In this centenary year of dada, a retrospective of one of the movement’s chief animators in Zurich might seem like a given. But there was nothing predictable about this comprehensive exhibition of the work of Francis Picabia, with more than 200 pieces spanning 1905 to 1951. Beyond his role in dada, the exhibition positions Picabia as godfather to the wider, more enduring practices of parody and appropriation – demonstrating, for example, how his early impressionist canvases were based not upon direct observation but anonymous photographs, merging the rote recording of nature with an ostensibly ‘original’ hand. The works on view in a variety of media undermine, at every possible turn, the propriety
of painting and formal dexterity as the yardstick of aesthetic import.
In this vein, Picabia’s facility as a genre painter is undeniable, evidenced in his own Effect of Sunlight (1905) and Notre Dame (1906). Early in his career, we find an oscillation between different styles – before he abandoned ‘style’ tout court. By 1909, Picabia had mastered fauve-like daubs in views of Saint Tropez’s citadelle, before taking a vaguely synthetist approach to a Jura landscape. A portrait of the French actress Mistinguett, by contrast, is rendered in the poster-like format of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It was Picabia’s highly eccentric take on cubism that first distinguished him in the Parisian salons, however. (On view here were key examples including The Spring and Dances at the Spring I, both 1912.) ‘Here,’ wrote critic Guillaume Apollinaire of Picabia’s so-called ‘Orphic’ cubism, ‘it is the medium which is the reality.’ Picabia’s flattened, rhythmic forms indeed further loosened painting from the strictures of figuration.
Picabia began exchanging such formal developments for all manner of conceptually inflected experiments, from his 1920 Holy Virgin (an inky splatter), to his equally irreverent Jeune Fille (Young Girl) of the same year (a hole cut out of paper). Over and against the futurist worship of mechanization (particularly in the wake of war), Picabia’s mechanomorphic images – many published in 391, the journal he founded and edited from 1917–24 – strike an unsettlingly equivocal tone, eroticizing the machine and de-romanticizing the human form. 391 and other publications proved as mobile and international as the artist himself, who travelled and exhibited from the US to Barcelona, where his 1923 solo show juxtaposed abstractions with mechanomorphic paintings.
With dada’s gradual unravelling, Picabia’s work, and its place in art history, began a series of zigzags. His oeuvre provided a repeated antithesis to the exhibition’s chronological tack. Rather than a neat passage from figuration to abstraction or conceptualism, Picabia dipped back into art history’s bag of tricks, through imagery suspended between earnest illusionism and wry irony. Though figurative, his paintings from the mid-1920s hardly reflect the wholesome values evinced by the ‘return to order’ in France. Superimposing all manner of styles within a single canvas, his series of ‘transparencies’ from the 1930s frustrate easy assessment. Still, The Spring (1935) appears simply retrograde in its neo-medievalism. And how to read Portrait of a Couple (1942), with its rosy, Aryan faces? The show’s curators, Cathérine Hug and Anne Umland, argue for a parodic interpretation of Picabia’s late 1930s and early ’40s kitschy realist paintings, which seem at once to emulate and subvert National Socialist realism (something difficult to demonstrate on the gallery walls).
One of the most striking aspects of Picabia’s career is that his war against painting – against the lingering redolence of its romantic, revelatory genius – was waged through the medium of painting itself (along with his aide-de-camp, language). The mordancy of his Danse de Saint-Guy (Tabac-Rat) (St. Vitus’s Dance, 1919/49) – with its evacuated canvas – after all, is unleashed from the confines of the frame. It comes as little surprise, then, to find in Picabia’s 1920 tract Unique Eunuque (Unique Eunuch) the pronouncement: ‘All the paintings are dead and continue to live.’