The Smirk

by The New Republic | April 9, 2008

I Am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, and Provocation

By Francis Picabia

Translated by Marc Lowenthal

(MIT Press, 477 pp., $39.95)

'He had 7 yachts, 127 automobiles, and that is little compared to his women, " Francis Picabia's last wife wrote of him in 1949, with the painter's grinning complicity. Spanish and Cuban on his diplomat father's side, related through his mother to the conservative Parisian haute bourgeoisie, Picabia was born into a life of privilege in 1879 and, by virtually all accounts, he never grew up. The boy's mother died when he was seven, leaving him wanting for nothing except a stable emotional context: the "womanless" home in which he was raised by his father, grandfather, and uncle offered comfort and culture but little warmth. In adulthood, with the carelessness of abundance taken for granted, Picabia passed through countries, acquisitions, friends, wives, lovers, artistic styles, and ideas as if they were all his private playground, quickly tiring of the previous flash enthusiasm and always eager for more, more, more.

Like Marcel Duchamp, his lifelong accomplice, rival, and fellow jester at the court of High Modernism, Picabia stands as both an indispensable entry in the avant-garde index and one of those Teflon eccentrics to whom the available categories never quite stick. But where Duchamp's life traces a reductio ad absurdum of personal wants, Picabia's often seems an endless quest for newer and bigger pleasures. Germaine Everling, the painter's companion of sixteen years--the most acute commentaries come, fittingly, from his wives and mistresses, who saw right through him even as they succumbed to his charms-- remarked that he had "a great thirst for events ... little matter to him under what form they presented themselves: women, houses, automobiles, pets." And she relates how one day Picabia bought a country mechanic's garage on a whim; moved lock, stock, and barrel into the upper floor; and made a go of managing the repair shop--until the novelty wore off and he moved back to the capital.

Episodes such as these (and they are legion) have long fueled the common perception of Picabia as the dilettante's dilettante. But there is also a darker, more measured, more anxious side to his restless personality; and it is in his poems and aphorisms, rather than in his copious plastic output, that this anxiety allowed itself freest expression. Marc Lowenthal, who edited and translated this wonderful book--the first comprehensive volume in English of Picabia's writings--suggests an explanation: writing was what Picabia did when he was unable to paint, either through circumstance or, more often, psychological impediment. In other words, and somewhat tautologically, the writings reflect the malaise that spawned them. This thesis has been floated by some of Picabia's biographers, who have described how the painter latched on to the pen when he couldn't wield the brush. But here the combination of Lowenthal's pertinent glosses and a generous helping of illustrative texts makes for one of the most persuasive arguments yet advanced that there was more behind the clown mask than just a clown.

It is, admittedly, a hard mask to penetrate. Picabia's best-known work, visual as well as verbal, is characterized by a fierce devil-may-care smirk that dares the viewer to take it, or anything else, seriously. A large part of its effect, which charmed the rebellious younger generation even as it infuriated most of the painter's contemporaries, comes from its refusal to be pinned down, its spirit of disregard that snubbed both labels and rules. This disregard applied not solely to his art: called up for service during World War I, Picabia used his family connections to get sent on a vague mission to Cuba, which he then abandoned once his ship docked in Manhattan (an act of desertion that made him avoid France for the next two years). There he joined his old friend Duchamp, along with Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, and the unclassifiable Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, to develop the cluster of ideas and works retroactively dubbed New York Dada.

Until this point, the former child prodigy and Arts Decoratifs student had churned out derivative canvases that by turns aped Impressionism, Fauvism, Futurism, and Cubism. He now began exploring, partly under Duchamp's influence, the visual motifs for which he is best known: precisely rendered engine parts and hardware items sporting titles such as Amorous Parade and Shining Vagina, which both translated the painter's lifelong ambivalence toward women and provoked a gratifying scandal among the public. Still, when later asked the inevitable question of what he had done during the war, his only answer was: "I was bored to hell."

After a year of New York high life, even Picabia the consummate hedonist had enough, and he and his first wife, the musician Gabrielle Buffet, moved to Barcelona in the summer of 1916. It was during this period that the painter first turned to writing poems, one of which contains what might be a backward glance at his recent American experience:

Everywhere men and women with 

    music I enjoy

             publicly or in secret

      unleash their sterile passions.

                   Opium.

                   Whisky.

                   Tango.

This poem is from Fifty-Two Mirrors (1917), Picabia's first collection of verse, which in the words of his biographer William Camfield "mirror[s] Picabia's response to the conditions of his life--sometimes clearly but in other instances so darkly that even the most sympathetic reader cannot penetrate their veiled, perverse reflections." This sense of fragmented depiction, mixing clarity with opacity, is a staple of the modernist aesthetic, but in Picabia's case the contrasts have less to do with literary technique than with his own conflicting impulses. The mirrors are trained almost exclusively on the author, and the glints they give off are not just for effect: in the present case, Picabia was clearly no stranger to sterile passions and "tangos," and behind the shorthand "Opium" lies a drug habit that would dog the painter for the next decade and more.

It was also in Barcelona that Picabia founded the journal 391, which would prove one of the most influential of the avant-garde periodicals. Between 1917 and 1924, it was a testing ground for various experimental currents and-- after Picabia's fabled meeting with Tristan Tzara--a primary mouthpiece for Dada. More than anything, 391 showcased its editor's own jottings, providing an arena for his bolder literary experiments-- including samples of automatic writing that predate by several months Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault's seminal volume The Magnetic Fields. It also served as a kind of blog avant la lettre, whimsically reporting on the doings of Picabia and his friends ("Max jacob, declares that his ass is hysterical") and on whatever else came into his head ("Cubism is a cathedral of shit"). 391 has been called a "magazine in transit," and understandably so: less than a year after moving to Spain, Picabia was back in New York, the first four issues under his arm. Later that year he returned to Barcelona and Paris, then in February 1918 joined Gabrielle and their children in Switzerland. The magazine's successive mastheads, with their fluctuating editorial addresses, track his rambling itinerary.

Picabia's main reason for heading to Switzerland was to undergo treatment for a nervous breakdown: not only had he gone back to living in the fast lane, but his marriage was faltering because of his addiction and his new involvement with Germaine Everling, whom he had met during a separation from Gabrielle. By the end of 1917 the painter was shuttling between his family and his mistress, and when the Picabias settled in Gstaad, Everling, by pre-arrangement, took a hotel room in nearby Lausanne--making Picabia's attempts at a rest cure fairly pointless. On doctor's orders, Picabia severely curtailed his painting--and in a typical bit of perverseness dedicated one of his few watercolors of the time to that same physician--but he made up for it with a vastly increased outpouring of poems, many of which offer the same brooding self-reflection as the pieces in Fifty-Two Mirrors.

Nor was he content with the complications of a mere two women in his life. Before leaving New York, he had indulged in a tryst with Isadora Duncan; and in Lausanne, all the while flitting between Buffet and Everling, he took up with a young artist--the affair ending when the woman's husband came after the feckless Romeo with a pistol. In the fall of 1918, when Picabia's doctor sent him to the spa town of Bex-les-Bains to avoid the Spanish flu pandemic, the painter took both his family and Everling with him and installed everyone in a suite of adjoining rooms.

 

Picabia's amorous parade, however, fizzles next to the embroiled complexities and quicksand alliances of his involvement with Paris Dada. The catalyst was the painter's correspondence with Tristan Tzara, Dada's head theorist and publicist, in the summer of 1918. Shortly before this, Tzara had unveiled his "Dada Manifesto 1918" ("Every man must shout: there is great destructive, negative work to be done. Sweep, clean"), winning international renown among the disillusioned young artists and writers just emerging from the war. By early 1919, Picabia and Tzara had met in Zurich and collaborated on a new issue of 391, and when Picabia settled back in Paris soon afterward, he began spreading the Dada gospel. Among those most eager to hear it were the young poets Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, and Paul Eluard, the kernel of the future Surrealist group, who had been experimenting with forms of poetry that mirrored what Tzara and Picabia were producing, and who were ripe for the scorched-earth assault the movement promised. Breton got to know Picabia at the end of 1919. When Tzara made his own migration to Paris soon afterward, taking over Everling's apartment (where Picabia was now living) and Breton's magazine Litterature in the process, the resulting concentration of energies unleashed one of the most rambunctious periods in the history of the avant-garde.

Dada got off to a rousing start in Paris with a series of provocative statements and performances, and at first Picabia was an eager participant--to a degree that even his avid young acolytes soon found taxing. "Each time a Dada demonstration was planned," Breton later recalled, "Picabia gathered us in his salon and enjoined us, one after the other, to come up with ideas for it." But true to form, Picabia also kept his distance from the collective shenanigans. Though he contributed a number of skits and manifestoes, he declined to perform them himself, leaving his junior colleagues to face the hecklers as he watched from an upper box of the theater--"something to keep in mind," as Lowenthal dryly notes, "when reading a line such as 'Hiss, yell, smash my face in....'"

Despite such buffers, Dada is the context in which Picabia truly flourished, the one label that, despite everything, manages to keep at least a corner of itself attached to his oeuvre. Not only did it provide a spur for the aggressive "anti-art" that he was now producing (such as the painting The Cacodylic Eye in 1921, covered in his friends' graffiti and looking, as one critic put it, like "the interior of a pissoir"), but with its belligerent laughter and combative refusal of all standing values, Dada was the ideal petri dish for Picabia's virulent humor. Perhaps nowhere was this better exercised than in the painter's defenses of the much-stigmatized movement. When Andre Gide issued a condescending review of a Dada show, Picabia retorted, "Reading Gide aloud for ten minutes will give you bad breath." And when the poet Pierre Reverdy allegedly sent the Dadaists a violently insulting letter, he lost no time in publishing a rebuttal: "Monsieur Reverdy has just sent me an urgent letter ... to tell me that he'd like to make me eat a bit of his shit. Dear Monsieur Reverdy, whom I do not have the honor of knowing, it seems to me that ever since you devoted your life to poetry you have been trying to make everyone eat a bit of your shit." (Not too surprisingly, Picabia's subsequent, "anti-Dada" writings are nearly indistinguishable from the ones written in support of Dada and its members.)

Nor was Picabia granted immunity from his own barbs. Many of the articles and aphorisms with which he prolifically filled 391 and other Dada periodicals targeted himself just as easily as they skewered his antagonists. When the Cubist painter Albert Gleizes sarcastically tarred Picabia a "funny guy," Picabia appropriated the nickname as a byline. He also signed himself the "Cannibal," the "Alcoholic," the "Pickpocket," the "Idiot," and "Picabia who knows nothing, nothing, nothing"--all manifestations of what William Camfield calls his "'I screw myself' technique." As the painter famously wrote in 1920, "Whoever is with me is against me."

Given the personalities involved, it is no surprise that Dada soon began to sour, as the protagonists' conflicting agendas jostled to the fore. Angry with Tzara for trying to appropriate the Dada "brand" and with Breton for the moral gravitas he was seeking to impose on the movement, Picabia broke from his friends in May 1921, in a widely circulated newspaper interview: "The Dada spirit only really existed from 1913 to 1918 ... after that, it became as uninteresting as the output of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts," he declared. "Dada, you see, was not serious, and ... if some people now do take it seriously, it is because it is dead!"

Still, Picabia, who shifted allegiance as easily as he changed his socks, was not entirely through with his Paris comrades-in-arms. Having earlier sided with Tzara against Breton, he now sided with Breton against Tzara, once Breton himself had become disillusioned with Dada. The two men maintained cordial relations until 1924, when Breton launched the Surrealist movement as such--a movement that Picabia, as the avant-garde's elder statesman, felt should be under his leadership. A final showdown found the self-styled chiefs in Breton's studio--the rest of the group in attendance like spoils waiting to be claimed-- trading insults until the painter, bested at his own game, finally stormed out. Soon afterward, he cranked up 391 one last time to lampoon the new Surrealist enterprise. Despite this, Breton retained enough admiration for Picabia to include some brief texts in his Anthology of Black Humor some two decades later, though he prefaced them by remarking that the "painter and poet" in Picabia was often eclipsed by the "much-less-inspired polemicist."

 

With equal parts acumen and shortsightedness, Breton's remark touches on two of the main elements to greet the reader of I Am a Beautiful Monster: the uneven quality of Picabia's inspirations and (despite Breton's judgment) his consummate talent for invective and insult--at least part of the time. Indeed, while some of these texts display all the manic novelty of the avant-garde heyday, a number of others sound merely like random musings or unsupported bravado: the "provocations" touted in the subtitle might just as often be termed "prevarications." And behind many of them one can hear the self- congratulatory laughter of someone who knows he is being awfully clever, when it isn't the resentful snicker of a man who feels his genius is undervalued.

The anthology's chronological arrangement allows for a bird's-eye view of Picabia's literary development, further encouraged by Lowenthal's division of the texts into discrete periods. The first section, "Pre-Dada" (1917-1919), mainly includes darkly self-reflexive poetry with titles such as "Void," "Failed," and The Mortician's Athlete, and with allusions to the author's illnesses, chemical and sexual addictions, peripatetic existence, and overall dissatisfaction with life and lot. At times these writings amount to no more than juvenile pouting: "A modern society woman is an almost masculine stupidity" or "I loathe/Cezanne's painting/ it bores me." But elsewhere a surprising self-knowledge peeps through the bluster. One poem from 1917, written during a separation from Gabrielle Buffet, confesses: "I have excuses/ And lack strength and courage," while a short prose text from a few years later allows that "My only goal is a silkier life and an end to my lying."

In the texts from the Dada period proper (1919- 1921), Breton's "much-less- inspired polemicist" takes center stage. This section contains some of Picabia's most quoted utterances and suggests a man fully at home in the chaos that he helped to foment. The manifestoes pound home the movement's nihilistic message, in an odd (and similarly repetitive) anticipation of 1970s punk. "Dada ... is like your idols: nothing/like your politicians: nothing/like your heroes: nothing," rants Picabia's most famous contribution to the genre. Similarly, the poems he wrote during this period, collected in books such as Thoughts Without Language, Unique Eunuch, and the celebrated Jesus Christ Rastaquouère (which garnered praise even from the curmudgeonly Ezra Pound), ratchet up the tone, introducing a sharper sense of cruelty and crudity:

I'm going to whip your senses ...

I smother the pussy enveloping my

   hand

I don't really know why these scenes

   resemble rags.

I kiss your mouth while vomiting ...

Still, after a while what one mainly hears is the difficulty of sustaining an effective attack. How many times can one hector an audience and still keep its ear? This was the problem that tormented Breton and his friends, who soon retreated from the sterility of Dada's program and began exploring the more verdant byways that ultimately led to Surrealism.

 

Picabia, meanwhile, chose simply to leave the building. After his break with Dada, he spent the late 1920s and 1930s living it up on the Cote d'Azur, either in a castle he built for Everling and their son near Cannes or on one of his several houseboats. He consorted with the rich and indolent, hosting fabulous galas at the casino in the evenings and motoring around by day in one of his 127 deluxe autos. His artwork, once joyously scandalous, now became (in Lowenthal's words) an "outpouring of figurative and abstract kitsch." Practically his only writings from this period are sour-grapes retorts to art critics, who had gotten used to the Dada provocateur and now damned him for his conservative twist: "If there is an artist too different from the others, a poor wretch who shows off, there is nothing to do but bully him, cut him down [or else] they'll punish him even better: they'll stop talking about him!"

The final sections of the book, covering the period before World War II through the painter's death in 1953, evince a bitter retrenchment--manifest in Picabia's socially regressive politics, in his art, and in his poetry, which abandons bravado for previously unsounded notes of reticence and fear. The breathtaking egotism of the earlier books gives way to an apprehensive topicality about the impending war, even to a pathetically transparent emotional neediness:

If you wanted, completely naked,

   I would grow old

with your smile, hands on your breasts.

 

Whatever you do, don't throw me

   into the void!

These lines, from the aptly titled "Sentimental Poem," were most likely written for Olga Mohler, the Picabias' young nanny who became the painter's third wife in 1940--while Everling, who had weathered one too many of these dalliances, quit the household for good. The marriage to Olga, like its predecessors, seems to have run over its own share of potholes and inspired many of Picabia's late writings, some of them among the most rudely acerbic of his entire oeuvre.

By the time World War II broke out, the effusiveness that had characterized so much of Picabia's life shrank to almost nothing. The once-fabulous fortune dwindled, the yachts and the fancy cars were sold off. In place of houseboats and casinos, the Picabias spent the war in a cramped apartment and got around by bicycle. In 1945 the perpetual nomad and world traveler came full circle and returned to live in the once-opulent apartment of his childhood, which bad real estate transactions had by now shrunk to a single studio. Even his writings reflect this diminishment: Picabia's final collections, sometimes composed of no more than a few sentences (and not necessarily by him), were issued by a fledgling publisher in editions of fewer than fifty copies. As the Dada joker confessed in one of his last poems, "life has worn out/my hope/and no longer amuses me."

 

But fortunes change, and at this point Picabia's place in the history of modernism is assured. His influence on later currents such as Pop and Concept Art is palpable; and when we review the cultural history of his time, it is often Picabia's quick-witted tartness that exposes just how bland most of his contemporaries could be. Marc Lowenthal has done a superb job of organizing the painter's writings into a fairly coherent whole, and his introductions to the various groupings set the context as well as can be expected (though a little more biographical background would have been welcome). MIT Press has also designed the book so as to suggest at least some of the originals' typographic cacophony. As to the translations, while one could quibble with a few of the choices--stage hands use spotlights, not "projectors"; "let's always try" (essayons toujours) could more idiomatically be rendered "let's give it a shot"; and so on--in the main Lowenthal matches Picabia gripe for snipe.

There are also some interesting revelations to be noted between the lines of verse and commentary, such as the distinct accents of homosexuality that surface in a number of these writings--could the legendary womanizer have been overcompensating?--and the hitherto unreported extent to which Picabia borrowed, not to say plagiarized, from prior sources. Lowenthal highlights two main "inspirations" for Picabia's aphorisms, Nietzsche's The Gay Science (one of the few books the painter read with any attention) and the quotations pages of the Larousse dictionary, and he demonstrates how this form of appropriation fit into Picabia's aesthetic. Lowenthal could have taken the discussion further--he neglects the important precursor of Lautreamont's Poésies, which made similar use of maxims by Pascal and La Rochefoucauld, and which Picabia (who surely knew the book) might have seen as a go-ahead for his own pilferage--but the parallels that he does draw with Nietzsche and others engage the reader in a more fruitful dialogue with Picabia's texts than would otherwise be possible.

So why can't I finally muster more enthusiasm for this book? Because for all of their sharpness and invention, these writings too seldom reach past mere cleverness or navel-gazing: true self-revelation, if it is to avoid being embarrassing or just plain tedious, demands empathy, depth, and restraint-- qualities not normally associated with Picabia's work. Instead, there is a tossed-off, scattershot quality to his darts, which miss as often as they hit, or strive way too hard for effect. And perhaps more than anything, one feels from start to finish a kind of desperation in these texts, an undercurrent of uselessness that is far more dispiriting than the painter's defiant reiterations of "nothing, nothing, nothing." As he once put it, and much more tellingly, "Between my head and my hand, there is always the face of death."

One might rightly object that desperation was part and parcel of Dada's mission. One might also point to similar notes of demoralization in the writings of Tzara, Breton, Arp, and their fellows. But Breton, for one, never lost faith in that "certain point of the mind" at which the debilitating contradictions of the human condition might be resolved. As for Tzara, even his "great destructive" prescription for a clean sweep allowed one to imagine something better once the garbage of the centuries had been cleared away. The proof is that he came around to endorsing the Surrealist project in the 1930s, and later joined the Communist Party--at a time when Picabia was busily damning the leftists as "poor revolutionaries, made in series," and sneering at the very notion of social reform.

I imagine that reading this anthology is not unlike the experience of knowing Picabia himself: alternately exhilarating and exasperating, the truly inspired pronouncements counterbalanced by the truly obnoxious ones. Ultimately, in fact, this collection might reveal more about the beautiful monster than it intended, for by an odd but not inappropriate paradox, it bespeaks a more complex figure than posterity has retained even as it undercuts the legends that earned Picabia that posterity. As the outsized ejaculations of the Dada period slip into the relative quietude of the painter's final decades, the book becomes an exercise in declining vigor and diminishing returns. The recurrences and borrowings in the first sections at least participate in a rabid promiscuity of ideas, as if the sheer velocity of expression and event didn't leave time to check whether something had been said before, or by whom; but the last hundred or so pages make you feel like you have been cornered at a party by a bitter also-ran who endlessly reprises his best lines of yore to hide the sad truth that he has nothing new to say. By the end of this voluminous tome-- with its obsessive repetitions and phenomenal self-absorption, its private jokes and petty bickering, its vindictiveness and magnificence--one cannot help recalling another of Picabia's self-mocking nicknames, trotted out, like virtually all his bons mots, time and time and time again: Francis the failure.

Mark Polizzotti is the author, most recently, of Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited, and the translator of Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet.

    


By Mark Polizzotti

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/books/the-smirk