text by ARNAULD PIERRE
all artwork by FRANCIS PICABIA
a special project by KATERINA JEBB
thanks to BEVERLEY CALTE
at the beginning of the last century, with the advent of photography, painting started to lose its aura. at the same time, the ideal of love was disrupted by the emerging pornography industry. marcel duchamp chose to abandon painting, while his close friend francis picabia never stopped painting all his life, becoming one of the most influential artists, particularly among a new generation of painters.
Francis Picabia belonged to a generation of artists that, rightly or wrongly, believed it would witness the end of painting, vanquished by the proliferation of mechanical images from photography and cinematography. The illusion-free painter saw his or her art as being irremediably cut off from all authentic experience of the real because of the ever-growing numbers of reproducible images that were beginning to interpose their representations between the world and the artist’s sensibility. This presentiment, a source of disenchantment, was accompanied by a series of events that disrupted the values and ideals upheld by the world of painting at
Picabia’s pamphlets from the Dadaist period give an account of this, referring not only to art and the religion of art, but also, randomly, to god, the fatherland, and love. Love, in particular, held a central place in the series of disillusionments Picabia faced. Was it not he who said, “Man’s heart is admirable only in the lecture hall”? And, more crudely: “Our sexual organs should have eyes. Thanks to them, we would be able to say that we had seen love from close up.” Picabia’s amorous machines, the emblems of this disenchantment, say exactly the same thing: love is merely a sequence of mechanical operations that can be repeated ad libitum, which only goes to show their vacuity.
The erotic and pornographic images of the day vulgarized the representation of love, transforming amorous experience into a series of stereotypes, each more sickening than the last. Picabia was well-versed in these. Precursor of Pop Art that he was, and a big-time consumer of these images, he used them extensively in his paintings. The series Les Amoureux (The Lovers) from the mid-1920s, for example, was derived from sentimental postcards in which fake couples enacted a romantic idyll, aping the postures of a purely formal passionate love. The painter transposed the strident tones of these artificially colorized images by appropriating the industrial colors of Ripolin house paints, thereby reducing his own art to the status of house painting. Later, in the 1940s, he worked with photographs from girly magazines for his compositions with nudes. Here were more simulacra, fed with the simulacra of love and eroticism, whose forms the sex industry was in the process of defining. These prostituted images, in return, prostituted the art they inspired.
Picabia’s nudes show indelible traces of their mechanical origins: the violently emphatic shadows and reflections, the foreshortenings and optical deformations are engraved in their flesh. Picabia stopped painting bodies and the direct experience he might himself have of them, and instead depicted what we perceive of them through the flux of media images. His nudes are flesh machines that affect the same inhuman eroticism as the sexualized machines of the Dadaist period. They continue to demystify the mythologies of love, which is reduced to its corporeal and organic rawness.
With Picabia, art and love are always conjoined in dereliction. The love of art and the art of love are condemned as two different forms of the same illusion, entertained in vain. But in this regard, Picabia is no Duchamp, despite the deep intellectual understanding between the two men. While both came to analogous conclusions about the obsolescence of painting and its probable disappearance in the age of the machine, and while both took pleasure in accelerating that loss, Picabia could not bring himself to adopt his comrade’s detached approach. Did Duchamp not say that Picabia had always loved the smell of turpentine? Indeed, with Picabia, the love of painting often prevailed over the death of painting — unless, of course, this was loving to death. On several occasions, he thought he might save it from the trivialities of the mechanical image — for example, by inventing abstraction or by taking refuge during the interwar period in the refinements of cultivated painting steeped in classical references. This was the time
of the Transparencies, which combined elegant figures and peaceful faces lifted from
the high art of museums. With their inextricable mesh of lines, these paintings force the gaze to slow down, and they make the case for extending the time allotted to understanding and contemplation: the love of art, pursued in its simplest forms, had found an outlet once again.
This is why Picabia is back in focus today, why he is once again a major artist for a new generation of artists: as the painter of painting, come what may, surviving the initial trauma of the image industry and preserving a space of authenticity where the love of bodies and the love of images can be perpetuated, embodied in a single object — a painting. In painting that, while showing a cruel awareness of its limits, recaptures the splendor of feelings and of the experience of love. What does Picabia teach us? That a painting of the death of painting is still possible. More than ever.