GORGONS IN DISGUISE: PICABIA'S WOMEN
. . . we are a few men who, every morning on waking up, would like to consult Picabia as a marvelous barometer showing atmospheric changes during the night.
“Francis Picabia,” 1922(1)
This painter [Cézanne] has the brains of a fruit vendor. . . . If we had been under other influences [than Cézanne’s], maybe we wouldn’t have eaten so many apples.
with André Breton’s comment, 1934(2)
It’s much more interesting to paint women than apples, as Francis Picabia’s late paintings strongly suggest, and to paint them in a sort of illustrational manner -- in a casual, cliché-ridden populist style, with its simplistic realism and readability -- strongly suggesting that Cézanne-esque modernism and such avant-garde “experiments” as Cubism had run their course, and amounted to “nothing,” as he implies in his 1920 “Dada Manifesto.”
“Cubism represents the dearth of ideas,” he wrote, adding “They have cubed paintings of the primitives, cubed Negro sculptures, cubed violins, cubed guitars, cubed the illustrated newspapers, cubed shit and the profiles of young girls, how they must cube money!!!”(3) His late paintings put the finishing dismissive touches on this attack on Cubism, more broadly on modernism and abstraction.
The exhibition at Michael Werner Gallery has some residual abstract works, a Composition (ca. 1940), with its eccentric curves, sometimes forming colorful circles, and Untitled (1948), with its green angles on a black ground, which have a certain passé charm. But much more alarmingly charming, not to say insidiously seductive, are the blondes in Femme au Bouquet (1942) and La Blonde (ca. 1940-46) and the brunettes in Femme au châle bleu (ca. 1940-44) and Portrait de Suzanne (1941), among other female figures, some looking forlorn, one matter-of-factly posing nude.
Perhaps most noteworthy is the sexy woman, wearing a bathing suit and wrapped in a white sheet or large beach towel, flaring in the wind, in Printemps (1942-43) -- Picabia’s profane, sexually exciting answer to Botticelli’ s sacred, virginal, untouchable Venus (ca. 1482). Picabia has come a long way from his Cubo-Futurist I See in Memory My Dear Udnie (1914) and his early Machine Portraits -- but there’s still something mechanical about his painting and imagery, and ironical.
An atmospheric change had occurred in art during the long night that had fallen on Europe during World War II, and Picabia’s art was the first to register it. His last paintings were ironically ahead of their times, for they acknowledge the collapse of esthetically “aristocratic” avant-garde art (the high art of modernity, with its uncommon visual language) and the rise of esthetically “democratic” popular art (the illustrational people’s art of modernity, with its commonplace visual language).
Avant-garde art tried to appropriate and assimilate it, whether by way of Picasso’s Cubist collages or Max Ernst’s Surrealist collages, and whether out of ironical condescension or to announce that it was open to all “influences,” and thus universal. But populist representation, with its instant appeal, eventually overwhelmed it, taking it over and aggrandizing it for its own purposes, as is shown by Pop Art, an ironically “high” crowd art, as it were. Anti-elitist Pop Art wrote “finish” to School of Paris elitist avant-garde style, which lingered on in the postwar School of New York.
The exhibition contains two “elitist” enigmatic Surrealist figure paintings from the 1920s and ‘30s -- Deux Personnages transparent (ca. 1925-30) and Edulis (ca. 1930-33) -- but already in 1935, as an Untitled figure from around that year shows, Picabia realized that the end of the avant-garde was in sight. The banal -- unenigmatic -- female figure is illustrationally succinct and focused, rather than out of or off focus, as the figures in the other ‘30s works are. “Picabia remains the master of surprise, of the kind of surprise that Apollinaire called the ‘great new mainspring’,” Breton wrote, (4) and Picabia sprung a new surprise on art in the ‘40s. He signaled the “pop” future of art, and, I think, its increasing banality and commonplaceness, as his banal and commonplace images imply. They are painted with a certain vigor and seriousness -- most are on board, and all are oil, slickly if densely applied, if sometimes with a seemingly light touch -- which gives them an esthetic credibility, but they are otherwise ordinary. However much his women may be “dream girls,” as the figure in Primavera conspicuously is, they all have the look of “paper dolls,” and as such reflective afterthoughts on women.
But I think the key to their identity is hidden in three rather tiny oil paintings -- one is 4 x 3¼ inches, two are 3¼ x 2½ inches -- titled Tableau de poche (1942). These “signature” paintings can be read as stages in the surrealization of the female face. Initially quirkily familiar, it is distorted into expressionistic monstrousness, and finally transformed into intimidating grotesqueness. The blackness of its eyes becomes increasingly intense, as though to penetrate us, and what began as a closed mouth ends in a grimace with a wide-open mouth, as though to swallow us.
Picabia gives the three-in-one women a face lift. As they make faces at us, they become increasingly menacing. They’re no longer just pretty faces picked out of a crowd and posing for the artist, as the other faces are: they’re the three Gorgons Hesiod wrote about. The last face clearly belongs to the Gorgon; it resembles the marble mask of the Gorgon in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. That surreal mask was made in the 6th century BCE. The idea that the primary purpose of art is to “surreally” express the unconscious -- dreams, nightmarish and otherwise -- is age-old, indeed, as cave painting suggests, the idea in which art originated. Picabia remains a surrealist however unsurreal his portraits seem.
I suggest that the Gorgon mask is his inner face, a sort of self-portrait, a portrait of his psyche -- of his hatred of women, for the Gorgon is a hateful woman, a monster of the underworld, as Homer tells us. It is the underside of all the pretty women he portrays, whatever their mood, nude or not, seductively single or a mother. And it is Picabia’s hideous underside, his perverse unconscious, the split off female part of himself that returns in nightmarish disguise.
Picabia’s late women are monsters in disguise, unlike his early Udnie, a mechanical monster -- also grotesque, but without the power of turning all who look at her into stone, for, after all, she’s a machine not primitive, a primitive machine but not archetypally primitive, as the Gorgon is. We can ride her -- she’s a sort of fucking machine -- but we don’t dare ride the Gorgon; we fuck with her at the risk of our lives. And Udnie is stylishly planar, rather than barbarically organic, as the Gorgon is. Udnie, after all, has no face, so she can hardly be as dangerous as the Gorgon. More crucially, the original Gorgon’s head, when cut off, as Perseus cleverly did with the aid of the mirror of art -- the shield with which he mirrored her head, reducing her to a manageable reflection -- could be put to apotropaic use: it protected against the evil eye by virtue of its own evil eye.
Picabia had an evil surreal eye for women even when he knew they had a tempting evil eye. He is eye to eye with the women he paints, staring at them as they stare at him, as though to see who has the more evil eye, meeting their threatening glance with his own impervious glance, for his art is already stone cold, and mirrors their banality with sober irony.
“Francis Picabia: Late Paintings,” Nov. 16, 2011-Jan. 14, 2012, at Michael Werner, 4 East 77th Street, New York, N.Y. 10075.
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
(1) Quoted in Marcel Jean, ed., The Autobiography of Surrealism (New York: Viking, 1980), 84
(2) Ibid., 338
(3) Quoted in Lucy R. Lippard, ed., Dadas on Art (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971), 166
(4) André Breton, “Picabia: Binoculars for Blindfolded Eyes,” Surrealism and Painting (New York and London: Harper & Row, 1972), 221