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A Beautiful Monster Reborn: Francis Picabia in the Windy City

Francis Picabia in his studio (c.1912) (via Wikipedia)

CHICAGO — “Paintings are made for dentists.” So goes one of the many acerbic lines in artist Francis Picabia’s freewheeling poems. Later in the same poem, he defines the artist as an “incomplete man, a piece of merchandise for the rue de Beaume or the rue Richepanse.” Picabia’s final verdict? “Art = God = Bullshit + Mercantilism.”

In his heyday, Francis Picabia emerged as the Pope of the Dada movement, issuing aphoristic anti-art decrees from cosmopolitan residencies in Paris, New York and Zurich. A savvy self-publicist, he carried provocation into the visual realm as well, tacking a doll monkey to a board and naming it a portrait of Cézanne, Renoir and Rembrandt.

Despite Picabia’s attacks on beauty, expression, and tradition, he never quit making worthwhile art. Or paying attention to art’s evolution. And his longevity suggests that the protesting apostate was deep-down a true believer. What he lacked in penetrating vision and emotional depth he made up for with an infective gusto — art as recreation. He thrived by resisting the norms of particular schools and styles even as he stole heavily from them.

While his reputation lags far behind those of such contemporaries as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp, and Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Picabia’s work was borne from a keen receptivity to the period’s political, social, and artistic crosscurrents.

Allison Langley, associate conservator of paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, restoring Picabia’s “Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic)” (photo courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago)

It is this finely attuned Picabia who is being resurrected by the public restoration of his large, kaleidoscopic abstract painting “Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic)” (1913) [pronounced “ed-town-easel,”], currently featured in a Conservation Live project at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it is being readied for a loan to a major Picabia retrospective next year, starting at the Kunsthaus Zurich before moving on to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic)” proves how Picabia could rein in his showiness to produce nuanced and sophisticated work. And the Art Institute of Chicago’s showcase around the painting’s restoration reopens questions about Picabia’s relevance.

Born in 1879, a self-proclaimed “terrible monster,” Picabia grew up in a milieu of untroubled propriety. His wealthy, Cuban-born father served as chancellor of that country’s Parisian embassy. His mother, comparably well-born and well-connected, died when Picabia was very young. The boy’s remaining male guardians tended to be aristocratic and artistic, and they inspired the young man in that direction. He studied at École des Arts Decoratifs, and, inspired by old masters like Poussin and by French Impressionism, Picabia enjoyed an early run as a landscape painter.

Picabia’s transformation from a middling Postimpressionist into an anti-representational painter and a poet of cold-blooded cynicism happened virtually overnight, a metamorphosis that perplexes scholars to this day.

According to Picabia’s longtime friend Gertrude Stein, this abrupt turnaround is partly attributable to the artist’s grandfather, a resourceful, pioneering photographer from whom Picabia deduced the “idea of transparence and four dimensional painting.” (Stein, quoted in Tate website’s notes on Picabia’s “Otaïti”).

In his introduction to Picabia’s collected writings, I am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry Prose and Provocation (MIT Press, 2013), translator Mark Lowenthal builds on Stein’s biographical details. Lowenthal attributes Picabia’s radicalization to his cursory readings of Friedrich Nietzsche and to the cutting-edge education he received from the female intellectuals in his life, most notably his first wife, Gabrielle Buffet, a professional musician who introduced him to ideas about “absolute music” — theories that steered him toward his self-professedly extreme “abstractionism” in both painting and poetry.

Picabia’s loquacious writings loom as more than a sidelight. Writing is a recurring component of his visual art, and the pictorial is incorporated into his writings. This visual-lexical hybridity reached its high point during Picabia’s initial editorship of the groundbreaking Dadaist journal 391 (1917-1934) which featured his famous “mechanomorphic” drawings.

Francis Picabia, “La Cuisse” (c. 1918), International Dada Archive, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries

These supple drawings sketch the moveable components of such simple mechanisms as scales, plumbing fixtures and clocks. The graphics are interspersed with snippets of lyrical language, spare verse that creates a counterpoint to the drawings. In “Thigh,” one such poem-drawing, or “drawn poem,” lines of oblique verse, reminiscent of Stéphane Mallarmé, punctuate his sketches of gears and levers, as the visual poem equates seduction and copulation with assemblage and manufacturing. Picabia’s integration of humor, pathos and insight within a visual-poetic composition resulted in paintings as distinctive as “La Sainte Virge” (1920), “Chapeau de paille?” (1921) and “Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic).”

In the latter work, the title alternates the letters that make up two French words — “danse” (dance) and “étoile” (star). Its parenthetical subtitle, Ecclesiastic, refers to the painting’s heterogeneous, intertwined abstract forms. The painting’s entropic implosions and precipitous explosions refer to the Book of Ecclesiastes – a time to build up, a time to destroy. And “Ecclesiastic” self-referentially connotes the ecumenical in the well-crafted harmony of its disparate objects and dynamisms.

Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic)” was completed on the eve of World War I, supposedly inspired by the social connection between Picabia, a Polish exotic dancer and a Dominican priest aboard a U.S.-bound ship. Picabia settled in New York City to wait out the war, drinking and drugging rather heavily. Befriended by Alfred Stieglitz, he became the head of “New York Dada,” ensconced among a decidedly apolitical social circle described by Lowenthal as “upper-class bohemians rooted in salons and galleries whose gravest wartime threat was usually little more than a case of boredom.”

Against this American backdrop, coupled with Dada’s recently celebrated centenary, the restoration of “Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic)” has obvious cultural significance. And its conservation has been a painstaking, multi-pronged project.

Allison Langley, who has restored other modernist treasures at the Art Institute of Chicago, including Picasso’s “Mother and Child” (1901), described to me her initial delight upon encountering Picabia’s diligent brushwork, which involved multiple paint applications, complex surface texturing and a variable gloss.

Francis Picabia, “Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic)” (1913), gift of Mr. and Mrs. Armand Bartos (© 2015 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / ADAGP, Paris)
The restoration was a twofold challenge for Langley. To begin with, the painting had been less than ideally stored by the artist himself, and it was later removed from its stretchers and rolled up for long-term storage. And then there was the damage from older conservation techniques, which Langley had to undo, particularly the yellowed, glossy coat of synthetic varnish that made it difficult for her to access — and then to secure — the original paint surface.

Langley’s year-long work is nearly finished and on display in its own special sunlit corner of the Art Institute, where “Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic)” looks dazzlingly alive, a fusion of vivid compaction and harmonized discord. The metallic gray and chalky black forms resemble cogs, hooks, rotors, mortar, and blades. Its blue silhouettes allude to sea and sky. Forms painted in whites, pinks and purples signify human, natural and sacred realms. The irregular, interlocking, overlapping objects seem to move upon a de-centered field, as if releasing the unnerving energy of an overcrowded dance floor, or the whirligig inner workings of a ship’s engine room.

The painting’s forms both collide and interlock. Each shape unveils, through its distinctive illusion of mobility and propulsion, a sculptural plasticity, an effect intensified by Picabia’s deftness in conveying magnetism and resistance between and among those objects.

Through these internalized tensions between the industrial and aspirational planes, Picabia may be shrewdly critiquing capital’s perpetual busyness. For instance, a pinkish red rectangle, apparently signifying brickwork, is rounded at its borders so that a person’s profile seems to emerge — the intervention of a human presence within a coldly objectivist domain. That recognition invites the viewer to seek out other such intimations of the personal or redemptive within the painting’s anonymous, perpetual commotion.

The painting’s intimidating sangfroid is offset by dancing flashes of gold and white, opulent colors that suggest bars of gold and sun-dappled vistas amid the colors and patterns connoting flywheels and turbines. It’s as if Picabia is reminding the viewer of the instrumental greed that underlies the feverish locomotion of daily life.

The high-octane productivity evoked by Picabia’s psychedelic painting can be read as an allegory of cultural overabundance and imminent collapse. Perhaps “Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic)” is an omen of the spectacular finale of a zero-sum game, the same one which, a hundred years later, we’re still playing.

Conservation Live: Francis Picabia’s “Edtaonisl” continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through October 31.

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