Picabia: A curious man

Francis Picabia, Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic), 1913. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Contributed by Katie Fuller /  “Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction,” the Francis Picabia exhibition at MoMA, tells a story of a curious man with a need to experiment with more than one style, medium, process, or subject. As a result, this retrospective is inspiring, entertaining, and whiplash-inducing.

Francis Picabia
Transparencies: Francis Picabia, Aello, 1930, oil on canvas, 66 9/16 × 66 9/16 inches. Private collection. © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

The first room is filled with the impressionistic landscapes that established Picabia as a master painter. Yet he didn’t enjoy immersing himself in nature. Subverting impressionistic ideals, these paintings were in fact renderings of photos he found, putting Picabia ahead of his time in contemplating the reproduction of an image as something entirely new.

The shift in style from the first room to his large abstract paintings, while jarring, reflects the painter’s phenomenal range. Picabia’s Edtaonisl and Udnie, a powerful pair, show his facility for harmonizing line with shape, and somber colors with vivid light.

Francis Picabia,
Francis Picabia, 291, nos. 5–6 (deluxe edition). New York, July–August 1915. Edited by Paul Haviland, Agnes Ernst Meyer, Alfred Stieglitz, and Marius de Zayas. Printed journal, interior and exterior; letterpress, page: 17 1/4 × 11 3/8″ (43.8 × 28.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art Library, New York. © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo: The Museum of Modern Art, John Wronn

Even with his success in abstraction, Picabia compulsively experimented with other styles. There’s nothing too painterly about his many renderings of different industrial objects, but they exhibit a sharp eye for design. Picabia’s brilliant dalliance with Dada moved him to replicate these particular objects on paper, but he didn’t stop there. Later he introduced manic figures into his paintings. It was with this work that Picabia fully blossomed as a provocative, satirical jokester.

Francis Picabia
Francis Picabia, Les Amoureux (Après la pluie) (The Lovers [After the Rain]), 1925, enamel paint and oil on canvas, 45 11/16 × 45 1/4inches. Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Musée d’Art Moderne/Roger-Viollet.
The surrealist work riffs on popular culture and art history while crudely depicting aliens, monsters, clowns, nude women, and animals. He did eventually return to abstraction, but it is flattened and less alive with strange compositions, as though he had decided to compartmentalize his flamboyance.

The “Transparencies” series of 1927-30 are among the most stylistically cohesive paintings in the show. These works are magnificently layered, with smooth lines and a sepia palette. They involve biblical allegories, and many European faces stare solemnly into the distance. These works lack the knowing humor of some of the other paintings, but they offer a garishly serious vision that is still unique.Picabia’s determination to experiment was admirable and remarkable. He wasn’t afraid to make “bad” art, and intended whatever he produced, for better or worse, to express his own innermost ideas and desires. This artist refused to be pinned down and willfully eluded boredom, and it’s worth a visit to see the full range of his work in one place.

Francis Picabia
Francis Picabia, Portrait d’un docteur (Portrait of a Doctor), 1935/c. 1938, oiil on canvas, 36 1/4 × 28 11/16inches. Tate. Purchase with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery, 1990. © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Tate, London 2016.
Francis Picabia
Francis Picabia, Égoïsme (Selfishness), 1947–48/c. 1950, oil on panel, in original wood frame, 73 1/4 × 49 5/8 × 2 3/4 inches, with frame. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Studio Tromp.

Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction,” Museum of Modern Art, midtown, New York, NY. Through March 19, 2017.

About the author: Katie Fuller is a painting student at Parsons School of Design at the New School. She is an editorial intern at Two Coats of Paint.

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