Looking at the Career of an ‘Anti-Genius’
The Wall Street Journal
Susan Delson
10 November 2016

New MoMA show looks at the full breadth of the career of prankster and provocateur Francis Picabia.

Among the avant-garde in 1920s Europe, there was no shortage of artists making austere, elegant geometric abstractions.

But there was only one who called his 1922 watercolor “Rotating Panties,” made a movie about a funeral run amok and framed a picture of air.

Prankster, provocateur and restlessly innovative artist, Francis Picabia defied the usual notions of creative evolution. Pinballing from impressionist painting to cubist abstraction to dada and beyond, his career confounded generations of art historians. How could someone whose output was so discontinuous—so consistently inconsistent—be important?

More than 100 years after his career began, the art world has finally caught up to this elusive chameleon.

Opening Nov. 21 at the Museum of Modern Art, “Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction” looks at the full breadth of his career—not only his best-known dada works, but the early impressionism, the giddy flights of fancy known as “Monsters” and the pinup nudes that were so often swept under the curatorial rug. And more.

“I don’t think Picabia’s full biography makes sense,” said Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture. “Which is of course why we love it today. Because so much doesn’t make sense in our world.”

Among early 20th-century modernists, Picabia is “the person who is questioning the meaning and purpose of art,” said MoMA curatorAnne Umland, who organized the show at the museum. “In different ways, he is posing the question of sincerity—of authenticity, of what is beauty—over and over again.”

Both the questioning and the pranks started early, with impressionist works that earned critical acclaim and vaulted Picabia into the public eye. They were often painted from picture postcards rather than nature—the impressionist equivalent of running part of the New York Marathon by jumping on the subway.

Works like the shimmering, 10-foot-long “Pine Trees, Effect of Sunlight at Saint-Honorat (Cannes)” (1906) attest to Picabia’s mastery of the style. Which makes his 1912 leap into abstraction—in lush, large-scale canvases—all the more disconcerting.

Soon after, dada became his creative turf. A loose international movement that sprang up in response to the horrors of World War I, dada blamed the war on the culture of rational thought and societal rigidity—and rejected both with a vengeance.

With dada as a springboard, Picabia’s output exploded in virtually all directions: dance, cinema, literary journals and an art inspired by machinery and mechanical diagrams from popular magazines.

“Picabia was a ringleader for Paris dada,” said Ms. Umland.

He printed publications, staged exhibitions and submitted sly, provocative works to salon exhibits—like his “St. Vitus’s Dance [Rat Tobacco],” an empty frame holding a few pieces of yarn.

“Basically a picture of air,” she said with a laugh.

One gallery focuses on a ballet that Picabia devised in 1924 with composer Erik Satie and ballet impresario Rolf de Maré. In the same space: the witty film experiment they made with movie directorRené Clair, created as a prologue and intermission entertainment for the ballet.

The film, called “Entr’acte,” features fellow artists Marcel Duchampand Man Ray playing chess on a rooftop. It also includes a runaway hearse—at first pulled by a balky camel—and highly respectable mourners who race after it.

Picabia’s penchant for making original work out of scavenged imagery resurfaces in the mid-1920s with “Monsters.” Romantic postcards of clinching couples are the start-point for a series of exaggerated, slightly grotesque portraits, exuberantly colored and often studded with glossy enamel dots.

“He called them confetti paintings,” said Ms. Umland.

The cinematic fade-outs and superimpositions used in “Entr’acte” may have provided a similar impulse for paintings known as “Transparencies.” In the first of these works, Picabia took a series of portraits he had shown the year before, in 1927, and overlaid them with dreamlike imagery, painted so thinly that each layer is visible.

He continued playing with transparency, opacity and layers of overpainting in the decades that followed.

In Picabia’s later career, a frankly sexual streak surfaced in the wartime nudes inspired, in part, by 1930s softcore-porn magazines. Later, it appeared in sketches he made in intimate letters to friends, on view in the final gallery.

The nude pinups offer another twist on how Picabia draws from photographic images in his painting.

“Women with Bulldog” (c. 1941), for example, includes imagery from three separate photos, but doesn’t attempt to integrate the lighting or lens distortion from each one, resulting in a slightly disorienting visual experience.

“You get a picture that doesn’t add up in a unified way,” said Ms. Umland.

“Adding up in a unified way” isn’t an idea that applies to Picabia on most levels. If Picasso typifies artistic genius for many, Ms. Umland said, Picabia is a kind of “anti-genius.”

“He is accessible and interesting in that way because he allows self-doubt into the work,” she said. “It’s a different model of what it means to be an artist.”