Museums

Finding Contemporary Threads in the End of Dada

by Joseph Nechvatal on September 4, 2014

006. Picabia LittÇrature 7

Francis Picabia, untitled cover project for Littérature (1922) (Centre Pompidou, musée national d’art moderne, Paris. Achat grâce au mécénat de Sanofi, 2014)

PARIS — In our stimulating era of online publishing, it is all the more exciting to look back at paper precedents. And Man Ray, Picabia et la revue Littérature (1922-1924) at the Centre Pompidou provides just such an opportunity by focusing on the period between the end of the Dadaist movement and the advent of Surrealism.

This exhibition highlights the contributions that Man Ray made to the journal Littérature after moving to Paris in 1921, like “Le Violon d’Ingres” and “L’Élevage de poussière,” a collaboration with Marcel Duchamp. But the core of the show is the original drawings for the twenty-six covers of Littérature that were designed by Francis Picabia, the painter, poet, pamphleteer, enfant terrible, and avant-garde publisher of such art reviews as 291 and Cannibale. Until very recently, only their printed version was known. It was exhilarating to see them in the flesh.

017. Man Ray Le violon d'Ingres

Man Ray, “Le Violon d’Ingres” (1924) (Centre Pompidou, musée national d’art moderne, Paris. Achat, 1993)

These original drawings (fifteen of which have never been exhibited) were only discovered in 2008, in an envelope forgotten at the 1900-2000 Gallery. They were acquired by the Centre Pompidou this year.

In 1922, André Breton was in charge of the review, after the departure of Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault, with whom he had founded it in 1919. To mark the review’s change of direction, Breton decided to replace the cover image (which had been created by Man Ray) with drawings — different each time — by Picabia, to whom he gave carte blanche for each issue. In the artist’s career, these drawings came between the famous mechanomorphic works and the Espagnoles.

Picabia’s mechanomorphic work, where he blended machinist aesthetics with representations of the human body, creating his significant dea ex machina period — is in my mind his strongest. By this artistic amalgamation, Picabia expressed decadent cyber-sensations in advance, connected to the interface/dialectic between body and machine. Undoubtedly, with his Dada mechanomorphic period, Picabia illustrated nicely our spatial/digital paradigm by mixing bodies with mechanical schematics. Here the phantasmagorical cyborg body received an ecstatic capability through machinery, a condition now commonly known as posthuman.

025. Picabiaaa Projet de couverture LittÇrature 1922-1924

Francis Picabia, untitled cover project for Littérature (1922–24) (Centre Pompidou, musée national d’art moderne, Paris. Achat grâce au mécénat de Sanofi, 2014)

The ink cover drawings in this show are done in a highly linear graphic style, Picabia’s ironic response to the vogue of the “return to Ingres” advocated by the former Cubists, whom he regularly mocked. But Picabia also drew on religious imagery, erotic images, and the iconography of games of chance. Some of these drawings reveal Picabia as a very good animal artist, as he depicts horses, baboons, tigers, dogs, and deer, probably inspired by books for laymen. Several drawings appear to be of the authors of the review itself, to which Picabia made a regular literary contribution.

The fluid ink drawings that Picabia made for Littérature seem to courageously facilitate an inebriated subjectivity. Here flamboyant relationships between the protoplasmic body-image and animal and mechanical conceptions are visualized as self-prosthesis. Thus Picabia is the mythic oracle pointing us to an indeterminate but artistic resolution between the two competing categories of being today — the mechanic and the organic. That such a Dada philosophy engages our contemporary fixations is remarkable.

Man Ray, Picabia et la revue Littérature (1922-1924) continues at the Centre Pompidou (Place Georges-Pompidou, Paris) through September 15.

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  • Rob Backmann

    Picabia wasn’t some new iteration of Michel de Nostredame. In both the 18th and 19th centuries the popular concept of a mechanized universe was common and still exists today. Starting with Sir Isaac Newton the idea that all of ‘God’s’ creation as a clockwork was born. As the industrial revolution took hold it seemed to all of western society that all phenomenon could be explained as a mechanical operation running on a schedule and perfectly predictable. For Picabia to come along 200 years after Newton and doodle his ‘man as machine’ creations was not act of prophecy or even anything particularly original, much less remarkable.

  • Joseph Nechvatal

    Would enjoy a civil/long discussion of the issues you raise here. Perhaps directly? Because a vision of a mechanized universe and a vision of mechanized man are not the same. Newton was at least a Socinian sympathiser (he owned and had thoroughly read at least eight Socinian books), possibly an Arian and almost certainly an anti-trinitarian.

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