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View of “Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction,” 2016–17. From left: Dances à la source [II] (Dances at the Spring [II]), 1912; Les pins, effet de soleil à Saint-Honorat (Cannes) (Pine Trees, Effect of Sunlight at Saint-Honorat [Cannes]), 1906. Photo: Martin Seck.

View of “Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction,” 2016–17. From left: Dances à la source [II] (Dances at the Spring [II]), 1912; Les pins, effet de soleil à Saint-Honorat (Cannes) (Pine Trees, Effect of Sunlight at Saint-Honorat [Cannes]), 1906. Photo: Martin Seck.

Francis Picabia

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

View of “Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction,” 2016–17. From left: Dances à la source [II] (Dances at the Spring [II]), 1912; Les pins, effet de soleil à Saint-Honorat (Cannes) (Pine Trees, Effect of Sunlight at Saint-Honorat [Cannes]), 1906. Photo: Martin Seck.

JOINING FORCES with Cathérine Hug of Kunsthaus Zürich, curator Anne Umland of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, assembled roughly two hundred opinion-shifting works by the wildly mercurial Franco-Cubanartist Francis Picabia (1879–1953). Some 125 of them were paintings; the rest comprised drawings, illustrations, film, and period ephemera. The exhibition’s title, “Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction”—a Picabia aphorism—underscored the jarring discontinuities that marked the painter’s seemingly discordant sequence of styles. Perhaps, given the spoiled, vain, uxorious heir to a vast sugar fortune that he was, style to him was little more than a momentary distraction to be abandoned at the first onset of tedium.

Then again, latitude and license would be natural responses to the terrifyingly chaotic time in which Picabia lived, a period that saw the empires of Germany and Austro-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman world buried and the democratic monarchy of England brought to its knees. Such events would render reasonable an anarchic “why not?” in lieu of the dialectical shuttle of modernist isms.

Picabia began his career in the 1900s as a salon Impressionist, producing landscapes of a kind that decorated the interiors of new railroad stations and posh hotels of the belle epoque. These skilled works (given fair showing here) were often painted after photographs and postcards—hardly the plein air, premier coup efforts of his Impressionist forebears. Soon, however, Picabia shifted gears. Dances à la source [II] (Dances at the Spring [II]), 1912, to cite one famous example, fuses the Analytical Cubism of Picasso’s Three Women, 1908, with the crazy-quilt semaphore of Gino Severini’s Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin, 1912. (Notably, an incendiary Futurist exhibition took Paris by storm that same year.)

Picabia’s gluttonish assimilation of Cubo-Futurism continued for the next two years, yielding several masterworks. A group of these—which together form an immensely impressive section of the exhibition—contain hidden references to Picabia’s thunderclap, high-seas romance with the dancer Stacia Napierkowska. Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie (I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie), 1914, with its mechanomorphic entanglements—the machine as human—is particularly striking. Mid-canvas, an upright fire hose–like form advances on the pillowy exfoliation above, inevitably invoking, in so eroticized a context, an engorged phallus. But in another sense, the mechanomorphism also reflects the newly mechanized warfare of the day: the cavalry’s transformation into artillery, the wide bore of Big Bertha, the sudden emergence of the long-distance cannon, the massive destructive power of modern ordnance. Millions were killed, an entire generation of men.

In 1915, Picabia left France for the international haven of New York, his wealth and Cuban passport guaranteeing him safe berth, something unavailable to many of his fellow modernists, such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Fernand Léger, both seriously wounded. There, he nurtured deep friendships with an ebullient group of artists, chief among them the secretive Marcel Duchamp and the amorous Man Ray, beginning a phase of happy few in-jokes and high jinks. The iconographic volleying between Duchamp and Picabia marks a wartime artistic apogee. One small example, Gabrielle Buffet, elle corrige les moeurs en riant (Gabrielle Buffet, She Corrects Manners While Laughing), 1915—Picabia’s mechanomorphic portrait of his wife as a partially opened double-sash automobile windshield—also alludes to Duchamp, then at work on the double-paned structure The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915–23, affectionately known as the “Large Glass.”

But by the mid-’20s, Picabia, once more living the high life in Paris and the Côte d’Azur, had shifted gears toward Tristan Tzara and André Breton. As Dadaism elided into Surrealism, Picabia turned out a group of absurdly delightful paintings wherein goo-goo-eyed lovers meet up in the manner of the poisson d’avril postcards the French send to one another as April Fool’s wishes. This willful silliness continued on into Picabia’s infinitely more sober, occasionally arty Transparencies of the late ’20s, a body of work featuring superimposed paintings-as-drawings, often on classical themes, and shown in abundance here.

With the approach of World War II, Picabia earnestly picks up palette and brush again, but his mediocre realist hand betrays him with every stroke. Still, whatever these works lack in technical skill they make up for in their canny distillation of the period’s grim resolve. Fascism, worldwide depression, unemployment, colonial unrest, war in Africa, strikes echoing the slogans of world communism—all lurk in the unshaven, film-noirish atmosphere of Picabia’s ooh-la-la images lifted from girlie magazines.

It was in the lead-up to the war that the artist, then living in southern France, became portrait painter in ordinary to the music hall vedettes of the day—entertainers who, unlike Édith Piaf, were later excoriated for putative collaborations with the Nazi occupiers. I make no judgment here, but Picabia’s social context of the day does seem vacuous and frightfully morally compromised. A curious subset of paintings emerges in the ’40s: bizarre, pseudo-primitivizing work, featuring indigestible images melding into dark protozoan forms. Maria Lluïsa Borràs, the author of Picabia’s multivolume catalogue raisonné, has suggested these pieces may reflect the painter’s fear that there existed an inculpating “Dossier Picabia” that could lead to his arrest.

I find scant redemption in Picabia’s later work, unlike many young artists in the ’80s, who came to prize it for a blunt awkwardness that bridged George Orwell and Johnny Weissmuller. For such painters, Picabia’s cheesecake pinups provided an alternative to the choking restraints—the “No Exit,” as Sartre would have it—of a critically militant Conceptualist reductivism and minimalism. Thus does the once objectionable become the going thing. And it’s all Picabia’s fault. Who’da thunk it?

Robert Pincus-Witten is a contributing editor of Artforum.

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