Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction The Museum Of Modern Art. Or how you’re going to keep this artist down on the farm after he’s seen Picabia
When the going gets tough the tough go to museums, and that's what I did the other day taking in the remarkable exhibition of this wonderful artist’s life work. Papa Dada. It doesn't get off to a great start, what with those wonderfully bad post impression paintings, that look like calendar art.
However we are quickly and happily pushed into his quick change (there will be many of these) with his large abstract paintings that were influenced by Cubism and are bold but without the delicate beauty that I like and associate with the great works of Cubism. These paintings look good and are in their own way very commanding, but they still didn't do it for me and the big doing it for me begins in the next gallery when his art and heart belong to Dada.
This is where it starts to get good or even great. I've always loved Picabia, this dashing playboy with his love for fast automobiles and fast action who could have been played by Vittorio De Sica or maybe Marcello Mastroianni in a past movie of his life. The only actor today who could do him justice would be Jean Dujardin.
Picabia’s vast imagination and his experimental use of materials and images that provoked and challenged art lovers at the beginning of the 20th Century (and still do) poked and prodded us to what art and especially painting can be. So here in the largest gallery we have this vast and gorgeous display of his beautiful mechanical paintings and drawings that he called mechanomorphs, intricate and crazy things that don't do anything except only herald and sing the beginning of the 20th Century and the idea of movement and machines as beautiful things, something to put down on canvas and paper.
His dada machines are strong and precise sometimes named after friends, and intricately drawn especially in the drawings and prints. It’s in these works that he started to add stuff to the canvas including words and even his signature would sometimes become a part of the painting. It is in this gallery that his large work “L’oeil Cacodlate” (reproduced on the cover of the catalog) that incorporates words, names and collage elements including a small portrait of Picabia is installed.
This is one of my favorite works in the show and indeed in all of 20th Century art. It was an inspiration for me as a young artist. Papa was everywhere or so it seemed, and because of this beautiful and expansive exhibition we can also spend some time everywhere, here and there.
Turn a corner after this large display and you come across his carnival of monsters. Lavish and garish so colorful and textured that you might need to put on your sunglasses, but don’t better you get jabbed in the eyes with these marvelous and disturbing portraits and embraces from the early 20’s. But wait there much more. Take for instance his “transparencies” where lines color and images criss cross layer upon layers of figures and intricate designs and motifs many from nature, both high and low from many sources and periods that he puts on top of each other in thin transparent layers, hence his name for them. They are large complex and of course beautiful, guaranteed to draw you in.
Then there are what might be the most controversial pieces of his career the paintings from the early 40’s that can be called camp and kitsch but also disturbing and political and precede pop by many years. In this time and place Picabia took images from soft core porn magazines and other commercial magazines and pushed and put them together in these ridiculous paintings of Aryan gods and goddesses that are somewhat erotic and that can be to some off putting but I liked the camp and political things of these works and it is here that the very scary painting “Adoration of the Calf” hangs and brings to mind the awful new president elect and his followers. I know that this is a coincidence but it’s a creepy and compelling one.
The exhibition ends in the last years of his life, the early 50’s and you might say it ends how it began with abstraction. This is the time for small and intimate paintings, circles and squares placed on areas of textured colors, they dot the walls of the final gallery as beautiful and compelling as everything that went before them. This then is the life and work of one of our great artists, generous and expansive in his talent and life. Ah Papa. One of the best exhibitions of the year.