PRINT February 2008


George Baker’s The Artwork Caught by the Tail

FRANCIS PICABIA was already an adept of the most variant isms by the time he arrived in Paris in 1919, at age forty, and placed himself at the forefront of the latest avant-garde, then falling into rank under the banner of Dada. Unlike many of the artists involved in the movement, for whom its emergence was a direct consequence of the First World War, Picabia had spent the previous four years traveling, far from the front, in a sheltered world of money, sanatoriums, and art. It is therefore not surprising that he focused his Dadaist aggression primarily on the art world itself rather than on the political and social issues that had set in motion the prior manifestations of Dada in Zurich, Berlin, and Cologne. He once said he would like to set up a “‘paternal’ school for the discouragement of young people from what our good snobs call Art with a capital A.” Such a “school” is no doubt one of Picabia’s enduring legacies, and he would probably have taken diabolical pleasure in how well attended it has been—even if it has paradoxically had such limited success at achieving its stated intent. After all, nothing contributes more to the overvaluation of art than its continual negation. Anti-art is also only art, often distinguished merely by taking itself all too seriously. But might Picabia’s own attack against art be understood differently? Could it be a violation in full knowledge of its fixation on the negated norm? A venture into the outermost borderland of art, ending in exhaustion? A collapse that precludes any recuperation, including as anti-art? An absolute, utopian cancellation of exchange-value?

Art historian George Baker explores these possibilities in the first book-length study of Picabia and Dada in Paris, The Artwork Caught by the Tail, an elegiac celebration that locates Dada’s ultimate grandeur in its immanent failure. The book’s title, however, is mischievous. To catch an artwork by the tail, we learn, is no easy trick; it requires an operation by which the foundational authority of the symbolic order is dragged out from its transcendental hiding place, so that the phallus, for example, is presented as simply a prick, or even a monkey’s tail—indeed, in Picabia’s Natures mortes (Still Lifes) of 1920 (depicted on the cover of Baker’s book), a monkey holds its own tail, emerging between the front of its legs, in its hand. The toy monkey is a readymade mounted on a cardboard support that bears three inscriptions—designating it a triple portrait (of Rembrandt, Cézanne, and Renoir)—as well as the title, a pun that declares the work a still life (nature morte) while asserting the lifelessness of both its subjects and the monkey itself. The old, mocking description of painting as nothing but the aping of nature is thus lent new force: Picabia’s Dada painting is a parodic imitation of what painting once wanted to be, with its great names and its established genres. Seen in this way, the monkey grasping its own tail becomes simultaneously a self-reflexive and a self-undermining gesture, through which painting’s attempt to establish its own authority results only in its grasping a laughable ersatz phallus. Baker ascribes a far-reaching effectiveness to this operation; one of his central arguments is that it is applicable, mutatis mutandis, to all authorities that serve as standard measures or “general equivalents” of exchange according to French philosopher Jean-Joseph Goux’s theory of symbolic economies. Besides the phallus, which regulates the exchange of desires, these are: the father for the exchange of subjects, language for the exchange of signs, and money for the exchange of goods. With the collapse of the gold standard after World War I, at least in Baker’s take on Goux’s argument, the last anchor of the exchange of goods to a referent in the real world was lost, and with it, referentiality in all other registers of the symbolic order. In brief summary of Baker’s main thesis, then, Dada is the radicalization of this loss of backing and the parodic debilitation of all attempts to compensate. Further, he argues for a utopian potential in the aesthetic and social experiences unleashed by these procedures of negation and undoing.

The substance of the often quite complicated case Baker makes in support of his thesis may be clarified by taking up his comparatively simple discussion of the signatures in Francis Picabia (Francis Picabia by Francis Picabia), ca. 1920, a drawing in which the name of the artist appears twice—once in the center of the picture as its apparent subject, and once again, underneath, as the artist’s signature. This doubling makes plain the typical function of a signature—to authenticate an object’s originality through the artist’s use of a repeatable sign—but since the central script is smeared into the page and thus closely affiliated with the pictorial support, it is also unique: an absolutely singular set of slurred letters that resists iteration. This split of an artwork into arbitrary signs that circulate as tokens, on the one hand, and a single, material instance characterized by crude literalism, on the other, is typical of Picabia’s approach; and Baker sees in this strategy the hollowing out of art, as an ungrounding self-reflection brings to light a constitutive lack within traditional media such as painting and drawing. Moving beyond such formalist examinations, Baker also considers the importance of the social spaces, soirees, exhibitions, magazines, and other activities of Paris Dada. Many of Picabia’s works refer to these events—or, more exactly, conceive a poetics of Dadaist community. The key painting in this context is L’Oeil cacodylate (The Cacodylic Eye), 1921, a canvas signed by Picabia’s friends when they came to visit him as he recovered in seclusion from an eye ailment. This communal production of a picture consisting mostly of signatures unites a community of artists who are putting at stake their most crucial precondition—namely, the originality of the artist and his signature. Thus, Baker persuasively argues, Dada’s happy failure lies in how it creates a mode of sociality from the ruins of the foundations of the symbolic economy of art.

Tracing such utopian moments in the production of art is one thing. But how does Baker’s wish to find a disruptive and transfigurative force in Picabia’s works accord with the experience of the viewer? The mechanomorphs are blunt, empty pictures. Their hardened forms look as if they were copied neatly from technical diagrams. Art historians have recently discovered that most of Picabia’s abstractions are indeed taken from such templates, although others are derived from photographs, and even from the Mona Lisa. As I see it, the mechanomorphs might best be described as an attempt to neutralize or anesthetize our very faculty of apprehending painting’s sensual and semantic plenitude. But since such a view would discourage the search for a Picabia whose art makes possible utopian or at least transformative experiences (though not forbid it, since, thanks to Roland Barthes, we have learned to appreciate the transformative potential in the anesthetic and insipid), Baker opts for a more dramatic interpretation. He uses a metaphor of blindness to explain the effect of our not being immediately able to recognize the sources of these works, and even goes so far as to describe the viewer’s reaction as one of bedazzlement: “Beyond the experience of visual opacity enacted by the abstract mechanomorphs, we should now realize that we are summoned, in mechanomorph after mechanomorph, to stare like Van Gogh into a series of blinding sources of light.” Picabia and van Gogh? An astonishing comparison, which would doubtless have pleased Picabia, a consistently well-tanned dazzler who enjoyed having his picture taken in an aviator’s helmet and goggles. In a certain sense, it’s even a convincing one: Baker also mentions how Picabia literally dazzled his public with the set design for the ballet Relâche (Performance Canceled), in which 370 projector lamps backed by circular reflectors were aimed directly at the audience.

First performed in 1924 by the Swedish Ballet, Relâche—to which Picabia contributed the concept, scenario, and set design, Erik Satie the music, and Jean Börlin the choreography—was not a product of Paris Dada. The protagonists had already dispersed, or else had begun to found a new type of avant-garde, as Surrealists, under André Breton’s direction. However, Relâche and above all its most famous part, the film interlude Entr’acte, made by René Clair to a script written with Picabia, brought the poetics of Paris Dada back to life (and, what’s more, represent much stronger evidence of how the movement succeeded in going beyond parody and negation than do the mechanomorphic abstractions). According to Baker’s interpretation, which doubtless represents the highlight of his book, the film and the ballet rely on the compositional figure of chiasmus, mixing and inverting each other’s themes across the gap that separates the media in question. In this way, cinema, understood as the interplay of photography, music, scenography, and acting, became a model for collaboration among the arts—as well as among artists: In Baker’s view, whenever Picabia was collaborating, he was also engaged in a private dialogue with Marcel Duchamp, his most important interlocutor, and one of the few whose friendship the notoriously disloyal Picabia would never betray. Baker argues that the narrative of Relâche, which entails “the stripping, alternately, of the female and then the male dancers,” is a dramatization of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even—the “Large Glass” that Duchamp worked on for eight years before declaring it “definitively unfinished” in 1923. This is just the most sophisticated example among various references Baker finds in Picabia’s work to the “Large Glass,” which, he argues, stands behind most of the artist’s abstract paintings of 1922–23 and even the early machine drawings from his years in New York.

It is certainly productive to think of Picabia, this impresario of avant-gardism, in constant exchange with Man Ray, Tristan Tzara, Clair, and Satie, as well as with Breton and above all with Duchamp, and we learn a lot about the polemical promptings among these artists that made for such lively conversation among them. But how is this hermetic dialogue related to the public, to those who do not participate in it but only witness its results? Every dialogue directs itself inward and thereby produces an exterior. With Dada, this operation is transformed into an explicit act of exclusion that announces, as loudly and to as many people as possible: You are not Dada! Aggression is, in fact, the public face of Dada, which shields the internal dialogue behind a nearly impenetrable wall of mockery and commotion. Unlike Futurism or later Surrealism, Dada (at least in Picabia’s version) does not aim for the detection and annihilation of particular enemies. Its opponents are endlessly and deliberately reduplicated, a process that goes so far as to result in Dada attacking Dada. Dada does not derive its energy primarily from the identification of the enemy, but from its readiness for conflict with any and every potential opponent.

A focus on the rhetoric of animosity could in fact serve as a key to the historiography of most twentieth century avant-gardes. The strategy of devising an all encompassing, anonymous, and indestructible order, which art can then be given the task of subverting, is typical of writing about such movements, from Surrealism to the Situationist International. This is not surprising, since it is merely to take at face value the self-presentation of the avant-gardes themselves. Baker attempts to fit Parisian Dada into this paradigm, making it take on a single, overpowering, and inherently invincible opponent: the so-called general equivalent at the center of Goux’s symbolic economy, which underlies all possible kinds of exchange. Baker thus apparently shares the still-prevalent belief that the only worthy opponent is one that penetrates every last corner of human life. I have my doubts as to whether such a strategy—raising a monument to the evil totality in order to then undermine it—can be productive today, however, and for me Picabia presents an interesting example of someone who proceeded differently: He did not attack the Whole, but rather that which lay in his path. This included the usual suspects, like the conservative writer Rachilde, the academic Cubist Albert Gleizes, and the Legion of Honor, as well as less obvious targets like André Gide, Lenin, and Albert Einstein—but throughout, the specific individuals in question are not as important as the act of provocation itself, which primarily functions as a gesture of belligerent self-reference.

The polemical theatricalization of animosity is particularly apparent in Picabia’s writings, most of which are now available in Marc Lowenthal’s translation under the appropriate title I Am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, and Provocation (MIT Press, 2007). This carefully annotated book, which includes all of Picabia’s poetry, might serve as a showcase of avant-garde techniques—collage, automatic writing, and outright dilettantism among them. There is, however, also a surprisingly melancholic, even sentimental voice that pervades the poetry. Even during the Dada years, Picabia wrote many lines like the following, from “Pensées sans langage” (Thoughts Without Language, 1919): “today and for a long time now / brooks have been looking like little women / a joy of life dreaming aloud / that means nothing / to look elsewhere / humanity’s egoistic religions / my face looks like brooks / but no one will come / secret almanac of palm readings . . . .”

Reading Picabia’s face is indeed a hazardous task. In Vive Papa (Long Live Daddy), 1920, a photographic self-portrait in which the title phrase is written on Picabia’s forehead, Baker finds a captivating smile, but I see only the impudent sneer of the provocateur—perhaps a consequence of this affluent forty-year-old artist mingling with twenty-year-olds who narrowly evaded the charnel house of the First World War. Baker emphatically adopts a more benevolent interpretation, which sits happily with his reading of Picabia as a “joyous, prodigal” father figure in the act of dispensing with his own function. (In the collage Tableau Rastadada [Rastadada Painting], 1920, which is based on the same photograph of the artist, the inscription on his forehead has been revised to read vive papa.) Simply put, Baker’s view is that Picabia was Dada’s daddy, but just for fun. Indeed, The Artwork Caught by the Tail would itself like to take part in this attack on the order of filiation by turning against the authority that the art-historical monograph normally claims for itself. Baker’s epilogue is written self-consciously in the manner of a “Dada montage” that splits the book’s arguments into conflicting voices—the art historian himself, so to speak, performing the acrobatic feat of trying to catch his own tail.

Even if a last word is by such means evaded, there is nevertheless a fundamental (albeit multivalent) concept that governs the entire text, and that concept is loss. Such loss is sometimes encoded in a simple fact of Picabia’s biography, such as the death of an uncle or a break with friends. It is elsewhere an aesthetic category, for example when a constitutive lack within an artistic medium comes to light. In addition, loss is a political concept, as when a community-building power emerges from failure. One might also mention Picabia’s poetry (although Baker does not discuss it), since it brims over with images of yearning. What’s more, loss underlies the symbolic economy whose referents in the real have supposedly gone astray. And last, the experience of loss also befalls the daddy of Paris Dada, whom Picabia, looking back, attacks in an Oedipal turn against himself. (The result is, as it is put in Baker’s epilogue, “a self still joyous but now evidently full of holes.”)

All of these different instances of loss originate in a scene Baker describes at the very beginning of The Artwork Caught by the Tail—when, in October 1912, Picabia, Duchamp, and Apollinaire traveled by car to the village of Étival in the French Jura, to visit Picabia’s wife, Gabrielle Buffet, at her family farm. The trip turned out to be momentous in many ways, not least in that Duchamp received inspirations that would lead him to the “Large Glass” and Apollinaire completed his poem “Zone,” the reading of which provides an ending for Baker’s travelogue: “‘Adieu, adieu,’ the poet concluded, in his newborn work’s penultimate verse. Farewell, farewell.” Such a formulation naturally leads one to wonder for whom this gesture of parting is really meant. Baker does not give a clear answer, as if through naming its object, he might lose the sense of loss. But Apollinaire’s “Adieu, adieu” should be seen in relation to the poem’s actual closing lines: “Adieu, adieu / Soleil cou coupé” (Farewell, farewell / The sun a severed neck). If the original ending of “Zone” reveals any object of loss, it is that of the poet’s voice, since the sun with the severed neck is Sol—Apollo—Apollinaire, who thus abruptly concludes his song of the modern world. Evidently, in Baker’s telling we are not dealing with the poet’s final words, but rather with those of the art historian who would like to position “Farewell, farewell” at the conclusion of his opening sequence and thus place an empty gesture of loss at the beginning of his argument—at the price of a truncation that again severs the sun’s already severed neck.

The foundational loss of which Baker speaks could, then, be identified with the loss of art, of Art with a capital A—as embodied in Apollinaire’s own voice. But might October 1912 also stand for an entirely new, still-latent idea of the artwork, to which Picabia would dedicate his artistic future? Such a speculation similarly goes against the letter of Baker’s argument, since he rejects the concept of the artwork as a valid category. He does so because he thinks that the dialectical recuperation intrinsic to the artwork does not admit the experience of failure at the core of Picabia’s Dadaism. Even if this were the case—there are obviously other, more antagonistic views of how an artwork is constituted—it is nevertheless striking that Picabia made himself the mouthpiece of an unknown masterwork; for that matter, it is Baker himself who shows that the “Large Glass” can be found behind most of Picabia’s works from the machine drawings of 1915 up through Relâche in 1924. Hence it appears—and in my opinion is not at all regrettable—that art history, even when dealing with Dada, must still of necessity operate with a strong concept of the work.

Baker seems to anticipate residual objections of this kind: The epigraph of his book is a Latin proverb translated as, “An eel, held by the tail, is not yet caught.” But what- or whoever this eel might be—the artwork, Picabia, or Baker’s book itself—a couple of observations can nevertheless be made: The Artwork Caught by the Tail is the most inspiring and thoughtful monograph on Dada currently available. Even readers who do not buy into all its theoretical premises will find a carefully researched, richly elaborate and evocative narrative of this turbulent episode in the history of modernism. But that said, this narrative is fully committed to its hero, and there is naturally a price to pay for such strong identification. Baker would like his book to be provocative, but it lacks an adequate analysis of Picabia’s theatricality. Because it is so enamored of Picabia as a champion of failure, it wants to embrace failure itself (the forceful nature of its own argumentation notwithstanding). But this enamored, not to say love-crazed, confusion of object and subject is doubtless a compliment to Picabia, who, like every good provocateur, was also a notorious seducer.

Ralph Ubl is Allan and Jean Frumkin Professor of Visual Art at the University of Chicago.

Translated from German by Elizabeth Tucker.


George Baker, The Artwork Caught By The Tail: Francis Picabia and Dada in Paris (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 476 pages.