PRINT September 1966

The Picabia/Breton Axis

THE PICABIA/BRETON AXIS PASSES THROUGH, focuses and illuminates certain problems of 1922. In this year the relationship between the two was at its closest. For Breton, emerging from the aura of Dada, Picabia was one of the figures on whom the coming culture would undoubtedly rest. Picabia for his part, despite his eternal opposition to organization, would support Breton in several important ways and willingly lend his ideas to Breton’s projects. The year is, of course, crucial in the thread of development that binds Surrealism to Dada. Dada was the springboard from which Breton and his confreres were to launch themselves toward Surrealism; as a result works and ideas born under the aegis of the older movement were carried over to become milestones of the new. The work of both Breton and Picabia can be seen to illustrate this point clearly. Les Pas Perdus, the collection of essays written by Breton between 1917 and 1922 and published in 1924 is an important guide to this critical juncture—it is a book in which Picabia figures prominently and where his work is lodged on the highest of pinnacles, in company with Picasso and Duchamp.

To appreciate the nature of the relation ship between the two it is necessary to follow the development of Picabia over the decade preceding the first Surrealist manifesto, while bearing in mind the broad and irreparable path cut through 20th-century culture following this event. For, in a general way, the mid-twenties marks the retreat of Picabia from an avant-garde position and the ascent of Breton as a public figure to whom the avant-garde would have to pay its respects. For Breton, 1924 marks the beginning of an extreme involvement; his thought became Surrealist doctrine, and it was a doctrine that called for an ever increasing commitment. Picabia in 1921 had broken those few strands that attached him to the anti-dogma of Dada. Within a few years he must have seemed to the Surrealists to have become a figure operating on the sidelines; his continued work might well have detracted from the legacy he had undoubtedly left for them to utilize.

Maurice Nadeau describes Picabia as a para-Surrealist, which seems most accurately to relate Picabia to the movement. The bond between Picabia and Breton is not so much Dada or Surrealism, as an extreme commitment to freedom. Their commitment was, however, embodied in different ways and led, it would seem, to Picabia’s, at most, peripheral attachment to Surrealism as a movement. With Picabia freedom was the here and now of his each act. For Breton, “The only thing which can still excite me is the word liberty,” and it is fair to emphasize the “word” of this sentence: freedom for Breton is something that needs to be driven in the direction of an intellectual commitment. But to attempt to establish demarcation lines in the field of personal psychology is perhaps unwise. The work of both men; in its total complexity, is like a thorn bush whose center we cannot penetrate; but there is invariably sufficient stimulus to warrant one’s attempts. One can pleasurably lose one’s shirt on Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie or on Nadja.

Although Breton has several times reminded us of Picabia’s importance as a pioneer of abstraction, such early and little known works can have had little influence in the Surrealist domain. But undoubtedly important to the movement’s concerns are the Udnie paintings: Udnie, Edtaonisl and Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie. With these and related works, Picabia, with Duchamp, was making the fundamentally important contribution of the mechanomorphic and from this the ironic/erotic. There is no doubt that the greater role was played by Duchamp; but this should not be allowed to lead to any neglect of Picabia’s contribution, which reveals elements not present in Duchamp’s contemporary work.

The source of the Udnie paintings is well known. En route via the Liner Lorraine to the Armory Show, Picabia spent some time watching the renowned Stasia Napierkowska practicing dance routines on deck. Also on board and a witness with Picabia of the undulations of Napierkowska was a Dominican priest; this scene became the pretext for three highly imaginative paintings. These were executed rapidly in Paris after his return from New York. Certain seminal elements, of which the most important is, perhaps, that of the arbitrary, had how ever already made their appearance in a series of watercolors painted in New York. In these, as in La ville de New York aperçue à travers le corps of 1912, Picabia seems to regard the external model as only a point of departure to be left as the mind’s inventions intervene. As E. L. T. Mesens says of La ville de New York . . . “The picture and its title combine delicate poetry and physical humour, presaging Surrealist images.” The painting, as Mesens points out, was, in fact, inverted before being signed, and still presents the problem of what should be regarded as its top edge; it seems, with signature and title inverted, to provide a multiplicity of near-images that constantly eludes any clear definition. This idea of taking our responses to visual stimuli so far and then confusing them seems evident also in the major paintings of 1913. Ambiguity is coupled with great freedom of invention to offer the gratuitous and very beautiful forms that signify Napierkowska and the Dominican. Udnie, the simplest from the view point of subject matter, seems essentially a representation of Napierkowska, who twists and flourishes at the center of the canvas; the various and extreme dislocations to which she is subject come from a background of Cubism and Orphism. Picabia’s break with this past is secured chiefly through his choice of subject matter. Edtaonisl introduces the Dominican who watches Napierkowska as she moves across his path of vision; both figures are treated in a way that suggests their non-existence—they are cartoons disappearing into an abstracted background; they may be read as present or they may be ignored. The style is quite different with Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie as is suggested by the title. Udnie now performs within a mental landscape—a vista subject to a multiplicity of overlapping sensations; the action may be dream like or symbolic, but seems to take place on the bed of desire, with what might be a defloration a prominent feature. But one has perforce to remind oneself that the meaning of all three paintings is equally what we—as spectators—are prepared to bring to them. What is clear however is that they bring desire and an implied eroticism into post-Cubist painting, from which it was to be handed on to Surrealism.

The quantity of ambiguity that Udnie carried was to be minimized in her successors. In Voilà la femme or Vagin Brillant, “she” is simply a machine, an instrument found almost at random anywhere in the world. She satisfies no useful purpose here (or in any future paintings ); her members connect to nothing that can realize the dreams of 20th-century technology; she can only, but majestically, satisfy our desires for the poetic but meaningless movements of her parts. From Je revois . . . after, much of Picabia’s work fulfills Breton’s demands for an art that refers to a purely interior model. Even the readymade machines are an invention for art. The references to the model of Duchamp—as in Parade Amoureuse to the Large Glass are free; they tinker with the apparatus of the Bachelors. From Mallarmé’s M’introduire dans ton histoire to Candy the processes of eroticism cover a wide ground; similarly, Picabia makes references that range from the esoteric to the blatant. But their common unit is the measure of irony; to compare man’s most subtle feelings, and his most passionate, noble, yet murderous ardor to the movements of a machine is to indulge a very haughty sarcasm and a great deal of auto-irony (“Making love is not modern; yet it is still what I love best.").

The “époque mécanique” is beautifully represented in these works (Parade Amoureuse, Vagin brillant, etc.), but there is another side to mechanism unrelated to the Woman/machine equation, but nevertheless still possessing great irony—now however directed against art; Picabia used mechanism as a means of subverting other art movements. If Reverence, 1913, or Culotte tournante, 1922, were hung among Constructivist-type works of the period (from Servranck to Rodchenko) they would look fairly at home; what one should remember however is precisely the quantity of irony secreted in them. The mechanolatry of Constructivism is only very ambiguously present in the “mécanique.” Picabia seems in fact to have several times felt the necessity of subverting non-objective art. As early as 1913 he was undermining his own contribution with his Amorphist manifesto, which he illustrated with blank canvases (the opposition of colors having eliminated color, the opposition of forms having eliminated form). The same spirit was carried through to the works of the early twenties—e.g., Culotte tournante and Presse hydraulique, both of 1922—and very evidently in his “Commercial Suprematist” book of 1921–22, a readymade dental manual modified by a few marks and inscriptions. But it would be wrong to overstress the conceptual elements of these works; the eye should not be diverted from the purely plastic pleasures that reside in the geometric disposition of gold and silver paint, copper relief elements, etc. These works are beautiful in their plastic rights, deadly in their ironic balance. They are perfect anti-art works, wherein art and non-art are in an exemplary state of flux.

Mechanism and Surrealism, the relation ship is ambiguous. Love figures high in the Surrealist canon—but Picabia uses love in his art with an irony and detachment that has few (if any) parallels in Surrealist art. Again Surrealism wages war against abstraction; Picabia likewise attacks the same thing but in far more subtle terms, making his attack in a form that is not only extremely close to the object of his attack, but is also an art-object that demands our respect. It is an art-form overflowing with contradictions, a principle that would seem to oppose the quest of Surrealism for a synthesis of opposites.

What might well be the high-water mark of the mécanique was reached in 1915 in New York, where contact was re-established with Duchamp. But through an excess of drugs and alcohol Picabia fell seriously ill and by June 1916, when he left New York, his condition virtually forbade him to paint. His feelings however manifested themselves in poetry. Udnie gave birth to Poémes et dessins de la fille née sans mère. Like most of Picabia’s poems the collection is notable for the seeming irrationality and violence of imagery. (It is hardly surprising that Breton is one of the few critics who has given the poems the attention they deserve.)

Picabia’s health caused him to travel considerably during 1917–18; in 1918 he visited a neurologist in Lausanne and here published Poéms et dessins . . . This was seen by an enthusiastic Tzara. A correspondence ensued and in 1919 proto-Dada came into contact with Dada in Zurich. When Picabia shortly afterward returned to Paris he was to find a similarly congenial atmosphere there, created by the magazine Littérature and those around it—Breton, Soupault, Aragon, Desnos, Eluard, etc. Early in 1920 Tzara came to Paris and Parisian Dada launched on its brief but heady career, developing en route the seeds of Surrealism. For Picabia the contact with Dada was to act as a great stimulus; he began painting again and in a few years pushed hims elf through a marvelous number of experiences. From the cool méchanique-derived Lampe of 1919, through the collages of 1920—Le beau charcutier, Flirt, etc., to the provocative character of works such as Les Yeux Chauds, 1921, and then into the coolly disturbing “optic” works of 1922—Conversation, Optophone, etc. The first of the monster personages appears in 1923 with Idylle and are carried on in the marvelous Les amoureux of 1924. A network of cross-references exploding at intervals into a zeitgeist art-object that now begins to detach itself from the climate of thought that had given it its stimulus.

The development and dissolution of Dada, that swell on which Picabia retained an indifferent balance, relate to certain public events—e.g., the Barrès trial and the Congress of Paris. 1920 had witnessed a number of important Dada realizations, from the Salle Gaveau manifestation to the idealistic, if ineffectual, attempt to return Dada from the galleries it had begun to infiltrate, to the streets—the Dada visits and excursions. Its sole visit to the featureless St. Julien le pauvre was ignored by Picabia who wrote to Breton, “All I hope is that it will not become political or anti-political, clerical or anti-clerical since I believe that Dada is a personage having nothing to do with beliefs whatever they may be.” But by 1921 it was becoming apparent that Dada was losing its impetus, its manifestations by repetition over-shadowing its motivations. It had either to be saved—dragged onto higher ground, or abandoned. Breton took the first course, Picabia the latter—though lending a hand to Breton when invited to do so.

On May 13, 1921, Maurice Barrès, an eminent inoffensive man of letters was, in the form of a mannequin, tried by a Dadaist court. Breton, as President of the tribunal, summed up as follows: “Dada, judging that the time has come to endow its negative spirit with executive powers, and determined above all to exercise these powers against those who threaten its dictatorship, is beginning, as of this date, to take appropriate measures . . . Dada accuses Maurice Barrès of offense against the security of the spirit.” Tzara angered Breton by the levity with which he treated the affair. But perhaps more important was Picabia’s opposition. Two days prior to the trial he published a repudiation of Dada and the Dadaists, amongst whom he was suffocating. “The bourgeois represents the infinite, Dada will be the same if it lasts too long.” Shortly afterward he left the hothouse of Paris for the sun of the South of France.

Breton was by now fixed on transforming the movement, almost by any means. Over the next two years his feelings oscillated from a grandiose idealism to complete disillusion (in 1923 he announced that he had stopped writing). The idealism which was to triumph was evident in his projected Congress of Paris—an “International Congress to establish directives for the modern spirit and defend it.” Embracing, as it did such names as Delaunay, Ozenfant, Paulhan and Auric, it is difficult to believe that it would ever have achieved anything concrete. At any event the remaining Dada-ists, led by Tzara, could not allow this on their doorstep and proceeded to sabotage the affair. Breton’s rupture with Dada was complete; in March 1922 he published a short piece entitled “Après Dada,” which shows his consciousness of his position at this time, leaving what Sanouillet calls the one positive experience of his life and looking toward the horizon.1

Rather surprisingly Picabia supported Breton over the projected Congress, and they became firm friends again. In October of that year the two men went to Barcelona where Picabia was holding an exhibition of recent works. Breton wrote a preface for the catalog, in which he unstintingly praised Picabia, and at the latter’s suggestion delivered a text at the Barcelona Ateneo, Caractères de l’évolution moderne et ce qui en participe, which was a definite, if preliminary, survey of the grounds on which the surreal was to be built.

Picabia’s exhibition at José Dalmau’s gallery in Barcelona was of recent works, mainly watercolors. In some, the tradition of mechanism is carried o n, but there was an important group of new pictures which one may refer to as “optic” works. These use parallel and concentric stripes, sometimes solely (Lampe Cristal), sometimes with a super-imposed figure (Conversation, Chariot). They refer not only to the effects of optics, but also to the instruments—Jumelle—binoculars; Optophone—an instrument used for perception tests. Lampe cristal may refer through the crystal ball to the current preoccupation of Breton and those in Paris with spiritualism and hypnosis. Works such as Conversation and Optophone are elusive and elliptical in meaning as Breton indicates in his preface. He wrote, “it would be wrong to relate these last works to his mechanist period,” though such works as already mentioned, Presse hydraulique, or Culotte tournante seem to be still concerned, if only in part, with elegantly undermining Suprematism. At the end of his piece Breton wrote, “. . . for the first time a painting becomes a source of mystery, after having been, for so long, only speculation on the mystery, and with this art without a model—neither decorative nor symbolic—Picabia has just achieved, with out a doubt, the most exalted step on the ladder of creation.” Certainly one must agree with Breton that many of these watercolors have a meaning that escapes justification, and that they are paintings of a very high order. One may also say, from the vantage point of today, that they in many ways prefigure Surrealism without in any way bearing a strict resemblance to any specific Surrealist art.

Breton’s faith in Picabia in these years was indeed great: in Clairement he wrote, “Thank God our age is not as debased as it might seem—we still have Picasso, Duchamp and Picabia. . . .” In his actual discourse at the Ateneo he counted Picabia among the pillars on which Surrealism (for the word had now been adopted) would rest. Here, as in other pieces written at this period, he naturally linked the example of Picabia with that of Duchamp. (Even in Entrée des Mediums when Breton was recording his great hopes for the use of hypnosis, he would still pay tribute to the comparable, but conscious, mental gymnastics of Duchamp and Picabia.) What he could say of Picabia in his Barcelona discourse, “Here we are no longer concerned with painting, nor even with poetry or the philosophy of painting, but clearly with the interior landscapes of a man who, long ago, left on a journey to the poles of himself,” he might as easily have said of Duchamp.

There is no doubt that by the end of 1922 Breton had found the supports he needed to carry the weight of Surrealism. The line of descent he traces, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Nouveau, Jarry, the poets around Littérature, and the painters—Picasso, Duchamp, Picabia, Chirico, Ernst and Man Ray—carried the spirit ineluctably into the age of Surrealism. If one says ineluctably, then this is because that spirit was as of now becoming embodied in one man: Breton became a collective force. In an atmosphere of hypnosis, naps and psychoanalysis the word Surrealism was to assume an incantatory power. Picabia, who had initially shown interest in the projects with which Breton would replace Dada, slowly and then violently with drew.

In October, 1922, Breton became sole editor of Littérature. The last nine issues under his direction exemplify most of the concerns and genius of early Surrealism. Picabia contributed to these issues with cover designs and poems. Some of the poems seem fairly in keeping with the rest of the magazine, but there are also contributions typical of Picabia, gossipy, aphoristic and cynical. The cover designs, both actual and projected, have about them that indefinable air that links them with a certain precipitation of spirit. But there is no doubt that as the matter and manner of Surrealism began to crystallize Picabia moved into a definite opposition. 391, No. 16 of May 1924 featured the Superréalisme of Francis Picabia and some rather obscene drawings directed against Rimbaud. And in No. 19 of October 1924 he attacked Breton with all the vigor of an unrepentant Dadaist, and made no bones of emphasizing his own role as a precursor, signing himself “Francis Picabia; Stage manager of André Breton’s Surrealism.” This was the last issue of 391. The avant-garde spirit manifested it self again in Relâche and Entr’acte produced at the end of 1924; but from this date onward Picabia had little contact with the avant-garde—with the world of Surrealism. Yet, on the evidence of the paintings of 1924 it might be thought that Picabia was in fact very amenable to the nature Surrealism was assuming. The “Monster” pictures testify, seemingly, to the fact that he was not adverse to exploring his own psychic recesses. The writhing streams of paint, the spotting, the doodling, the multi-eyed figures further indicate the extreme gratuitousness of his act. Breton’s dictionary definition of Surrealism, found in the first manifesto, seems only to confirm such a view.

There seems, then, a line of works from La Ville de New York aperçue à travers le corps down to the Monster works such as Le Baiser that in varying degrees prefigures Surrealism; it takes us to 1924, but after this the gap between the two never closes. If anything, it widens; Picabia was consciously making bad art works, making puns against Surrealism, yet his detachment could lead him to make works such as Le vert avec le rouge et le noir, that one could, if necessary, class as Surrealist.

While Surrealism was expanding its idealism to embrace the politics of Communism, Picabia painted some of his least convincing works and declared himself converted to the values of capitalism. He continued to paint for his pleasure, following innumerable paths. In 1928 Breton wrote, “in spite of everything I shall continue to count on Picabia,” and in the years preceding Picabia’s death in 1953 he again paid tribute to Picabia and his example. In his funeral oration at Picabia’s graveside he made it clear that Surrealism had suffered a sad loss. He said:

“Francis, I have said that yo ur paintings were an of ten desperate, of ten Nero-like succession of the most beautiful feasts that man has ever given himself. A work based on the supremacy of caprice, on a refusal to follow, entirely directed towards freedom—even a freedom to displease. Only a great aristocrat of the mind such as yo urself could have dared what you have dared: not to weigh yourself down, not to flatter anything (and that includes any advantageous idea that one could have had about you), to possess as your own Mallarmé’s jewel: ‘this drop of no thingness which the sea lacks.’”

A state of mind, that phrase become almost meaning less by repetition—but that one must have recourse to—defines the relationship between Picabia and Breton. But a state of mind exists with in the individual and leads to outward differences. No amount of juggling will make Picabia a secure fit within the Surrealist mold. But one may still turn, as Breton wished to in 1922, to Picabia as a barometer who m one can profitably consult on the atmospheric pressure of that which became, and is, Surrealism.

Ronald Hunt



1. “For my part I shall try, once again, to join the fight, as far forward as possible, although I do not, like Francis Picabia ‘One must be a nomad, pass through ideas as one passes through countries and cities,’ make a rule of hygiene or a duty out of it. Even should all ideas be of a nature to disappoint us, I propose nonetheless to devote my life to them.”