Francis Picabia seen from Switzerland and America. On Francis Picabia’s retrospectives at Kunsthaus Zurich and at MoMA, New York

— Carole Boulbès

Francis Picabia, Cinq femmes (Five Women), c. 1942, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 39.8 × 29.5 in.

Francis Picabia, Cinq femmes (Five Women), c. 1942, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 39.8 × 29.5 in.

With retrospectives presented at the Kunsthaus Zurich in June and MoMA New York in November, 2016 was filled with events devoted to Francis Picabia. In the city that is still home to the Cabaret Voltaire, Cathérine Hug first mounted the exhibition Dadaglobe Reconstructed, centered on Dada works and numerous archival documents. The exhibition Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction came soon after, thanks to a collaboration with MoMA’s Anne Umland[1]. Working together, the two organizers made a selection of “200 works, including some 125 paintings, key works on paper, periodicals and printed matter, illustrated letters, and one film[2]” from Picabia’s abounding oeuvre.

A Controversial Figure

Works were selected by the partnered institutions from public and private collections in Europe and the United States. But to what end? To offer what kind of perspective on the artist more than fifty years after his death? Always useful, the press release draws a fairly accurate picture; one the organizers were keen to pursue following the more than twenty retrospectives that preceded them from 1970 to 2007: “Picabia remains a hotly debated personality among the great artists of the twentieth century. Throughout his life, he set his face against mechanisms of value judgment that distinguished high art from kitsch and conservatism from radicalism. Self-critically and with an acerbic humor, he questions the very basis of the modern.” The works selected by the two organizers “bring out this multiple personality.” The goal: to “show all [his] styles” and maintain the surprises reserved by an artist seeking to “tirelessly reinvent himself[3].” Sisley or Signac-inspired landscapes, Fauvist and Orphist works, machines, Monsters, Transparencies, realist, Dimensionist, and Point paintings… Despite the raised shields previously triggered by his eclecticism, not one of the artist’s periods is overlooked. An important issue already attaches itself to this point: that of the criteria for selecting works of art within art history, the art market, and art museums. Since the 1960s and 70s, driven by the artists of New Realism and Pop Art, Picabia’s Dada period (1915-1925) has been placed at the fore, while the rest of his work was judged “inferior,” uninteresting. But thanks to the support of art critics and historians, as well as the efforts other artists and art dealers, many of Picabia’s other “styles” have slowly been resuscitated. Still, until the early 1980s, one period always remained off-putting and in poor taste: the Nudes. But we’ll get to those later…
The question of whether a period is “good” or “bad” is relative to the interest given to it. Many artists have suffered these consequences. As always, Picabia’s approach is singular. For him, changing styles was an artistic decision: remain independent, “swallow fire[4],” make no concessions. But it was also a strategy aimed at confronting and contesting criteria of artistic appreciation and recognition. His ambiguous positions were criticized all the more when layered with irritating political provocations, as has often been expressed in reviews and other press[5]. It can also not be ignored that despite the unfailing support of Marcel Duchamp, Hans Arp, and Michel Seuphor, Picabia died poor, surrounded by his paintings in a little studio near the Opéra Garnier…

Exhibition Design

Aside from a few deviations[6], the two retrospectives present a classic, chronological portrait of the artist; one in which the works are never placed in visual or aesthetic contrast to those of his contemporaries, as if pulled from a magic hat. A more cultural approach to Picabia’s painting is still missing, even if this was not the objective stated above. However, one cannot fault the organizers on this point upon encountering Udnie (Jeune fille américaine; danse) and Edtaonisl (ecclésiastique), two masterpieces from 1913 that have finally been reunited. Monumental works, these twin canvases were separated in 1947 after being acquired by the Musée national d’art moderne and the Art Institute of Chicago respectively[7]. Walking through the gallery dedicated to the Orphist years, one wonders why these inventive works, in turn harmonious, chaotic, and dissonant, often inspired by dance or sport, aren’t always given precedence by art historians.
It is also worth noting the zones dedicated to Dada works and other important documentation from the period (magazines, posters, publications), which culminated at MoMA in an attempt to reconstitute an exhibition at the Galeries Dalmau in Barcelona in which Picabia alternated his “Spanish” portraits with watercolors inspired by machinery[8]. The gallery’s physical and iconographic continuity also provides a much-appreciated opportunity to view on the big screen—alas not in a dark room—a muted version of the film Entr’acte (1924) from MoMA’s collection. It is a chance to escape the famous loop of the bearded dancer and game of chess between Duchamp and Man Ray that too often summarizes this short film. For the cinema historian, it is an important moment, as this earlier copy is different from the shortened version that René Clair showed in 1967 after adding sound[9].
Rather than highlighting the repetitions, stylistic exchanges, and similarities at work in Picabia’s painting, each gallery exposes a new method, a different style from the one that precedes it. This linear structuring is particularly visible in New York where the artist’s periods are strung together as solidly and brilliantly as pearls on a necklace. The exhibition space at Kunsthaus Zurich was more fluid, the rooms never entirely enclosed. Visitors could therefore take shortcuts through gaps in the partition walls, skipping stages, breaking with the linear chronology of the artistic narrative, and establishing new connections between the works. This relative flexibility also allowed for new installation strategies, like suspending Danse de Saint-Guy between two walls[10], or painting certain panels in green, red, or purple in response to the paintings’ standout colors. While the exhibition at MoMA obeys the venerable canon of the white cube, the one in Zürich allowed itself certain fantasies. Cathérine Hug explains, “I had seen Suzanne Pagé and Gérard Audinet’s Francis Picabia, Singulier idéal, with its very neutral white walls. I wanted to get out of the white cube. I thought it would be interesting to connect one room to another through colors, to play with light. I didn’t want the marriage of colors to become purely decorative.[11]” The late Points period was also an occasion for a playful installation, with paintings of various sizes and colors hung at different heights on the wall.
The areas dedicated to archival documentation are another interesting point of departure between the American and Swiss conceptions of the exhibition. Whereas MoMA welcomes the visitor with a giant photographic reproduction of Picabia as “funny guy” riding a tricycle around his house in Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, the Kunsthaus abstains. In New York, numerous vitrines occupy the center of the rooms, while they were often relegated to the sides in Zurich. According to Anne Umland, as the American public reads less in exhibitions, it was not suitable to include many texts in French. However, certain excerpts by Picabia were translated into English and discretely broadcast via a recording in one section of the exhibition. From the beginning, Umland did not want to separate the intimate writings (such as his correspondence) from the printed documents (exhibition brochures, magazines, etc.). Therefore, about a dozen erotic letters from the 1940s are presented flat, one next to the other, in glass vitrines that also contain other archival documents. Does such a device not help to diffuse the sexual tension and secret nature of the letters addressed by Picabia to those closest to him[12]?
For Cathérine Hug, “It was important not to reproduce the Dadaglobe exhibition, to avoid the vitrines, not overemphasize the archival documents.” She explains further, “I did not want to simply present pieces illustrated and signed by Picabia’s hand. I asked myself, for example, whether I would exhibit Olga’s album of photos and clippings[13] or else Picabia’s notebooks.”[14] Radically separating the documents (in the vitrines) from the letters (on the walls), she chose to have the visitor enter—almost break into—the painter’s intimate universe. The erotic correspondence is framed and presented at the very end of the exhibition, behind the partitions and beside a violet wall in a more hushed atmosphere. “It’s a deliberate, reflective modesty. These are intimate documents in which the artist expresses very personal fantasies. It seemed problematic to me to display them in vitrines with the other documents right in the middle of the exhibition, as I imagined the possible embarrassment of visitors who may become aware they were being observed while reading. The exhibition design allowed me to put these letters, written during World War II, in relation to the artist’s final works, thus creating a game of back-and-forth between Eros and Thanatos.” As we will see next, these differences are significant, but they still did not prevent misunderstanding and quick judgments by certain critics.

The Nudes Scandal

If Picabia is considered controversial for his variations in style, he is generally celebrated for his production during the 1940s. His clown-like portraits and “lecherous, realist, fleshy”[15] nudes prompted hostility by most critics in the 1976 exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, describing them as “sewer-art,” “the terminal stage of trash, oblivion, putrefaction,” “bread and butter work [toiles alimentaires],” “pornographic,” “kitsch.”[16] Six years earlier, the Guggenheim in New York refused to exhibit these cursed canvases outright. Quite frankly, the perception of these paintings has not really changed today, even if the Kunsthaus and MoMA dedicated entire rooms to them. In 1942, at the Galerie d’Alger where he first discovered Picabia’s new style, Max-Pol Fouchet denounced the weaknesses of his “academic and bourgeois”[17] painting, although he made no links to Nazi painting. In the European and American press of 2016, in spite of the details presented in the catalogue[18], Picabia has often been accused of connections with fascist painting.[19] For The Guardian’s Jason Farago, Picabia’s Nudes are akin to “Nazi porn,”[20] the kitsch postures of his Cinq femmes resembling Aryan nudes by official Nazi artist Adolph Ziegler.[21] The New York Times’ Roberta Smith posits that these figurative paintings—which borrow from art history, smutty magazines, and commercial art—prefigure Pop Art, Appropriation Art, and Neo-Expressionism.[22] While sowing discord between good and bad taste, high and low art, Picabia would have knowingly opposed paintings of “Aryan nudes” and works inspired by Hollywood imagery. We’ve known that the artist was inspired by photos of nudes taken from French magazines such as Mon Paris or Paris Sex Appeal since the mid-1990s! Also writing for the Times, Albert Mobilio suggests that the Nudes are not unlike the idealized figures of Socialist or Nazi art.[23] In Art News, Andrew Russeth does not hesitate to write that “The women, all white, often nude, could almost be Third Reich-approved art.”[24] Richard B. Woodward of The Wall Street Journal reproaches the artist for being a troublemaker and a perpetual mythomane.[25] The accounts of Picabia as an anti-Semite or reactionary of horrible vulgarity and total ambiguity are numerous.[26] In an article appearing in Azione ( Lugano), Gianluigi Bellei even refers to the article by Yve-Alain Bois that lit the fuse in 1976.[27] Historians and researchers have worked on him since, so even if Picabia was not some innocent thing, no serious biographer would dare affirm without nuance that “he was interned in Cannes for collaboration.”[28] In 1976, ignorance could still be forgiven. Today, we know the situation was much more complex. For example, Picabia sheltered the surrealist artists Henri Goetz and Christine Boumeester, both of whom were Jewish and wanted by the Nazis.[29]
Simon Baier’s analysis in Texte zur Kunst introduces other elements to address this aesthetic and moral problem.[30] Avoiding the conventional notions of Dadaist irony and pastiche, the author questions the corporality in Picabia’s painting and its connections with commercial art from the post-impressionist canvases, to the Spanish works, to the Nudes (sold to the Galerie Pasteur d’Alger in 1942). To qua-lify these paintings as “ugly” or “bad” seems, to him, related to the fact that they are considered as “conforming” to fascist doctrines of representation. However, what is actually at stake for Picabia is the practice of “appropriation.” To demonstrate this, Baier cites Les Baigneuses (1941) and Cinq Femmes (1941-43), paintings based on photography that play on contrasts, transforming people into silhouettes highlighted in black in a manner that makes the bodies seem “adimensional.”[31]
One might think Kaspar König’s exhibition West Kunst in Cologne in 1981 would have changed the game by introducing a number of artists—such as David Salle—to his portraits and nudes, which were very quickly introduced in to the German and American markets through the Hans Neuendorf and Michaël Werner galleries. One might think that the “bad painting” by German and American artists in the 1980s, and reflections on parody, appropriation, and the post-modern[32] would have modified the perception of Picabia’s work. This has not been the case. We are now far from the moment when Michèle C. Cone said of Picabia and Salle, “the comparison between the old masters and the new painters should be encouraged.”[33] A period of anathema, exclusion, and over-simplification has returned. Perhaps it never left? Rather, a blind and ignorant moralism threatens to censor current art, affecting Picabia’s Nudes just as it did Courbet’s Origin of the World. In Europe, as in the United States, misunderstandings about the painter as well as the hurried and mimetic rejections by journalists could have been avoided by simple historical research. It must again be stated loud and clear: inspired by the photographs in erotic magazines, Picabia’s Nudes have nothing in common with the athletic youth of the Nation, the peasant mothers surrounded by their offspring, the joyous representations of the Effort, or the ancient mythologies of Nazi propaganda. The pictorial treatment is smooth, often contrasted and sometimes outlined in black, more easily likened to Edouard Manet’s Spanish style than to Ziegler’s Nazi paintings.[34]
It seems clear: to refuse the very notion of “style,” to multiply limiting experiences and “isms” (Fauvism, Impressionism, Dimensionism, Realism, etc.), to be ironic towards commercial art, towards references and to the function of painting… all this remains quite a dangerous game.

Translated from French by Hannah Adkins

  1. [1] Anne Umland has presented numerous exhibitions of modern art at MoMA, most notably retrospectives of Pablo Picasso and René Magritte.
  2. [2] Information taken from the exhibitions’ press kit.
  3. [3] This had already been the objective for Suzanne Pagé and Gérard Audinet in their retrospective Francis Picabia, Singulier idéal at Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris in 2003.
  4. [4] When asked by Georges Charbonnier, “What is an artist?”, Picabia responded, “He is a man who eats fire, who can swallow fire.” (1950)
  5. [5] For more on this subject, see my text in the exhibition catalogue Picabia et la Côte d’Azur, Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain (Nice, 1991), p. 32-36.
  6. [6] Certain works were only presented at MoMA, others only at the Kunsthaus Zurich (about twenty in total).
  7. [7] With the hope of ceding them to a French national museum, these two masterful canvases were found in pitiful condition and repaired by the artist with the help of Christine Boumeester.
  8. [8] The photo that served as the reference for this recreation was enlarged. However, the rugs laid on the ground and the several watercolors hung close together on a black background could not fully reconstitute the impertinent character of the 1922 exhibition in which Picabia was already refusing to choose between abstraction and figuration.
  9. [9] For more on this subject, see my new book Relâche, dernier coup d’éclat des Ballets suédois, published by Les presses du réel, expected release in 2017.
  10. [10] Conserved in the Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou, this piece from the Dada period was made to be suspended in space.
  11. [11] Quotes from Cathérine Hug taken from a phone interview on December 1, 2016.
  12. [12] These letters were written between 1946 and 1951, and were addressed to Suzanne Romain, Christine Boumeester and Jean van Heeckeren.
  13. [13] Olga Mohler, Francis Picabia (Turin: Notizie,1975). Olga was Picabia’s second wife.
  14. [14] Picabia’s notebooks, a collection of press clippings, correspondence, and several photographs are preserved at the Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques-Doucet, Paris.
  15. [15] Pierre Restany, “I like Picabia al Limone con Funghi,” XXe Siècle, no. 46 (September 1976), p. 12.
  16. [16] Schuldt, “La recuperation d’un rastaquouère,” exhibition catalogue, Francis Picabia, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais (Paris, 1976), pp. 30-31. From Otto Hahn to Bernard Teyssèdre, journalist accounts were equally negative.
  17. [17] Max-Pol Fouchet, “Francis Picabia, ou l’incendiare devenu pompier,” L’écho d’Alger, January 22, 1942, n.p.
  18. [18] Michèle C. Cone, “La Guerre de Picabia,” Picabia, notre tête est ronde pour remettre à la pensée de changer de direction [Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction], exhibition catalogue, Kunsthaus Zurich, June 3 – September 25, 2016, and MoMA, New York, November 20, 2016 – March 19, 2017, p. 225-230; Rachel Silveri, “Pharamousse, Funny Guy, Francis le raté: la vie de Francis Picabia,” ibid, p. 334-335.
  19. [19] Gerhard Mack suggests that he is audacious to mix “Nazi aesthetic and pornography.” See “Pin-up im Nazi-Look,” NZZ an Sonntag, July 10, 2016. Claudia Jolles wonders whether it has to do with “Nazi-kitsch or rather irony?” Kunst Bulletin, September 1, 2016. Andreas Bayer evokes the contested “pin-ups” belonging to magic realism (“magisch realistischen Figurenbilder”) and that many associated it with Nazi art (“Nazi-Kunst”), See “Auf der Uberholspur der Avantgarde,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, August 11, 2016.
  20. [20] Jason Farago, “Francis Picabia: the art ‘loser’ who ended up winning it all,” The Guardian, November 23, 2016. In response to Philippe Dagen who wrote in Le Monde, “Through assemblies and grafts of bodies taken from these pages, he obtains lascivious scenes that he paints while inflicting skin tones that are too white, lips that are too red, eyes with idiot stares. Photo, cinema, and the tradition of the ideal nude all come out ridiculous. It can only be concluded that he also pokes fun at the neoclassicism dear to totalitarianism (the majority of these works date effectively to the Occupation). They have long been cursed, for they elicit discomfort.” “Francis Picabia, la peinture à vive allure,” Le Monde, July 9, 2016.
  21. [21] Regarding this, see Carole Boulbès, “Francis Picabia, nudes, photos, life…(1938-1949),”, article translated in to English and German in the exhibition catalogue Francis Picabia, fleurs de chair, fleurs d’ame, Galerie Hauser & Wirth, Cologne, Oktagon, 1997; and in Portuguese in the exhibition catalogue Francis Picabia: antologia = anthology, Centro Cultural de Bélem, Lisbon, June 6, – August 31,1997.
  22. [22] “Sometimes he produced skilled hackwork, obviously on purpose: paintings of Aryan nudes or works that seem based on Hollywood publicity stills.” Roberta Smith, “Francis Picabia, the Playboy Prankster of Modernism,” The New York Times, November 17, 2016.
  23. [23] “The earnest realism renders bodies in ways not entirely unreminiscent of Socialist or Nazi versions of idealized figures.”Albert Mobilio, “Dada and Beyond: The Many Artistic Lives of Francis Picabia,” The New York Times, December 4, 2016.
  24. [24] Andrew Russeth, “Monster Mash,” Art News, November 17, 2016. Picabia actually painted white, black, and albino women, naked or clothed, alone or entangled, drinking and smoking, which seems to be the antithesis of Nazi propaganda.
  25. [25] “a born troublemaker and lifelong mythomane”. Richard B. Woodward, “Francis Picabia,” The Wall Street Journal, November 21, 2016. These insults did not prevent Christie’s New York from selling Picabia’s Dadaist drawing Pharmacie Duchamps (1920) for $403,500 at the time of the retrospective’s opening!
  26. [26] Ariella Budick, “Francis Picabia, MoMA, New York – ‘Cruel Brilliance’,” Financial Times, November 27, 2016; Peter Schjeldahl, “Francis Picabia, Trouble Maker,” The New Yorker, November 28, 2016; R.C. Baker, “Nihilist’s Delight,” The Voice, November 29, 2016.
  27. [27] Gianluigi Bellei, “In bilico fra contestazione e tradizione,” Azione, 18 (July 2016).
  28. [28] In this article, Bois sought to summarize Picabia’s political ambiguities and criticize his indifference, writing of the war paintings, “These are not, from a ‘thematic’ point of view but rather a stylistic one, so far from the canvases of the official artists of the Third Reich.” Yve-Alain Bois, “De Dada à Pétain,” Macula, no. 1 (1976), note 6, p. 122. For an overview of these thorny questions that resulted from the artist’s unfortunate casualness, see Francis Picabia, Singulier idéal, op. cit, p. 445; and Rachel Silveri, op. cit.
  29. [29] “With his usual spirit of contradiction, he spoke well of the Occupiers to his friends who were all against them, but before those on the other side, he would have attacked them with the same virulence. This caused him trouble after the Liberation. At that time, I had done everything to go to Paris, but he refused, saying he had done nothing compromising, which was the strict truth. To the contrary, he had helped his friends in the Resistance in difficult situations, at great risk to himself.” Henri Goetz, “Ma vie, mes amis,” Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne, no. 10 (November 1982).
  30. [30] Simon Baier, “Habeas Corpus,” Texte zur Kunst, no. 103 (September 2016).
  31. [31] I associate myself with this analysis all the more, as I already stated in a 1997 article that the realist painting of Gustave Courbet could be seen as one of the sources of Picabia’s cursed works. While it cannot be denied that realist figuration and monumentalism were distinctive signs for various totalitarianisms of the twentieth century, let us not forget that realism had already triumphed in works such as L’Atelier de l’artiste, Les Dormeuses, or Les Baigneuses by the revolutionary Gustave Courbet! See note 21.
  32. [32] See, for example, articles by Benjamin Buchloh, “Parody and Appropriation in Francis Picabia, Pop, and Sigmar Polke,” Artforum, no. 7 (March 1982), and Michèle Cone, “Francis Picabia and David Salle,” Flash Art (January 1984), p. 31.
  33. [33] See preceding note. In the exhibition catalogues Francis Picabia (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nîmes, 1986) and Francis Picabia, Singulier idéal, the point was precisely to have contemporary artists describe their relationship to Picabia. In 2016, only Cathérine Hug pursued this interrogation, most notably with Jean-Jacques Lebel, David Salle, Fischli and Weiss, Albert Oehlen, and Rita Vitorelli.
  34. [34] See the exhibition catalogue, Manet, Velázquez, La manière espagnole au XIXe siècle, Musée d’Orsay (Paris, 2002), pp. 77, 170, 188.