Review of reviews: Art & Stage
Exhibit of the week
Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction
Museum of Modern Art, New York City, through March 19
Francis Picabia (1879–1953) was the eternal adolescent: “reckless, tempestuous, and easily bored,” said Andrew Russeth in ArtNews. Though those qualities made the Paris-born heir to a Cuban sugar fortune a sometimes less than admirable human being, they also made him a wildly exciting artist. As a painter, poet, graphic artist, and set designer he dabbled in and mocked impressionism, cubism, neoclassicism, dadaism, surrealism, and a handful of other movements. At the time, some critics scorned his cynical zigzagging; “look around today, though, and Picabia is everywhere.” A major new show at the Museum of Modern Art—Picabia’s first U.S. retrospective since 1970—makes clear just how much postmodern art owes this madcap artist. The more than 200 pieces on display reveal him to have been one of the 20th century’s key artists, “a figure whose influence, at once comic and manic and dark, continues to reverberate.”
From the beginning, Picabia was cranking out “the aesthetic equivalent of whoopee cushions,” said Peter Scheldahl in The New Yorker. He once boasted that as a teenager he had copied the paintings in his father’s private collection, swapped in the fakes, and sold the originals for a tidy sum. In his mid-20s, he began pranking the art establishment, producing impressionist landscapes that were acclaimed by Camille Pissarro—until Pissarro discovered that Picabia’s scenes had been copied from postcards. The dadaists were more receptive to Picabia’s puckishness, and works like 1915’s Very Rare Picture on the Earth, with its vaguely erotic treatment of machine imagery, still have the power to dazzle. Picabia abandoned dada in 1921, the same year he produced The Cacodylic Eye, “a sort of epochal get-well card” in which dozens of friends doodled on the blank space surrounding a simple image of Picabia’s own eye, for which he was taking an antiinfection medicine. Thereafter, he jumped restlessly from style to style, incorporating hairpins in collages and using industrial paint to create grotesque portraits of loving couples. Almost everything he did “crackles with immediacy, popping free of its time to wink at the present.” Still, there’s little soul behind the work’s visual inventiveness.
Not much can be said about his 1940s nudes—“except that they look like Nazi porn,” said Jason Farago in TheGuardian.com. Working from soft-core magazines, Picabia painted a garish series of buxom Aryan blondes whose “icy flesh and kitschy poses rhyme, defiantly, with the fascistic paintings of the day.” After World War II, Picabia was accused of having collaborated with France’s Nazi-allied Vichy regime. But if his 1940s nudes make today’s viewers uncomfortable, “it’s not because they’re actually propaganda; it’s that they’re slippery enough that in another context, they might be.” Picabia hated to be consistent, and in his mind, even the most suspect style was worth playing with if he could dismantle its preconceptions by doing so. He was forever a faker, and his fraudulence was “his greatest genius.”