“An Idiot, an Imbecile, and a Pickpocket”: Francis Picabia at the Museum of Modern Art

Francis Picabia (1879-1953), born in Paris to a French mother and a Cuban father, was an exact contemporary of Pablo Picasso and a close one of Braque and Léger. His painterly skill and pictorial imagination was not inferior to theirs, but he has always seemed a figure on the margins of twentieth-century art.

Francis Picabia (1879-1953), born in Paris to a French mother and a Cuban father, was an exact contemporary of Pablo Picasso and a close one of Braque and Léger. His painterly skill and pictorial imagination was not inferior to theirs, but he has always seemed a figure on the margins of twentieth-century art. The Museum of Modern Art has long owned some of his best-known pieces, but, until its current exhibit of some 241 works in various media—paintings in oil and enamel; drawings, illustrations, placards, and designs; a vitrine; and even a film, Entr’acte, on which he collaborated with the young René Clair—we have not had an overview of his career, if one is indeed possible. Like Picasso, Picabia moved restlessly from style to style; unlike him, Picabia does not express a single personality unfolding and expressing itself in protean ways. Just who the man was remains as much a mystery at the end of this sizable retrospective as at the beginning, and arguably that’s the point. Picabia would describe himself as “an idiot, an imbecile, and a pickpocket,” perhaps simply a way of saying, “None of your business,” but perhaps also to say that personhood was simply an attribute he declined to have.

Artists of the past century have tended toward one of two extremes in presenting themselves. At one of these extremes are those who, elaborating a particular style and building a corpus of work around it, have sought to project a distinct and authoritative identity. At the other, we find iconoclasts who disavow the very notion of art, at least as traditionally understood, and with it the notion of the artist as such. The prototype here is Marcel Duchamp, who made the point that, since no artwork existed as an entity independent of our judgment of it, art was simply an artifact we agreed to call by the name—a painting, a public urinal, or anything else. In that sense, the artist need not be a creator, but simply a taxidermist.

Picabia is not radical in the sense that Duchamp was, in challenging us to regard utilitarian objects not simply as specimens of design but, through an Adamic act of naming, as art tout court. He uses the recognized materials of art—canvas, paper, glass, film—and modifies them in ways we recognize as art-making, with brush, pen, knife, or camera. You could make a case, too, for his as a career that passes through various stylistic phases and interests, each with a distinct phase: the Modern Art’s show is arranged in precisely this fashion. But Picabia’s ultimate stance is meta-artistic; what he does is create a climate of eclecticism in which art calls attention not to the world or the ways we can transform it, but to the artwork itself as assemblage of signs, a system of self-referentiality that points, ultimately, to the artist who denies rather than asserts his presence—the idiot, imbecile, and pickpocket who, displaying what he’s casually stolen from others and has no intention of making his own, simply isn’t there.

The earliest works in the show are from Picabia’s initial, ‘Impressionist’ period. Most artists, of course, start by imitating current or recent styles. Impressionism, however, while still being practiced by longer-lived members of the school such as Monet, was neither current nor recent at this point, but, as taken up by a newcomer, revivalist. The point of such a gesture was inauthenticity, a deliberate subversion of the notion of originality as a privileged way of looking at the world whether by an individual or a group. Romanticism had accustomed its public to what Robert Hughes called the shock of the new, and the evolution of art as a series of abruptly different ways of construing the ‘real.’ Each such vision ran its course to yield to the next, at which point it became an object of connoisseurship: the taxidermy of criticism. What Picabia was thus doing in resurrecting a style regarded as spent by the avant-garde was to question novelty as a criterion of value and revelation as the goal of art. The artist, in Picabia’s framing, became not an innovator but a craftsman for whom an old style was as good as a new one, since no view of reality had privilege over any other.

Picabia’s Impressionism was indeed craftsmanlike, and not merely imitative; all of the samples exhibited are competent at least, and a couple were striking. As to the question of whether they might be regarded as ‘original,’ Picabia’s response was an implicit agnosticism. What, after all, was purely original in any sense, and at which point did the followers and developers of stylistic innovators become merely imitative, derivative, or simply commercial? In the plastic arts, particularly, past styles were continually being reinterpreted, and no given style was necessarily mothballed for good. The phenomenon of artistic forgery, a business that in today’s art market flourishes as never before, makes the point in a striking if sinistral way. It would surely be possible for a skilled writer to compose a play in the patois of Jacobean drama, or for a composer to produce a symphony in the style of the Classical period. But few writers or musicians would take the trouble to compose a “retro” work per se, as opposed to an interpretive revisioning. Classical scholars produce textually accurate translations of ancient texts; modern poets such as William Butler Yeats, Robinson Jeffers, Ted Hughes, and Seamus Heaney have adapted them for modern readers and performers. Art forgers, however, attempt to produce works that will pass as actual specimens of past periods or artists, often with success as periodic revelations attest. The monetary incentives for such fraud are obvious, but the practice itself suggests a difference between art forms that inhabit a tonal or linguistic space and unfold as temporally progressive experiences, and plastic arts whose creation is spatiotemporally fixed.

Picabia was not a forger, and he signed his own name to his works rather than anyone else’s (although he did, as a prank, dispose of his father’s art collection, replacing each piece as he sold it with a copy painted by himself). His own early compositions did raise a more serious question of artistic ‘authenticity,’ however, namely the point at which a given artistic style might be regarded as exhausted, and any attempt to prolong it as failing a test of artistic probity.

Picabia’s next phase was to embrace the new. He followed the Cubists and Futurists into pictorial dynamism, and his major works of this period, notably The Spring, Dancers of the Spring, and Udnie, all from 1912-13, remain distinctive in their undulating forms and rhythms. Elements of abstraction and Constructivism too could be seen a bit later in such works as Very Rare Picture of the Earth, and when Dada came along Picabia was quick to pitch his tents there as well. He then moved on into Surrealism, which remained an enduring influence, and climaxed his avant-garde period with Entr’acte, which featured the emblematic figure of Duchamp playing chess on a rooftop.

By the 1920s, Picabia had returned to representational art. Whereas Picasso invoked a monumental classicism in the large female nudes he produced in the early years of that decade and Matisse the example of Ingres for his Odalisques, Picabia turned to popular illustration magazines for the series he entitled, respectively, Monsters (1924-27) and Transparencies (1927-30), the latter referencing both classical mythology and the Surrealist idea of the double. These works were deliberately kitschy in both style and content, a sendup of the seriousness of high Modernism and neoclassicism both. Garishly colored after the relative austerity of Picabia’s previous decade, they prefigure the camp styles of the 1960s, when art deliberately masqueraded as travesty.

The 1930s and early 1940s fared no better. Picabia turned increasingly to nudes that spoofed not only Hollywood glamour and soft porn but Nazi Aryanism. Painterly talent is always evident in these works, and a sly iconoclasm that subverts their overt imagery. Perhaps they’re best considered as a species of anti-art, in which the very concept of expression is mocked by a lurid representationalism: they fascinate on one level even as they repel on another. Picabia failed utterly only when he briefly attempted to engage a serious subject, as in The Spanish Revolution, which features a female figure in a landscape between two skeletons. The references to depictions of Spain’s civil war by Picasso and Dali are unmistakable, but the result is feeble in the extreme. And yet, Picabia was still able to produce a deeply disturbing image of the violence of the time in The Adoration of the Calf (1942), with its evocation of the secular idolatry of totalitarian leaders.

The last phase of Picabia’s career began when he announced, abruptly as usual, that representational art was finished, and that he would henceforth paint only abstractly. As usual, he didn’t maintain consistency in the matter, but some of the late abstractions are impressive and, dare one say, even serious. He kept on working up until his death in 1953, and one can only wonder what he would have made of Pop Art and camp had he lived into the age of Warhol and Lichtenstein. It’s pretty safe to say though that he would have been, as always, amused.

The Picabia show hasn’t come along by accident. No style reigns now in art, nor has one since Pop spent itself in the 1960s. Making art these days seems inseparable from asking what it is, and the word for talking about something one refuses to define or specify is joking. You can joke and be dead serious at the same time, as the late work of Philip Guston attests. But if the figure of the jokester is the implicit self-representation of the contemporary artist, then Picabia is as good an icon for our times as any.

How ‘seriously,’ then, should we take Picabia’s art? Perhaps the real question is how seriously we should take seriousness itself. I think I’d have to say, for myself, more seriously than we do. Picasso (who seems to have had some admiration for at least some of Picabia’s works) is our quintessential image of the modern artist, self-transformative figure who incorporates, perhaps, more of the history of Western art in his work than anyone else, and whose own art (partly for that reason) is shot through and through with humor of every kind, from the most playful to the most ribald to the most mordant. Yet he is unfailingly serious at the same time, because even in his lightest sketch he is in dialogue with the earth. He is the exact opposite of a jokester.

Picabia is at his best when he is serious in spite of himself, mostly in the works of 1910-20 but sporadically at other times as well. The best of his best was the work of his early to mid-thirties, and this will stand the one test he always refused to subject himself to, that of time. If he remains a figure on the margins, it’s because he hated, from first to last, the idea of a center.

Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction. At the Museum of Modern Art, Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street, New York. Through March 19, 2017.

About Robert Zaller 53 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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