Bring the Dada movement up in a conversation, and people will likely mention artists like Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst—you know, the heavy hitters. They might drop some lesser-known names like Kurt Schwitters, Tristan Tzara, and Hugo Ball, but it’s far less likely that they'll recall the name of a multimedia artist with a multitude of talents and guises—Francis Picabia, the man who fires the cannon in René Clair’s early surrealist film Entr'acte.
Thankfully, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City are staging a “comprehensive survey” of Picabia’s diverse work across various media. Titled Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, the exhibition features 200 works, including 125 paintings, works on paper, illustrated letters, printed matter and periodicals, as well as the film Entr'acte.
Among these works are his “machinist” drawings inspired by industrial equipment, like the gouache on cardboard Machines turn quickly (1916). These and other illustrated works, like Optophone [I] and La Nuit espagnole (The Spanish Night) have an almost graphic design quality to them, similar to the art journals of the time. There are also a number of Picabia’s painted and gouache and ink works, which range from Impressionist to Cubist and figurative paintings, some inspired by the glamorous nude imagery of the time. This constantly evolving style was as interesting as it difficult to classify.
“Given the diversity of Francis Picabia’s production, his career does not fit neatly into linear narratives of modernism,” says Talia Kwartler, one of the exhibition’s curators. “Picabia is most well-known for his contributions to the Dada movement; historically, the other parts of his career have been marginalized.”
“There is no single reason for why it took so long for a full retrospective of Picabia’s work to be held in the United States,” says Kwartler. “Picabia’s work has always been more well-known in France and many of his most important paintings are held in European collections, both private and public. Due to Picabia’s unorthodox use of materials, some of his works are particularly fragile and unable to travel often, making it difficult to show his work in its entirety in the United States.”
Kwartler notes that Picabia was fascinated with machines and modern technology from the early stages of his career. When he visited New York City for the Armory show in 1913, the city “enthralled” him. This inspired a group of abstract works on paper that he made in his hotel room.
Though mechanical imagery showed up in the 1914 abstract work I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie, it wasn’t until a return trip to New York in 1915, right in the middle of World War I, that Picabia began creating artworks—both printed and painted—with subjects inspired by machines.
“We do know that he was interested in fast cars and that he loved to drive them,” Kwartler says. “In the mechanomorphic works, it is as if Picabia is ‘looking under the hood of the car’ for inspiration, transforming machines into modern-day icons. A large group of Picabia’s mechanomorphic works in multiple media will be included in the exhibition.”
Picabia also created mechanical imagery for Alfred Stieglitz’s journal, 291. In the no. 5-6 issue (July–August 1915), Picabia included machine portraits that he had made of the journal’s editors.
Amongst the other mechanomorphic Dada works that will appear at MoMA are the Peggy Guggenheim Collection’s Very Rare Picture on the Earth (1915) and the Neumann Family Collection’s Amorous Parade (1917). Other works found Picabia operating in Dada’s more prankster vein, like his famous reproduction of Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (the defaced Mona Lisa) on the cover of 291, no. 12 (March 1920). Duchamp’s original version didn’t arrive in Paris on time, so Picabia made his own, distinguishable only by her missing goatee.
And one of Picabia’s most iconic Dada works, The Cacodylic Eye, will also be there. The work looks like a combination of bathroom graffiti and collage, and is completely ahead of its time. For this work Picabia used oil on canvas, painting the background gray and adding an eye in the lower right of work. While recovering from an eye infection, he invited friends to add their own inscriptions and signatures. Looking at it now, one could just as easily believe it had been made today instead of in 1921. It has the look of a contemporary art zine or artist’s book.
Aside from his work in publishing, Picabia also published his own journal, 391, while bouncing around Barcelona, New York, Zurich and Paris. Obviously inspired by 291, Picabia’s journal varied in content and form depending on what city he was living in when publishing.
“For Picabia, the printed page was a site of artistic invention, and Picabia often made artworks specifically for reproduction in various journals and books,” says Kwartler. “Picabia was active as an author of poetry and prose during this moment and he would often pair reproductions of artworks with his own writings in different publications.”
In addition to 391, Picabia produced another journal, Cannibale, while contributing to Tristan Tzara’s Dada, Paul Éluard’s Proverbe, and André Breton’s Littérature. So, along with Éluard and Breton, Picabia transitioned from Dada to Surrealism, but his resistance to settling on any one artistic approach or ideology meant he didn’t stay for long, returning to figurative painting in 1925, and eventually painting nudes in the style of French glamour magazines.
“Picabia’s polyvalent approach to art-making is virtually unparalleled in the history of modern art,” Kwartler says. “His stylistic diversity exploded traditional boundaries and hierarchies that artists continue to break down today. Picabia was a forefather for many artistic developments in the second half of the 20th century, including Pop art, conceptual art, appropriation art, and ‘bad’ painting.”
“His boundary-defying approach is particularly prescient when viewed through our contemporary moment,” she adds. “In the art world today, an artist can work in any media or style; anything can be used as source material; and artistic identities are not fixed. Picabia’s art was radically experimental and his persistent questioning of what art was and what it could be makes him a particularly relevant touchstone for artists working today.”
Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction runs from November 21st to March 19, 2017. And MoMA is also publishing the works seen the exhibition in an eponymously-titled book edited by Anne Umland and Catherin Hug.
Click here for more information on MoMA’s Francis Picabia exhibition and book.