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francis picabia

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


“Knowledge is ancient error reflecting on its youth.“


Francis Picabia once said that “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.”

Picabia was a French avant-garde painter, typographist, poet and provocateur, who's work, having being exhibited in contemporary galleries the likes of MoMA, is positioned exactly inbetween those he classed as failures and unknown.

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 itself in the anxiety of the emerging social structures. Through these structures, such epigenetic phenomena as art, science and philosophy (elevated by the earlier Romantics) played even more of a substantial role in the struggle to inter-contextualise a collective, emotional religiosity into a individualised, automated post-modern era.




Picabia’s provocations were a prying into this new clinical reality to find where contradictions and emotions could exist within a mechanised framework. It was a quest for the convulsions of consciousness within a world view that had become dehumanised. In his ‘Mechanomorphic’ series, Picabia would explore 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.

To imbue the institutions with the kinds of feelings Picabia thought they lacked required a counter-intuitive perspective, one that elevated the natural world of emotion, in the throws of a mechanised mass produced vision of environment. The lyrical style of his visual poem assemblages (often punctuated sketches of words, gears and levers) equated to seduction and copulation with the manufacturing process itself.






“Everything in the world
far from the truth
is like a hurricane of divine roads
like the light of heaven.
Those women who deny hereafter
have a place next to me.
I am the virtuous guide
in the crystal city.“


Picabia moved to Spain during World War I and 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 the time 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 and produced in what became his more derrisive and militarian tone.


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 could haunt the corridors of academic thought, specifically by critiquing the parameters that initially allowed it to come into existence. 
In 1922, Picabia was commissioned by Breton to illustrate the front covers in a series of black & white illustrations. In a letter from Marcel Duchamp to Breton in 1922, Duchamp wrote that the scandalous nature of Picabia’s images, many of which blended sexual and religious symbolism, made it difficult for Duchamp to distribute the publication in New York, much to his delight.





After his disavowal of Dadaism and Surrealism, and when the absurd limitations of 391 had been realised, Picabia had one more seed of optimism buried within his nihilistic attitude. As a way for Picabia to articulate the implicit sense of dehumanisation within the mechanised, industrial society, he created a new movement called ‘Instantanéisme’. He claimed that the only worthwhile art movement was perpetual motion. A kind of self-deprication echoed in a sentiment by Groucho Marx's, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member". 
In the ultimate issue of 391, Picabia included 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 gatekeepers of the academic art world.




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


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 modernity 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 spirit of 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 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 is testament to the re-emergence of this dialectic relationship between ourselves, our technologies and our sense of religion, morality and sexuality.

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 implicit structural biases and long held hierarchies of our own times, it may be worth remembering that Picabia sought to travesty rather than transcend modernity by acting out its in-built absurdity, in a form of self-critical contradiction that opposed the classical ideology of his time from the inside out.

Although he was afforded the wealth in order to hold this critical position within society, he nevertheless continued to speak to the contradictions within us, which is where Picabia failed and also where he succeeded.
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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


Mark