An Avant-garde Artist for Avant-garde Minds: A Major Retrospective of Francis Picabia at the Kunsthaus Zurich

Francis PicabiaThe Spanish Night, 1922. Enamel paint and oil on canvas, frame with buttons, 106 x 87 x 8,5 cm, with frame. Museum Ludwig, Köln Sammlung Ludwig © 2016 ProLitteris, Zurich.
While the art world flocked to Basel to seek out contemporary artistic expressions, over in Zurich, they have been looking to the past, and to the centenary of Dada. As part of ongoing celebrations in the city examining the importance and influence of the Dada movement, the Kunsthaus Zürich opened a Francis Picabia retrospective, the result of five years tracing the trajectory of the artist's work.
It is not an easy task to make sense of Picabia's artistic evolution--if anything his career was defined by the fact that he detested cohesion. The retrospective indeed takes its title from one of the artist's aphorisms, "Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction." Picabia was a nomad with a curious spirit, who was associated, over the years, with Impressionist, Cubist, Dadaist and Surrealist styles. Walking through any retrospective of his work, therefore, is a kind of visual puzzle--an insight into a mind that yearned constantly for experimentation, and that was as skilful at appropriation as invention. According to one anecdote, as a young man, Picabia forged paintings belonging to his Father, replacing the originals with his own copies so that he could flog them and pocket the cash.
Francis Picabia, Effect of Sunlight on the Banks of the Loing, Moret, 1905. Oil on canvas, 73.2 x 92.4 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Gertrude Schemm Binder Collection, 1951 © 2016 ProLitteris, Zürich.
Among the works and documentation on show at the Kunsthaus, selected by in-house curator Cathérine Hug together with Anne Umland, curator at MoMA New York (which will host the Picabia retrospective in November), are examples from each period in Picabia's career, arranged in chronological order, from his first Impressionist style paintings of the late 1890s (when Picabia attended the École des Arts Décoratifs in his hometown, Paris, studying under Fernand Cormon) to his most widely known 'mechanomorphic' paintings that defined the Dada identity in Paris and Zurich at the time and demonstrate Picabia's aesthetic interest in industrial items. Looking at these wild jumps in his style, between figuration to abstraction, it's hard to believe they have been made by the same person: From his 1905 Effect of Sunlight on the Banks of the Loing, a fine example of Impressionism, to abstract watercolor works such as Glass (1922), and the introduction of toothpicks and buttons into collage works of the mid 1920s such as Drinking Straws and Toothpicks, just shy of two decades later.
 
Francis Picabia, Glass, 1922. Watercolour on paper, 72.3 x 59.6 cm. Moderna Museet, Stockholm © 2016 ProLitteris, Zurich.
Francis Picabia, Drinking Straws and Toothpicks, 1923-1924. Oil and collage on canvas, 92 x 73 cm. Kunsthaus Zürich, Vereinigung Zürcher Kunstfreunde © 2016 ProLitteris, Zurich.
Picabia's distinguishing ability to move between styles and themes makes him equally hard to understand. Certainly, he was an anarchist and a radical thinker in his art and politics, who wasn't interested in adhering to the conventions of culture--nor to being commercial or popular (though he was both). In Zurich--as the place where Dada originated, a city of profound significance in the context Picabia's career, and a city upon which he also left an indelible mark--the thematic and technical diversity of his work is manifest. As curator Catherine Hug says, "What I love with Picabia's work, and also characterizes him, is its variety, Picabia's constant reinvention of himself, and of painting techniques as well as themes. In this realm, it is difficult to say which one is exemplary - you have to see the whole. However, i personally love the large orphic cubistic works - they are absolutely exceptional in their size and synergetic strength, no artist before him did push further abstraction on such a large scale. But to recapitulate: I certainly have one or several favorites in each of Picabia's artistic phases. Picabia's work has to be characterized as kaleidoscopic, multi-facetted, impossible to pin him up on one work."
The most revelational series on display at the Kunsthaus is possibly the works of Transparences (usually considered to be the works he created between circa 1928 to 1931, following his monsters and collage work). They are, as CF Howard puts it, "one of his most inscrutable and misunderstood bodies of work" in part, because Picabia refused to explain them. Picabia returns to figuration after his denouncement of Dada (very publicly leaving the movement in 1921). He employed references to the formal aspects of Renaissance art, and to the iconography of classical and Christian painting--types of imagery he was exposed to in Barcelona, where he lived from 1917, having returned to Europe from New York. The juxtapositions in these works are startling and often confusing--instead of a single, prominent figure he layered images and superimposed them, forging new hierarchies and primal associations. Picabia reveled in obscuring straight readings, but technically, the works align more with the experimentations happening in film and photography at the time, and prefigure many of the dominant tendencies in photography even today, from double exposure to digital manipulation and disruptions. According to Hug, "They are ahead of their time, and they are not. In terms of their progressiveness, the multiple layering is very avant-garde. Picabia was inspired here by his personal experiences in filmmaking and especially the technique of cross fading. He also believed here that the viewer is independent and can, on his own, decode the artwork, deconstructing each layer on its own. It certainly refers also to a certain degree to James Joyce's method of the Stream-of-Consciousness and the strength of associative thinking. Rather conservative and retrograde though, are the figurative references taken from mythology and the bible. This is symptomatic of the "Rappel à l'ordre" (Jean Cocteau, 1926) atmosphere at that time."
Francis Picabia, Jean Börlin and Edith von Bonsdorff in «Relâche», 1925. Gelatin silver print, 17.5 x 25 cm. Dansmuseet - Museum Rolf de Maré, Stockholm © 2016 ProLitteris, Zurich.
From classical art, to porn. Always subverting his own aesthetic, Picabia was always interested in kitsch and taste, being strongly opposed to the bourgeois ideals of 'good taste' and logic. In the early 1940s, he began to use soft porn magazines as references, painted on wooden boards in oil. Included in the exhibition is Woman with Idol, where all of Picabia's styles seem to intermesh--a woman in stockings and high heels appears to straddle a large sculptural figure, with giant, blocky feet. The painting bears its own unique vocabulary--from the realistic style of the woman to the more chunky, blocky treatment of the idol figure--all in an oppressive atmosphere, with the shutters in the background and its swarthy palette. Painted in France during the Second World War, the painting reads as a pointed critique of the seductive power of authority. Legend has it that some of these later works, regarded as erotic, were purchased by an Algerian merchant, who sold them on to brothels in North Africa.
 
Francis Picabia, Woman with Idol, c. 1940-1943. Oil on board, 105.4 x 74.8 cm. Private collection © 2016 ProLitteris, Zurich.
Francis Picabia, Égoisme, 1947/48- c. 1950. Oil on wood in original wood frame, 186 x 126,1 x 7 cm, with frame. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam © 2016 ProLitteris, Zurich.
On the occasion of this retrospective in Zurich, a celebration of Picabia's major contributions to the shape of modern art, Hug reflects: "Picabia is not an unknown figure to art history, so my co-curator Anne Umland and myself did not write totally new art history. Art historians, curators and scholars such as Bill Camfield, Jean-Hubert Martin and Suzanne Pagé paved decades ago the way in order Picabia is visible. What is certainly new though is that we show all periods equally. Especially the orphic cubist phase has never been shown in such exhaustiveness in the larger context of Picabia's whole oeuvre." Picabia is now receiving the public attention that his artist friends, including Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton, recognized early on. Perhaps it takes an avant-garde spirit to appreciate the radicalism of Picabia.
--Charlotte Jansen