Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Stop Making Sense

Few artists made less sense yet said more in their careers than Francis Picabia. Born January 22, 1879, Picabia helped bring Dada to America and the world with works such as Portrait de femme aux allumettes, No. 1 (above, from 1923), in which Picabia creates a woman’s face with match sticks for hair and safety pins for eyes, repurposing those household items to create a wholly new way of looking at the human face. Marcel Duchamp hailed Picabia as the individual who bridged Europe and America for many artists as they fled the madness of World War I. Like Duchamp and his other Surrealist friend Man Ray, Picabia lived his life of Dada nonsense, rejecting the world that itself seemed to no longer act rationally.

Like the Italian Futurists, Picabia embraced the machine as the answer to all of the excesses of romantic humanism, creating works such as Machine Turn Quickly (above, from 1916-1918) as the wheels of destruction decimated Europe and wiped out a generation (including most of the Futurist artists themselves). Unlike the Futurists, Picabia knew when to stop, rejecting the dogma of the cult of the machine the same way he rejected all ideology and authority. Picabia actually began studying art with Alfred Sisley in the Impressionist style and later fell under the influence of the Cubists, but shed each of those influences in his personal journey to something uniquely his own.

In addition to painting and sculpture, Picabia wrote poetry, little of which has been translated into English and, from what I understand, wouldn’t make much sense if it was. In the 1930s, Picabia traveled in the French social circles surrounding Gertrude Stein and her literary salon, adopting the difficult, multilayered style of writing that he translated into paintings such as Hera (above, from 1929). Picabia creates a sense of three-dimensionality and depth through the multiple portraits superimposed upon one another, a form of Cubism that “surrounds” the figure yet, unlike classic Cubism, leaves the figure itself intact. Despite seeing Hera’s face several times, you never see her fully at any given time. Picabia always denies you the satisfaction of a connection. Picabia’s life itself denies you the same satisfaction, bordering often on nihilism in his Dadaist rejection of rationality but simultaneously and frustratingly suggesting the possibility of some great answer hidden beneath.

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