The Zelig of Modern Art

John Haber
in New York City

Francis Picabia and A Revolutionary Impulse

He exhibited in the first wave of abstraction, as Cubism shattered into fragments of color. He met the founder of Dada in Zurich, and he caught up with the movement again when it shifted to Paris. He published with it and delighted in its machine esthetic.

He collaborated in theater, film, and dance with one each of France's most daring and celebrated composers, directors, and choreographers. He painted Spanish women, much as a Spaniard two years younger was turning back to realism. That Spaniard was Picasso, but the older painter, too, discovered Neoclassicism and then Surrealism. Francis Picabia's I See in Memory My Dear Udnie (Museum of Modern Art, 1914)And then he declared that "figurative art is dead," at the very moment of the triumph of abstract painting in New York. Oh, and did I say that he sat out part of World War I here, just in time for the Armory Show, and World War II in Vichy France, painting in the official style and spouting anti-Semitism? He was, he declared himself, one "funny guy."

He could be the Zelig of modern art, but it did not take another funny guy to make him up. Francis Picabia had his signature work, much of it now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, but he did all he could to disavow the artist's signature. His MoMA retrospective packs two hundred works into rooms claiming ten different periods. You can forgive it if it throws up its hands and calls one period simply eclecticism. So who was he for real? Part of his contribution to Modernism was to question whether the question makes sense.

Speaking of change, was there ever an art so open to the future as the Russian avant-garde? Picabia reinvented himself every day, but with no thought to tomorrow. The Bauhaus demanded a new beginning, but with a program. "A Revolutionary Impulse" shows art moving so fast that it could hardly know where it was going. It lived by a revolution, with support from Lenin, and it died by a revolution, with Stalin and Soviet Realism, but there was no turning back or turning away. Like the elements of its most revolutionary abstract paintings, it took the risk of floating, soaring, or falling in space.

MoMA is having its own quiet revolution. Its 2004 expansion subordinated the permanent collection to hype and real estate, while exhibitions have descended to circuses and celebrities. Yet it has begun to use its smaller galleries and its collection for real history. Now it has to encompass many movements, because Russian revolutionary art had more than its share. It places Rayonism, Suprematism, Constructivism, UNIVOS, Proun, and more within a single trajectory—where the last two acronyms share the words Affirmation of the New. They also do not refer explicitly to socialism or politics, a tension that began to eat away at their foundations even before they fell to repression.

Invention or nihilism?

The question of reality may still make sense, even in Vichy France or the Soviet Union, but turn first to Francis Picabia. It all depends on which version of the artist one accepts—from a man with so many versions of himself. He may have devoted himself to one movement after another, or he could have stood apart from them all. The curators, Anne Umland and Cathérine Hug of the Kunsthaus Zürich with Talia Kwartler, argue for him as the consummate trickster. They see an essential nihilism behind his many shifts, and they quote Friedrich Nietzsche, as he was wont to do in his lifetime. The full title of the show's messiest room is "Eclecticism and Iconoclasm," with the emphasis on iconoclasm.

A quote from Picabia highlights the very idea of change and supplies the show's title: "Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction." If the joke seems awfully lame, that accords with yet another version. Maybe his signature works, mostly abstract and all from 1912 to 1920, were his signature. Maybe he floundered after that, all the way to his death in 1953. A noted critic has argued much the same for Pablo Picasso apart from Cubism.

Maybe, too, he came into his own only later—or even after his death. His grab-bag of styles and media looks forward to Postmodernism and art now. So does his use of Ripolin, the premixed enamel, or his paintings after photography and porn. So, too, do his evasions and irony. One could mistake some of his most enigmatic realism for the work of Sigmar Polke or David Salle in the 1980s. The most garish paintings from Vichy France have become some of the show's most popular on Facebook.

And then there is Zelig. Maybe one can make sense of Picabia only by watching him change, from moment to moment. It can bring out the truth in all those versions of his art. It can show him always in the middle of the action but never altogether there. He may not have left much in the way of great painting, but it becomes easier to see why. He was always looking ahead, looking aside, and looking back.

Born in 1879, he could claim a time before Modernism as his birthright. Born in Paris to a Spanish father from Cuba, he could also claim eclecticism. Still, his earliest work imitates the most mainstream of French painters, Claude Monet—if only while working from a photograph. In no time, Picabia pushes the effects of sunlight toward the darker masses of Symbolism and Expressionism. A portrait in profile has the simpler outlines of Alexej von Jawlensky. Already with Impressionism, he is both late to the game and not quite playing by the rules.

Beginning in 1912, he is making his own rules, skipping right past Cubism and Futurism to the origins of abstraction. He exhibits at the Salon d'Autumn with František Kupka and Fernand Léger. In Picabia's version, Cubism's overlapping planes have become shards of color—first in a range of reddish-browns from orange to black, then in brighter, cooler, and crisper tones. He works up to eight feet to a side, for a still greater sense of danger and motion. Nothing he does will have the same intensity. Yet even here, his art is anything but pure.

Irony or kitsch?

Despite the dizzying pace of abstraction, one can make out dancers in nature. Titles run to sadness and pain, but also to comedy and poetry. Je Vois en Souvenir My Chére Udnie ("I See in Memory My Dear Udnie") shows his love of language for its own sake. And there a dancer's feet or hands coil like a piston. The machine esthetic is on, as a celebration of impersonality and destruction. Picabia is ready to encounter Dada.

And he does—as usual, on his own terms. He meets Tristan Tzara in 1919, three years after the birth of Dada, and races ahead of him to Paris. He contributes mightily to Dadaglobe and other publications. His images run to simple machines and his language to cynicism. The text in one last top-notch painting from MoMA claims to replace oil painting with castor oil and the artist's atelier, or studio, with râtelier, meaning false teeth or a bike rack (and, no doubt, also smelling a rat). At the same time, he refuses to give up painting, not even for a movement dedicated to anti-art. He is never more prolific.

He makes it harder at that to keep up. The Spanish women appear in 1922 for an exhibition in Barcelona, but so do circles akin to the spinning optical disks of Marcel Duchamp. He appears in comic silhouette as an animal trainer (misdated at that), always in charge and always commanding tricks. Then again, the owl looks anything but wise, and the dog is taking a piss. The silhouette in black also takes off from antique sculpture. Picabia's Neoclassicism has begun, but at an uncertain point between satire and the real thing.

The film, in collaboration with René Clair and Rolf de Maré of the Ballets Suèdois, displays a glory of legs and billowing dresses from below—but also a man in a top hat and a wheelchair. Picabia and Erik Satie fire a cannon for the soundtrack. He takes up Surrealism, but quickly blows off the movement. And there, too, he is taking aim at his audience. For all the apparent agony on canvas, his monsters are Mardi Gras performers. These devils do not lie deep within, because there is no deep within.

A series of "transparencies," or overlaid hands and faces, may suggest depths after all. Yet they lean to earth tones, for a firmer reality, and they give way in no time to Vichy France. Is the realism of the early 1940s ironic or just plain kitsch? Picabia exhibited under the Nazis, but he shows the masses raising their hands in supplication to a dead animal—robed like a caesar in a withering, ghostly light. He also paints Gertrude Stein, who may or may not have meant her praise for the regime as well. When Picabia insists on abstraction after the war, he may have earned a fresh start, or he may something that he wishes to forget.

There, too, he does not necessarily stick to his promises. His final works look fuzzy and often surreal. If he seeks comfort in their tameness, he may never find it—no more than a still point for his changing art. A collaboration with a poet, Pierre André Benoit, lays out what could pass for his last words: peut-être les hommes ne sont separés les uns des autres que per les degrés de leur misère ("maybe people are separated from one another only by the degree of their misery"). And maybe the scariest thing about impending death was the recognition that he could no longer change direction.

After the revolution

Russian revolutionary art began even before the October revolution. As early as 1913, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov were treating Cubism as a forest penetrated by rays of color and light. Kazimir Malevich was proving himself a student of Pablo Picasso and George Braque as well, right down to a soft palette of blue and gray. Prints by Olga Rozanova speak ambiguously to the terrors of war and the nobility of soldiers and workers. She could hardly know that the first would topple the tsar and then a democratic provisional government, while the second would become dogma. Later, with Malevich, Lyubov Popova opens up to colliding geometric forms on fields of white. For now, she could only insist, "we are breaking with the past."

Alexander Rodchenko's Spatial Construction #12 (Museum of Modern Art, c. 1920)They were, but not entirely. Her war series also draws on woodcuts for its clumsy edges and images like trumpets. And folk art continues to inspire Russian Modernism. It comports with a shared aim in art and Communism to bring modernity to everyone. El Lissitzky converts Malevich's red and black squares into characters for a children's book. Alexandra Exter designs costumes and sets for operettas and Othello—and never mind that the revolution, too, was to end in tragedy.

It began with no time to lose as well. Some art movements are close circles, the kind that might fit in a gallery opening or a crowded bar. This one has one leading name after another, including Wassily Kandinsky (on his brief return to Russia from Munich), Naum Gabo, Ivan Puni, Antoine Pevsner, and Vladimir Tatin. It also has women on equal terms with men. The curators, Roxana Maroci and Sarah Suzuki, devote entire walls hung high to a single artist. The arrangement suits works on paper more than the momentous quiet of Malevich's white square, but it echoes his floating compositions and the period's headlong rush.

It also gives due prominence to film. It opens with a collage of found footage by Esfir (or Esther) Shub, and it pauses midway for four silent classics. The revolutionary montage of Potemkin, by Sergei Eisenstein, and Man with a Movie Camera, by Dziga Vertov, plays out on facing walls. One follows the crew of a battleship to rebellion, the other the wild course of a single day. Yet something changes with that room—and not just with its clear political message. Something darkens as well, from the stern imagery of Earth by Alexander Dovzhenko and Mother by Vsevolod Pudovkin to Eisenstein's murderous Cossacks and a woman's bleeding eye.

The show's subtitle speaks of "The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde," but its arc suggests instead a rise and fall. Earlier, the plywood tracery of Spatial Construction, by Alexander Rodchenko, casts its dizzying shadows on the wall. After the movies, he and El Lissitzky command a room for photography, with continued experiment but a greater chill. Rodchenko buries a woman in a grid of shadows and turns a street protest into an ant colony. Portraits of artists, poets, and a Pioneer girl close in on imposing faces and a gaping eye. They could be inspiring or terrifying.

A last room gives way to Soviet propaganda. It includes posters and postcards, with the shadow of Lenin's raised arm. It includes a People's Commissariat of Heavy Industry that looks more like guard towers. "The people" appear everywhere—but, as one of Rodchenko's photos already had it, "the workers are quiet." Art had become far too important for innovation, even before Stalin demanded just that. The future was no longer so open.

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Francis Picabia ran The Museum of Modern Art through March 19, 2017, and "A Revolutionary Impulse" through March 12. Related articles look at Dada, "Dadaglobe," Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko, and early Soviet photography.


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