchamp’s three-dimensional installation of the figure of a naked woman lying on her back with her crotch exposed to the observer who must look through a knot hole in a barn door to see it, was not yet in the Philadelphia Museum.
I spent about three years deciphering the meanings of their works, and I realized that their signs and symbols were so esoteric and arbitrary that they would always be open to new interpretations. But along the way I had educated myself in major aspects of the various technologies they borrowed, enhanced or invented out of Cubism, Futurism, and Symbolism.
This aspect of invention in modernist painting continues to fascinate me, but in 1955 I felt saturated with modernism. The big lesson I had learned from writing the thesis was that though the character of a work of art is determined by its subject, its value as a work of art is determined by the elegance of its technology. As a young painter I decided to concentrate on the technology of the style of painting that most excited me then which was called Action Painting or Abstract Expressionism. I decided to concentrate on the carpentry of putting together the image, and let the meanings of my subjects take their chances with whoever looked at the paintings.
I spent my evening in Paris talking my way out of the response I had made in surprise at the mention of Picabia. Now I was confronted by the fact that my paintings of the nude figure were viewed by this collector as being in direct competition to the paintings of nudes by the DADAist who had been the subject of my thesis half a century ago. My newly aroused sense of competition with Picabia climaxed the next day when I was shown the new issue of the art magazine, “Connaissance des Arts” that had a page devoted to my exhibition with reproductions of two of my paintings. However, that same issue of the magazine also had an article several pages long on Picabia’s paintings of nudes from the 1940’s, with several reproductions of paintings along with the photos from the erotic magazines he had painted them from.
As an amateur art historian I believe that the newly aroused taste for Picabia’s paintings of nudes can be seen as an after-glow of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe multiples. Though they were created decades before the Warhols, they were not seen at the time they were made. They were hidden away during a protracted legal battle around the settlement of Picabia’s estate (there were at least two successive legal wives). If they had been seen at the time of their creation I believe that they would have been seen as the last twist in a career of many stylistic changes. Like Duchamp’s installation in the Philadelphia Museum of the young lady with spread legs, they would have been seen as a nose-thumbing gesture aimed at the art-loving audience. They would have not been seen as Pop Art before the historical fact of Pop Art.
I believe serious attention is paid to these paintings primarily because of Picabia’s previous significance in the early history of 20th century art which rests largely on his being the father of DADA, or at least sharing the parentage of DADA with Duchamp. However, Picabia was important in several other ways. In fact, Picabia epitomized what the current phrase “Dead, White European, Male Artist”, implies. He spouted a number of influential ideas. He was the major force in the United States in creating the public awareness of Cubism and Futurism. He seems to have been the prime originator of the second phase of Cubism, usually referred to as “Synthetic” Cubism. In addition to his DADA works he was a pioneer in the exploration of ideas that were among the foundations of Surrealism alongside Andre Breton. And he was just as important in the history of early 20th century poetry as in painting. He co-edited the poetry magazine, “The Little Review”, with Ezra Pound. Also he was a friend of, and an influence on Gertrude Stein. In her “Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas”, Gertrude Stein said Picabia is the greatest of modern painters.
In 1921 Pound paid tribute to Picabia’s attempt to render his thoughts pictorially. Pound wrote: “Given the boy genius, Picasso, who apparently couldn’t help master-drawing in his etchings of acrobats and who, apart from his pencil and brushes, has so far as one knows, never had an idea in his life… (I) find a means of trying to convey my meaning in the contrast of Picabia, who is regarded or has been generally regarded as a mere eccentric…I do not present Picabia as a master painter, nor as a master sculptor in the sense that Brancusi is a sculptor, or Picasso a master draftsman, or Matisse a beautifully gifted manipulator of color; but Picabia does, on the other hand, work in a definite medium to which one may give an interim label of thought…There is perhaps no sign of that kind of visual receptivity which underlies the nervous outlines of a Picasso, but there is a very clear exteriorization of Picabia’s mental activity.”
Picabia was born in Paris in 1879. His father was Spanish, his mother French. His family was wealthlived the life of a playboy until the 1930s. His last years were spent in ill health, comparative seclusion and poverty. He died in Paris on November 30, 1953. Perhaps because of his wealth, he apparently never felt the need to build a professional career as an artist. He could indulge in any artistic deviation he was able to dream up, and be as obscure and oblique in symbolism as he wished. Many of his works are private jokes, to be understood only by his circle of friends. He could afford to live, he said, “as a nomad, to traverse ideas as one does countries.” He summed up his attitude towards his art in the title of his retrospective show in Paris in 1949: “50 ans de plaisirs”, and in his statement in the catalog that painting for him could be “what opium is to others.”
Most of his paintings until 1908 were Impressionistic. These were followed in 1909 by landscapes that approach abstraction. But also in 1909, he made a leap into his future, painting in water-color the work called “Caoutchouc” (Rubber), which historically was given the honor of being the first abstract painting, but which I demoted when I decided that it has a bouncing rubber ball as its subject. It was his first work to embody characteristics identified with Cubism and Futurism. (I now feel that this painting may have originated as a spoof of early Cubism and Futurism). He became increasingly concerned with abstraction (though the word –abstraction- was not yet in use in 1909). Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia who was his wife until their divorce in 1919, wrote a useful memoir of their time together. She wrote that when they first met in 1908, he spoke… “of revolutionary transformations in pictorial vision, and the hypothesis of a painting endowed with a life of its own, exploiting the visual field solely for the sake of an arbitrary and poetic organization of forms and colors, free from the need to represent or transpose the forms of nature as we are accustomed to see them…”.
By 1911 Picabia was a member of the Cubist group and had become a close friend of Marcel Duchamp. For the rest of the decade, in considering Picabia’s concern with motion and simultaneity, the visual treatment of the machine and its symbolism, I found it necessary to consider Duchamp’s concern with them, for they exchanged ideas and paralleled one another in their paintings. Picabia arrived first at some of these ideas, as seen by “Caoutchouc” of 1909, in which movement, transparency, and abstraction are already present, while the younger Duchamp had only evolved to a Cezanne-like representational style. However, in 1911 Duchamp painted “Moulin a Café (Coffee-grinder), which became the prototype of both his and Picabia’s drawings and paintings of machines. Duchamp never spoke of Picabia as an influence, but later named Raymond Roussel, who was a philologist, philosopher, metaphysician, poet and playwright, as among his main influences. Duchamp said “that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter and Roussel showed me the way”. The themes of Duchamp’s culminating painting, “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even”, was based on a play by Roussel.
In 1912 Picabia became the friend of Guillaume Apollinaire, who was a poet, an art critic, and the chief spokesman for the Cubist painters. During the year that followed the three-way exchange of ideas between Picabia, Duchamp and Appolinaire led to the attitudes about painting and about society that became Picabia’s subject matter for the next decade. And by 1912, Picabia had added the concept that abstract shapes and colors were as capable of arousing emotions as were the sounds of music, to his concept of painting as the exploitation of “the visual field solely for the sake of an arbitrary and poetic organization of forms and colors.” He later transformed these concepts of painting into a language of visual symbols capable not only of arousing generalized emotions, but of conveying the subtleties of the artist’s thoughts and specific emotions.
In 1913 this exchange of ideas led to Apollinaire’s setting up a second main branch of Cubism in his discussions of the Cubist aesthetics. The first main branch he called Scientific Cubism, the Cubism of Braque and Picasso, which Apollinaire felt was concerned primarily with the analysis of real objects. The second main branch, he called Orphic Cubism, which he defined as an art of the mind: the forms the artist paints are of his own invention, unrelated to forms in nature; and the artist is concerned with the meaning conveyed by the subject matter. Apollinaire wrote: “The work of the Orphic artist must simultaneously give a pure aesthetic pleasure, a structure which is self evident and a sublime meaning, that is, the subject”
The idea of publishing a book came about one evening when , according to Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, …“Picabia, always eager for arguments, action, and planning campaigns, conceived the necessity of a publication in which Apollinaire would analyze in detail the present state of the New Painting…”. Picabia would pay the cost of publication, and Appolinaire would bring together essays which he had already published, and would add a study of each artist with reproductions. Gabrielle wrote that…” The project ran into much bickering and opposition…Apollinaire made a very good best of a bad job…”. The published book, Apollinaire’s, “the Cubist Painters”, remains the basic text of the Cubist movement.
In January 1913, Picabia was the only major European artist to come to New York City to attend the Armory Show which introduced the work of so many modern artists to America. Picabia immediately became part of the circle around Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer, publisher, gallery owner, and pioneer in presenting modern art to the American public. During his stay in New York Picabia made a series of statements to the press expressing his aesthetic philosophy. He also made a series of abstract water-color paintings which conveyed his excitement about New York city that were given an exhibition at the Steiglitz Gallery.
One of my early memories is of a 1930s movie in which a suave actor dressed in an artist’s smock and beret, in a room full of elegantly dressed people at a cocktail party, sings a song explaining “modern art”. Appropriate paintings are on the walls to illustrate his song-lecture. The line I remember best was something like “We don’t paint the whistle, but the …(sound of a whistle)”. The painting he points to is composed of spirals. The song made a number of such comparisons. The message of that song was basic art education for most Americans - it certainly was for me. It was a simplistic presentation of the ideas Picabia expressed in the newspaper interviews given during the exhibition. These interviews were widely circulated. He briefly was Mr. Modern Art, and his statements were, I believe, crucial to the evolution of esthetic opinion in this country largely by way of a couple of teachers A.J. Eddy and Arthur Wesley Dow, at Columbia University’s Teachers College. (The paintings of Georgia O’keefe who was a graduate of Columbia Teachers College reflect Picabia’s modernist ideas, as do the paintings of Arthur Dove, who was another artist in the Steiglitz circle).
Picabia said: “You of New York should be quick to understand me and my fellow painters. Your New York is the Cubist, the Futurist city. It expresses in its architecture, its life, its spirit, the modern thought. You have passed through all the old schools, and are Futurists in word and deed and thought…Because of your extreme modernity you should easily understand the studies which I have made since my arrival in New York. They express the spirit of New York as I feel it, and the crowded streets of your city as I feel them, their surging, their unrest… You see no form? No substance? Is it that I go out into your city and see nothing? I see much, much more perhaps than you who are used to it see. I see your stupendous skyscrapers, your mammoth buildings and marvelous subways, a thousand evidences of your great wealth on all sides. The tens of thousands of workers and toilers, your alert and shrewd-looking shop girls, all hurrying somewhere. I see your theater crowds at night gleaming, fluttering…But I do not paint these things which my eye sees. I paint that which my brain, my soul sees. I walk from the Battery to Central Park…I hear every language in the world spoken, the staccato of the New Yorker, the soft cadences of the Latin people, the heavy rumble of the Teutonic, and the ensemble remains in my soul as the ensemble of some great opera.” “I absorb these impressions in my brain. I am in no hurry to put them on canvas. I let them remain in my brain, and then when the spirit of creation is at flood tide, I improvise my pictures as a musician improvises music. The harmonies of my studies grow and take form under my brush, as the musician’s harmonies grow under his fingers. His music is from his brain and his soul just as my studies are from my brain and soul. Is this not clear to you?”
When I first read this I remember wondering if Picabia really spoke in English so eloquently, or if some one at his side translated. I became acquainted with some of the watercolor paintings of New York that Steiglitz exhibited when I spoke to the dealer Leo Castelli about Picabia shortly after my article appeared in 1954. He offered to show me some of those paintings that were in his collection, and he gave me black and white photographs of several of them.
To illustrate his ideas Picabia spoke of his “Procession a Seville”, which was exhibited at the Armory show. Composed of abstract shapes which he used to refer to forms in nature, the painting seems close in style to those1908 works of Braque and Picasso in which the solid forms are literally cubed as an analysis of forms in nature. Picabia, however, used the cubed forms simply as a convention. He spoke of “having left the plane of the five senses and of being concerned solely with psychic perception”. He said… “Had he painted “Procession a Seville” through his senses, he would have produced a more or less photographic work, but he had progressed to the interpretation of the idea or concept of a religious procession, which concept had evoked religious and other emotions from his esthetic nature, and these he had materialized in a harmony produced through the arrangement of color and form –“the language which the evolutive art imposes upon itself.”
Of the watercolor paintings exhibited, “Chanson Negre” was the one that most successfully demonstrated to reviewer the capacity of his psychic perception to invent the proper symbols. Picabia said that purple was the inevitable and dominating color that sprang to his consciousness when he heard the songs of the Negroes, and he was delighted when later he was told by Steiglitz …”that purple was the favorite color of most Negroes”. The “Negre” of this painting is made up of cluster of curvilinear shapes in an ambiguous symbol of a human with a large twisted mouth . The singer seems to be illuminated by a spotlight . I decided that she is a night-club singer.
Radical as they may have seemed in 1913 to his American audience, Picabia’s idea of the direct expressiveness of the esthetic elements, was commonly accepted in 19th century France, and was elaborated in the concept of “Correspondences”. Though attempts to establish a scientific basis for the idea were never successful, the symbolist poets and painters accepted the theory as fact. Baudelaire, in his poem entitled “Correspondences”, stated that “Scents, colors and sounds answer to one another”. Picabia’s statement, “We must devote ourselves to setting down on our canvas not things, but emotions produced in our minds by things”, has its parallel in Mallarme’s formula the artist must “paint not the thing itself but the effect it produces.” And Picabia’s analogy of painting and music probably has its origin in the regard the Symbolists showed for music as pure expression, divorced from materiality. The attribution of direct emotional expressiveness to music was even made in antiquity by Plato.
It has continually surprised me that Picabia seems not to have heard of Kandinsky, whose book, “On the Spiritual in Art” appeared in 1912, and covers a lot of the same ground. In the 1950’s Kandinsky’s book was frequently referred to by many of the New York artists involved in the Abstract Expressionist movement, and many artists were motivated in their paintings by ideas expressed in it.
In another of his interviews in New York in 1913, Picabia seems to speak directly to the painter that I have become, painting only what my eyes see. He said: “Art, Art, what is art? Is it copying faithfully a person’s face? A landscape? No, that is machinery. Painting nature as she is is not art, it is mechanical genius. The old masters turned out by hand… the most faithful copes of what they saw. ..Those old masters were, and their modern followers are faithful depictors of the actual, but I do not call that art today because we have outgrown it…Creating a picture without models is art….(the paintings of the old masters) are to us what the alphabet is to the child. ..we moderns express the spirit of the modern time, the 20th century”. My paintings of nude people are painted with the people posing in front of me, and my primary concern is the faithful depiction of the forms in that particular pose and space and light. In contrast with my paintings from direct observation, Picabia’s paintings are of photographs that he chose for their subject of naked figures. They are an extension of the “ready mades” of the DADA years. Duchamp’s figure in the Philadelphia installation may also be seen as “ ready- made”. It may have been assembled from parts cast from life, as is evidenced by the collection he produced of small sculptures that are cast impressions of small sections of the model’s body, usually of areas where deep creases occur.
The paintings Picabia created in the first half of 1913 are characterized by the sharp contours given to the abstract shapes that compose them. These shapes may be seen as his response to the 20th century “machine esthetic”. He did not actually depict machine forms until after his return to Paris. (As noted, Duchamp is credited with the first painting of a specific machine, the “Moulin a café”, of 1910, that diagrams the mechanical workings of that machine). In late 1913 a significant shift in Picabia’ subject matter works also occurred. Until then his subjects had derived from such ordinary experiences as going to a night-club, for most of the next decade his subject matter was drawn from his attitude toward society at large. Now, Picabia in company with Duchamp and Apollinaire nurtured the viewpoint that would be defined later by the word DADA , that is, the observation of the futility and contradictions inherent in all aspects of human endeavor resulting from industrialization, along with a condemnation of what was felt to be the false values held by bourgeois society, including the values of “High Art”, usually expressed with great wit, but with no political agenda involved. This exchange of ideas between Picabia, Duchamp and Apollinaire, in which they tried to outdo one another in their blasphemes was described by Gabrielle Buffete-Picabia as “…forays of demoralization, witticism and clowning. Better than by any rational method, they pursued the disintegration of the concept of art, substituting a personal dynamism, individual forces of suggestion and projections, for the codified values of formal beauty…this climate of invention contained all the germs of what later became DADA, and even of later developments….they arrived at certain postulates which soon developed into the arcana of the new plasticity and poetics, such as the calligrams and conversation poems of Apollinaire, the “readymades” of Duchamp, and above all, the intrusion into the plastic field of the ‘machine’, this newcomer issued from the mind of man, this veritable “daughter born without a mother”, as Picabia called (it)…”.
Picabia and Duchamp saw new potentials in the use of the machine as subject for painting. They saw that machines and machine parts could resemble parts of the human body. This idea, when added to that of the machine as the visual symbol of modern society, allowed them to create images of machine parts caricaturing human relationships and attitudes. Picabia’s drawing, “La fille nee sans mere”, was his first depiction of her. It was drawn on the back of a New York hotel dinning- room menu. It became the basis of the composition of the painting “Je revois en souvinir ma chere Udnie”, which I translated as “I see My Dear Udnie Again in Memory”, was his earliest work to function this way. The first of Marcel Duchamp’s were “La passage de la vierge a la mariee” (The virgin becomes the bride), and “Mariee” (The Bride) of 1912.
In Je revois en souvinir ma chere Udnie” the machine elements are analogous to the sexual organs. As this painting has its compositional origin in the drawing “Fille nee sans mere”, I assumed that the “fille” of the drawing is implicit in the painting. Behind Picabia’s imagery of the “daughter born without a mother” is the idea that the machine was conceived in the mind of man, and born into the world through the efforts of his body, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. That his child of man’s intellect should be feminine is due to the fact that in French the noun “machine” has feminine gender, and that reference to a machine as “she” is common throughout the world. Having created this female being, man provides for her needs and uses her body, she becomes his mistress. The sentiment of the title suggests a middle-aged man fondly remembering a former mistress. What is depicted visually is his memory of sexual intercourse with her, presented in ideographic terms.
Another of the monumentally sized paintings done in late 1913 is entitled “Edtaonisl, Ecclesiastique”. The subject matter of this work, when deciphered by the clues offered in the titles of other of Picabia’s paintings of this time, is the beating of the heart of a clergyman who watches a star dancer and her troupe rehearsing on the deck of a transatlantic liner. Also dating from 1913 is a portrait of “Udnie, jeune fille americaine” this time fully clothed.
Picabia’s public participation in DADA activities began during his second trip to New York after induction into the French army. According to Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, Picabia served as a general’s chauffeur until an influential friend managed to save him from barracks life by entrusting him with an important mission to Cuba. He was to go by way of New York, and sailed, with Gabrielle, in April, 1915. Meeting Marcel Duchamp and a group of old friends in New York, he forgot his mission and stayed. As a soldier in the French army, this might have turned out badly, but thanks to his dissipated life in New York, he fell seriously ill. He got a series of medical leaves of absence that carried him to the end of the war. Gabrielle wrote..”No sooner had we arrived than we became part of a motley international band that turned night into day, conscientious objectors of all nationalities and walks of life living in an inconceivable orgy of sexuality, jazz and alcohol…a group of artists, mostly European, whose leading lights were Duchamp and Picabia, gathered in the gallery of Alfred Steiglitz at 291 Fifth Avenue, or at the home of Walter and Lou Arensberg…”
Sometime in 1952 I visited Lou Arensberg in his home in Hollywood, California. We had tea and cookies, and were surrounded by the crates that contained his collection that were soon to leave for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He told me that Picabia and Duchamp were extreme alchoholics, and in the early 1920’s Picabia was told by his doctor that his badly damaged liver was about to kill him. Picabia and Duchamp both stopped drinking, and with that, in Arensberg’s opinion, their creative genius left them.
The paintings and drawings Picabia began in 1915 in New York are of mechanical forms executed with objective precision, with words and phrases lettered on their surfaces. He participated in illustrating, writing and editing Steiglitz’ newly founded magazine, “ 291”. “291”, which was the street number on Fifth Avenue of the Steiglitz Gallery, embodied the Dada spirit, but the word DADA was not yet invented. It was invented the following year, 1916, by a group of artists and poets in Zurich who shared the spirit and aims of the group in New York, but were unknown to them.
In January of 1917, Gabrielle and Picabia left New York for Barcelona, and where they met another group of artists who were also refugees from the war. In Barcelona Picabia began to publish “391”, as a sequel to “291”. The cover of the March, 1920, issue carried one of the most famous of all Dada works, the reproduction of the “Mona Lisa” on which Duchamp drew a moustache. Duchamp later said of this reproduction that it is a copy by Picabia of Duchamp’s original which wasn’t available, and that the letters of its title, L.H.O.O.Q., make an obscene pun when pronounced in French fashion: “Elle a chaud au cul”, which I translated as “she has a hot ass”.
In 1918 Picabia went to Switzerland for medical treatment and while there he published “Poems et dessins de la fille nee sans mere”, and other books of poetry. These books brought him to the attention of the Zurich Dadaists. This Zurich group had made the Caberet Voltaire their headquarters. They originally organized to be a focal point of avant-garde art, but soon the expression of the senselessness of the war and their hostility towards and ridicule of society dominated their activity.
The origin of many of the techniques used by the Dadaists was in the work of 19th century of writers and poets who experimented with automatism in which the subconscious dictates the flow of words, who played with the surprise of chance juxtapositions, and allowed the sounds of words to dictate their use rather than their meaning, and who invented words when necessary. The Dadaists transposed these literary principles to their graphic work. As I was working in the field of graphic design at the time I researched the thesis, I admired Picabia’s inventiveness with typography and page layout in the publications with which he was involved. But Picabia had probably found a prototype in the manner in which Mallarme’s poem, “Un coup de des”, was printed with varied sizes of type and type faces and spacings to guide the reader in recreating the aural emphasis to be placed on different words.
It occurred to me as I translated each of the poems and calligrams which illustrate the poems, from French into English, of “Poems et dessins de la Fille nee sans mere”, that Picabia and Duchamp had each created the story of a young woman. Duchamp’s story line goes through the 1912 “ Bride”, and “The Virgin Becomes the Bride”, to the large painting on glass, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even”. I also translated from the French, each one of the dozens of notes relating to that work which are reproduced in facsimile in Duchamp’s “Green Box”, and I decided that the story it presents is of the social situation of the young woman, and her attempt to remain a virgin by fainting at the climactic moment.
Picabia’s “fille nee sans mere” travels to America and has her portrait painted in 1913 as “une Jeune fille American”. Then she is presented again as a graphic, as “une fille americaine dans l’etat de nudite (Portrait of an American Girl in the State of Nudity), in which Picabia peeks at her as a spark plug. Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia wrote that the spark plug is a “ kindler of flame”. The spark plug is hopefully labeled, “fore-ever”. The “nudite” in the title of this image suggested to me the possibility that “Udnie” of the earlier paintings is a pig-Latin version of the word “nudie”, and that gave me the key to how I deciphered, “Je revois en souvenir ma chere Udnie”. And in this pig-latin sense it is a predecessor to the paintings of nudes that Picabia did in the 1940s. But back in 1917 Udnie finds love in “Parade Amoreuse” (Display of Love), and has a child, “The Infant Carburetor”. Then in 1918 Picabia endowed his “daughter ” with an intellect and published the book she wrote, “Poems et Dessins de la fille nee sans mere”. In the book there are eighteen drawings and fifty-one poems. Until now, the machine had been viewed by man, this book was her opportunity to view man, which she did with surprising sympathy.
Duchamp had begun his epic with various studies that led t o a culminating monumental work. Picabia had started with several monumental paintings, then scaled down to small paintings and graphic illustrations. As seen before, a number of Picabia’s paintings and graphic works are in the nature of Duchamp’s “ready-mades”. The anti-social implications of the “ready-mades” lie chiefly in the joke against traditional artistic means of expression, as well as in the choice of objects which insult bougeoise taste, as in Duichamp’s urinal.. Picabia’s “ready-mades” are usually drawings or photographs copied or cut out from catalogues and advertisements. The “Portrait d’une jeune fille americaine dans l’etat de nudite”, (the spark-plug) is an example. A more sensational ready-made by Picabia, is the stuffed monkey pulling at his tail sticking out from between his legs, of 1920. It is titled “Portrait of Cezanne, Portrait of Renoir, Portrait of Rembrandt”. It is a blasphemy against the values of “high art”, while an ink blot entitled “La Sainte Vierge” is a blasphemy against religioua sentiment.
Picabia’s and Duchamp’s language of symbols after 1913 were meant to be private jokes, and were bound to remain “unread” by the multitudes whose values and mores it ridiculed. That did not disturb them. I see a great irony in that Picabia’s and Duchamp’s anti-social gestures led to the Pop art movement fifty years later, Pop art being the most accessible, democratic, and commercially successful movement of the twentieth century.
At the end of World War I in 1919, the Dadaists centered their activities in Paris, where their demonstrations attracted large audiences. At one audience Picabia shouted: “What are you doing here, plunked down like serious oysters – because you are serious, aren’t you? The ass, The ass represents life like fried potatoes, and all you serious people smell worse that cow flop. Dada smells of nothing, it is nothing, nothing, nothing. Whistle, shout, bash my face in, and then what? Then what? I’ll just go on telling you that you are all fools”. Dada had become a successful art movement, and thus had outlasted its purpose of negation. Picabia announced his withdrawal from the movement by a series of articles insulting his former friends. He worked for a while with Andre Breton who was then formulating Surrealism, on the magazine “Literature”. But Picabia did not share Breton’s enthusiasm for Surrealism, and after they published the “First Surrealist Manifesto”, he published several issues of “391” attacking Surrealism. He did some paintings, such as “Animal Trainer” and “Night and Day” that are ambiguous in meaning, buprobably reflect his take on surrealism. I think they are among his strongest works.
The paintings Picabia created during the following decades until the outbreak of World War 2, vary in style, and show no concern with social problems. The most interesting works are those he called “transparancies”. In these, separate images are superimposed. They reflect the interest in depicting simultaneous events that is one of the dominant concerns of twentieth century artists. The symbolism is obscure, but many of the faces and nude figures are copied from Italian Renaissance paintings, offering a field-day for future art historians. They also send up a signal that I did not receive back in 1955, that eventually Picabia would make paintings of contemporary images of naked ladies..
During the years of World War 11, he is reported to have painted realistic expressionistic scenes of the horrors of war. These have not yet surfaced, though there is one of a monster Minotaur-like head (perhaps it is a realist version of Picasso’s Minotaur) with the saluting hands of an adoring crowd that may be a reference to that era’s destructive dictators. During this time he created the series of paintings of naked ladies, which may have been done earlier than Duchamp’s three-dimensional naked lady. I have wondered if there was correspondence between them on the subject of realist depictions of naked ladies.
The first exhibition I saw of Picabia’s work was at the Rose Fried Gallery in New York in early 1950, was made up of mostly of small paintings with solid colored surfaces, on which brightly colored dots are scattered, while at one end of the small gallery room was the very large painting “Edtaonisl Ecclisiastique”, that is now in the Chicago Art Institute. That painting was too tall for the height of the room and was leaning forward. I remember how puzzled I was by the contrast of the recent small dot paintings with the monumental complex painting of forty years earlier. Eventually I decided that the answer lies in Picabia’s statement that “Our heads are round to allow thought to change its direction”.
In 1970, at the time of the Picabia retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, I wrote an article for Art News magazine. I titled it “Hello and Goodbye, Francis Picabia”, because I was pleased to see him rehabilitated, and expected that to be the end of our relationship. Now I must say “Hello Again”, but to a new persona that had been hidden from me before. Now I must regard him as my fellow realist painter, and even to wonder whether I had unwittingly anticipated his last stylistic turn, based on my subliminal memories of putting together the ideas of the thesis.
By the way, the lady who was my dinner companion in Paris did not add one of my paintings to her collection.