francis picabia

︎Artist, Painting, Dada, Philosophy   
︎ Ventral Is Golden

“All the painters who appear in our museums are failures at painting; the only people ever talked about are failures; the world is divided into two categories of people: failures and those unknown.”

Francis Picabia was a French avant-garde painter, typographist, poet and provocateur, who's work, having being exhibited in the likes of MoMA, sits right between the failed painters in our museums and the unknown painters loitering somewhere near the fire exits. So has whatever Picabia saught to acheieve through his work, made him a failure by his own criteria?

Being one of the major precursors to the Dada movement in the United States and in France, Picabia was already predisposed to holding contradictory positions within the art establsishment.
From an early age he would paint forgeries of his father’s stamp collection and sell the originals without his knowledge. In later life
he would turn his back on the Dadaists, the Surrealists and the art institutions that apodted him, who’s politics were moulded by, what he thought to be, a 1920's bourgeoise vision of modernity. He declared, in his Cannibal Dadaist Manifesto, that “Dada is like your hopes: nothing, like your paradise: nothing, like your idols: nothing, like your heroes: nothing, like your artists: nothing, like your religions: nothing."

The kind of nihilism that characterised both Picabia's relationship with the Dadaists and Surrealists, and the mechanical age in general, would lead towards Picabia's more deconstructionist views. This nihilism, nevertheless, contained seeds of optimism that rooted themselves in the anxiety of the emerging social structures. Through these structures, such epigenetic phenomena as art, science and philosophy, elevated by the Romantics, played even more of a substantial role in the struggle to inter-contextualise nomadic tribal (religious) society, into a mechanised sedentary, post-literate (secular) era. Which is essentially the same as saying, where do emotions fit within a mechanised framework? In his ‘Machanomorphic’ series, Picabia would epxlore the parodies of machine parts within portraiture, owing to his views that humans were machines not ruled by their rational minds, but by their compulsive hungers.

“A new gadget that lasts only five minutes is worth more than an immortal work that bores everyone.“

To imbue the institutions with the kinds of feelings Picabia thought they were lacking, a counter-intuitive perspective was required, one that elevated the natural (that is to say, anthropocentric) view of the world, in the throws of a mechanised mass produced vision of environment. 

As the efficacy of the religious image fragmented during the Enlightenment, the focus of our paintings subsequently became more humanistic (also evident in the phenomena of the selfie).
The introduction of the printing press also democratised knowledge in a similar way the internet did in the early 1990's, shifting the focus once again from the figurative, naturalistic form towards process and production techniques, until our paintings became machines and our churches became computers.

Having moved to Spain during World War I, Picabia began publishing the longest running magazine related to Dada and Surrealism, entitled 391.
The publication would act primarily as a literary outlet for himself and other poets who had found refuge in the neutrality of Spain, and who wanted to revolt against the conventions of the wider European culture.

By October 1924, however, when the final issue of 391 was published, Picabia had turned his back completely on the self-proclaimed authorities of Surrealism, and began producing 'original forgeries' of acclaimed anti-art pieces instead. Some belonging to the likes of Marcel Duchamp, published in what became the more derrisive and militarian tone of 391.

“This equilibrium of opposites was to distinguish a relationship between human and machine, or rather the preservation of spirit within machine, since the renaissance created a spiritual void where the church once stood.

A couple of years after the first issue of 319 was published, ‘Littérature’, a publication founded by André Breton, Philippe Soupault, and Louis Aragon, was one of the first surrealist publications that found a space in which it could haunt the corridors of academicised thought, by critiquing the parameters that initially allowed it to come into existence. In 1922, Picabia was commissioned by Breton to illustrate the front covers (a series of black & white illustrations) of a reinvigorated version of the publication, called Littérature: New Series. In a letter from Marcel Duchamp to Breton in 1922, Duchamp wrote that the scandalous nature of Picabia’s images, many of which associated sex and religion, made it difficult for him to distribute the publication in New York, much to the delight of Duchamp.

After his disavowal of dadaism and surrealism, and when the logical procession towards the absurd limitations of 391 had been realised, Picabia had one more seed of optimism buried within his nihilistic presaging that mechanised society could offer. As a way for Picabia to articulate the implicit sense of dehumanisation within a mechanised, industrial society, he created a new movement, that of ‘Instantanéisme’. He claimed that the only worthwhile art movement is that of perpetual motion (a sentiment shared in Groucho Marx's quip "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member") where in the ultimate issue of 391, there would be published a list of Instantanéisme's most 'exceptional men'. Of course this issue was never published, thus suspending, at least in the eyes of Picabia, the recapitulation of predominantly white, western patriarchal patterns that had a propensity toward stagnation.

Cinematic technologies offered a greater power than print to disrupt the expectations of the audience and to undermine the norms and codes of social conventions.

In the cultural context of the 1920’s, the effects of mechanisation alongside a growing interest in the west towards eastern spirituality, saw a desire to craft an anthropocentric view to distinguish a relationship between human and machine, or rather the preservation of spirit within machine, since the renaissance created a spiritual void where the church once stood.

In his lifetime, Picabia believed that painting had begun its inexorable decline into endless self reflective mass production. Cinematic technologies offered a greater power than print to disrupt the expectations of the audience and to undermine the norms and codes of social conventions. He transferred his 'esprit dada' into a new phase of artistic production which involved - and fetishised more than ever before - the machine.

In his ‘Transparencies’ series, Picabia explored the effects of photographic technologies on the psychology of the viewer. He would begin to undermine the effects of the mechanically reproduced image, by overlaying images found in Parisian, soft porn magazines, with religious and spiritual motifs, in an attempt to disrupt the kinds of sterile social conventions he thought mass produced imagery was imposing upon morality and ethics.

If we can now propose the idea that human machine relationships are more ambiguously structured, then our own technological position presents us with the idea of human - machine interface. As this ontological gap, between reality and virtual reality seemingly decreases, our desire for the anthropocentric vision is being perturbed further still, but by slightly different forces.

The recent influx of interest in Picabia's, comic-erotic mechanical paintings, with eastern neo-spiritual aspects, is testament to the re-emergence of this dialectic relationship between ourselves, our technologies and our religions.

Picabia’s consistent inconsistencies, his appropriative strategies, and his stylistic eclecticism, along with his skeptical attitude, make him especially relevant to contemporary artists, philosophers and poets of today.

As we begin to question the implicit structural assumptions, long held ideas and the attitudes towards them end up sloshing around in an ontolgical soup of conceptual distinctions that had to separated us from the soup in the first place. Inevitably we ended up in a position where no one even knows who served the soup. So it may be worth remembering that hostility was always part of being a good host, and we were never really separate from the soup anyway.

Picabia sought to travesty rather than transcend modernity by enacting an extremely nihilistic form of self-criticism and institutional critique upon a colonising ideology, intent on securing a fixed, universal meaning.
He was however, afforded the wealth in order to hold this critical position of society, but nevertheless, he spoke to the contradictions within us.
Where Picabia failed is also where he was able to succeed.

Further Reading ︎
After 391, Chris Joseph, essay
Timothy Morton, Beautiful Soul Syndrome, video
The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s, By Malcolm Turvey
Aello, MoMA
The Paris Review, article
391, DADA archive