A survey explores the artist’s chameleon-like work.
Zurich. “Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction.” This phrase of Francis Picabia’s (1879-1953) offers a synopsis of his “kaleidoscopic personality”, says the curator Cathérine Hug of Kunsthaus Zurich, who has co-organised a survey of his work that opens this month. Primarily known as a Dadaist, Picabia also experimented with Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism. His work is “consistently inconsistent”, as the co-curator Anne Umland of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) writes in her catalogue essay.
The exhibition celebrates 100 years since Dada exploded from the stage of Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire and irrevocably altered the artistic landscape. But Picabia was not there in 1916; instead, he was in the US after a wayward military mission to Cuba to negotiate the price of sugar for the French army. Around this time Picabia was making “very conceptual, delicate works on paper, minimal machine-like drawings and paintings”, Hug says. When he exhibited some of these works in New York, a critic wrote that they looked like “illustrations to patent office reports”.
During the Second World War, Picabia made a series of “pin-up paintings”, using imagery from soft-porn magazines. These works, which in many ways idealised the nude, were “quite uncomfortable for some art critics and curators”, Hug says. They were created in Nazi-occupied France and “at first glance it looked like an affirmation – because realism, especially the healthy body, is an aesthetic that authoritarian regimes like”, she says. Picabia rejected this figurative phase in the late 1940s and early 1950s and returned once again to abstraction.
Hug believes it was not until the mid-1980s, three decades after his death, that Picabia started to be appreciated again. An important reason for this was the advent of Postmodernism’s “playful reflection on the different –isms” that allowed for a more “sympathetic look at [Picabia’s] multitude of styles”, she says.
The exhibition of 150 paintings and more than 50 documents includes two key loans from Picabia’s early Orphic Cubist phase: the three-metre squared Edtaonisl (1913) and Udnie (1913), which will be shown together for the first time in 70 years. The survey covers half a century of work from 1905 to Picabia’s final works from 1951.
The show will travel to MoMA in November. The Zurich edition is supported by the Festspiele Zurich, the Ernst Göhner Foundation and the Truus and Gerrit van Riemsdijk Foundation.