Notebook VIII

In 1925 Picabia moved South to Mougins on the Cote d’Azur. For the next couple of decades he would experiment with different kinds of painting, abstraction, pop culture, movies and found imagery. This work is acerbic, seductive and surprising, because none of it is what it seems to be, none of the imagery fits into our expectations. What constitutes “art”? What is a viable subject or process for “great” painting? How far can one push until someone gets offended? And that’s pretty much how Picabia approached his life – pushing against anything, any idea, any convention until it made someone squirm.

“Picabia spent most of the thirties on the Riviera, living with a mistress and designing the décor for fancy-dress galas. During the war, still in the South of France, he perpetrated his statuesque nudes, simpering lovers, and coarse enigmas, including “Hanged Pierrot,” circa 1941, in which a woman appears to lament a dead clown. Picabia told Gertrude Stein that he could turn out one such picture a day. Stein was a close friend, who, though Jewish, had powerful protectors and, like Picabia, fell under the shadow of collaboration with the Vichy regime. Unlike Stein, he was formally accused, but cleared for lack of evidence. Finally, until he died, in 1953, Picabia painted abstractions—such as colored dots embedded in black grounds—that presaged the generic feel of paintings about painting, rife in Chelsea galleries in the past few years, of what the painter and critic Walter Robinson has termed “zombie formalism.”” [Peter Schjeldahl on Francis Picabia]

Picabia came to the South for the freedom and the beauty that it promised, but by the time he arrived on the Riviera it had become “the destination” for the upper crust vacationer. This reality must have emboldened Francis – all those socialites and well-to-do douche bags discussing the wonderful art in their collections. How many dinner parties? How many afternoon events in luxe gardens? How many half-soused “experts” of art did Francis have to run into while he lived his outre life? How far could he push their attitudes and expectations about what Art was, or for that matter, what life could be while they relaxed and indulged in their insulated vacation lifestyles? Challenge accepted!

“The exhibition… follows the artist through all his phases, including the chocolate-box Spanish dancers with kiss curls and combs in their hair, the willfully monstrous parodies of sentimental postcards (couples with four mouths and eight eyes kissing by moonlight). The latter, painted with crude industrial colors, would subsequently be parodied in the “Smoky Stover” comic strip as an embodiment of “modern art.” Next came a series of paintings superimposing faces and nude bodies, and finally, in the ’40s, when Picabia lived in the south of France, female nudes laboriously copied from girlie magazines.
Picabia obviously had a lifelong agenda, commanded by a rejection of the frivolous socialite concept of painting as a massage for the eye and responding to the general mood of self-destructive nihilism that infected Europe at the time.
Picabia was hell-bent to break out of that closure and, with his bull-like temperament, never stopped charging till the end. This desperate consistency alone invites a measure of respect and friendly acceptance. [Michael Gibson on Picabia]

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