New York

Francis Picabia and Erik Satie, Relâche, 1924. Performance view, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 1924.

Francis Picabia and Erik Satie, Relâche, 1924. Performance view, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 1924.

Francis Picabia

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Francis Picabia and Erik Satie, Relâche, 1924. Performance view, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 1924.

FRANCIS PICABIA is famous above all for his flamboyant stylistic and ideological diversity. This diversity has created a legend. The legend has to do with freedom: Picabia is heralded—especially by artists—as the insouciant trickster deity of modernism, the Aquarian hero of artistic self-determinacy in the face of all sorts of orthodoxies, even (especially) the right ones.

The legend is productive and, given the pictorial efficacy of so many of his best works, deserved. It does, however, confuse the central problem of Picabia’s career. It mistakes the symptom (the artist’s matchless stylistic diversity) for the cause, which is philosophical. What made Picabia, among all the artists of the historical avant-garde, so apparently immune to stylistic and ideological coherence and codification? And what, if anything, separates his project from mere decadence (however attractive) or dilettantism?

The fullness, clarity, and informative depth of his recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art allowed us to revisit such questions. Picabia, who was born into wealth and privilege, lived in a world in which everything was possible because nothing had any meaning or purpose. He experienced freedom as a curse—the curse of a man falling forever in endless space—and sought desperately to escape it. The curse is best called nihilism, and was diagnosed most famously by Nietzsche, whom Picabia adored: “What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking; ‘why?’ finds no answer.”

Picabia did not seek to tear down idols; rather, he sought new idols to replace the already-shattered ones. He tried on different styles not to mock them, but to test their effectiveness in the fight against nihilism. As seen in the show, his experiments ranged across ersatz Impressionism, mechanical portraiture and abstraction, and Dada diagrams, followed by the figurative Monsters, Transparencies, and scandalous and influential wartime nudes. Every one of his stylistic adventures and about-faces responds, like the regular beating of a heart, to the absolute crisis of nihilism. His “consistent inconsistencies” paradoxically describe the consistent pattern of response by a gifted artist to this singular, unbearable crisis—a crisis that paralleled the collapse of the entire project of Western Enlightenment rationality, which came crashing down with the horrors of the first full-scale world war. Picabia initially attempted to overcome nihilism (as did Nietzsche) by way of an analogy with music, which itself does not describe or represent an external reference but is rather conceived as self-justifying, of generating its own meaning. This musical analogy, which is conventionally modernist and most famously articulated by Walter Pater (“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”), defined Picabia’s career as a pioneer of abstraction in Paris and New York and accounts for the suave and sumptuous abstractions that were displayed in the second and third rooms of the exhibition. But the musical model was unable, for complex reasons, to gratify Picabia’s search for meaning. He shifted his practice in decisive ways after 1915.

Rather than attempting to solve the problem of nihilism directly by seizing on a more profound experience of life and art, Picabia began to change the form of his inquiry, rephrasing, for example, the transcendent question “What does it mean?” into the empirical “How does it work?” Crucially, he came to conceive of time as a circle (as did Nietzsche) and to detest any attachment to the past or belief in the future. The preponderance of circles and circular compositions in Picabia’s work is, once noticed, remarkable, and quite clearly of a piece with his ontology. So is his valorization of mobility and especially speed, which is, per Bakhtin, “the single means for overcoming time in time.” Picabia’s quest for an eternal present achieved its fullest, most sustained expression in 1924, when, just before quitting Paris for the Côte d’Azur, he founded a short-lived avant-garde called Instantanéisme and produced the ballet Relâche (structured as a great circle in time and famously featuring 370 circular headlights as a stage set). That year’s film Entr’acte, screened at the intermission of Relâche and at MoMA alongside the photographs and costume sketches for Relâche, also describes a quest for the eternal present. Compression in time here finds pictorial analogy as compression in space: Note how spatially shallow Picabia’s paintings often are (especially when compared with their sources) and also how often his paintings seek immediate (instantaneous, if possible) communication with the viewer.

From this model of temporality derives a model of repetition. This model clarifies especially Picabia’s brazen disinterest in originality and his bizarre and extravagant willingness to appropriate and even plagiarize images and ideas from a range of sources, including his friends, with no shame and often to extraordinary aesthetic effect. Many have interpreted Picabia’s relationship to his sources by way of Benjaminian models, which posit repetition as a fall from Platonic grace into a secular mode of allegory or pastiche. But Picabia assumed the opposite. For him, appropriation was a form of assent and affirmation, a way of stamping a kind of permanence on all things doomed to be destroyed, or made meaningless, by time. This understanding of repetition and appropriation, and of the stylistic multiplicity they made possible, was Picabia’s core and crowning achievement: In the act of finding things (all things, anything at all) doomed to disappearance and fixing them in an eternal present, Picabia realized, intuitively, Nietzsche’s “greatest thought”—the thought of eternal return. Picabia translated an ontological model that Continental philosophers took nearly a century to develop intellectually into an avant-garde practice and position—the proof of which is the unrivaled, flamboyant range of his many pictorial and poetic modes, which, because they embrace difference and repetition as fundamental acts of affirmation, continue to inspire artists in our time to diverse, even contrary, modes of exultation.

David Lewis is an art historian and the founder of David Lewis, an art gallery in New York.

This is a complimentary article. Subscribe to access the rest of the issue and our online archives.