Photograph from 1918.
World War I didn’t just end like it does in the movies. You know, warring folks lay down their arms, make their way back to families and friends and get on with it. No. After the Armistice in 1918 there was the matter of a devastated population being faced with, not only reconstruction, famine and trauma, but a massive health crisis of devastating virulence. I guess there’s nothing historically new about a plague. They had come and gone in Europe all through its history. Devastating diseases that had destroyed and remade societies. They would be formed and spread by the way people lived, built their cities, by the way they traded, did business. This particular disease was no different, formed by the very inception of Modernity itself. And just like the plagues of the past it ran through society like fire through a dry field, transferred and incubated in the rhythms of the populations.
The war had created this particularly nasty influenza in the foul trenches that ringed the conflicts of battle. Soldiers carried the disease along with them, like the lice and fleas that infested their clothes. The truth is that because of the way the war was fought, because of the nature of the combat, the virus went untreated, proved to be untreatable. Soldiers only lived long enough to pass the germ onto the new recruits. Modernity uses up natural resources quickly. By the end of the war the disease was killing people as efficiently as the bullets. And because of Modern economic trade, the new speed of travel – ships, trains, planes and automobiles – the virus went on a world tour. The disease spread from port to port, city to city following the pathways of railways and shipping lanes. It was called the Spanish Influenza, and was later found to be a subtype of H1N1, the progenitor of the avian variety we are battling today. Its virulent legacy continues, its DNA still among the populations of the world, waiting.
“Truth or Consequence”
Over 50 million souls, dead within 6 years, in addition to the 39 million killed in the war itself. From 1914 through 1920 populations around the world were purged. Devastation like this was inconceivable to the Modern generations, and for any precedent like it, one had to look to folkloric myth. And that is what began to happen among many of the Modern societies. There was a resurgence of old-time religions and end-of-the-world doomsayers. Ancient ethnic mythologies updated in contemporary guises began to become more popular among the masses. Modernity brought along new beaurocracies, Fordist productions and Global Economies, but it also incubated wild eyed prophets preaching purity, conformity and doom. These new reactionary movements were creating opportunities for a realignment of power and wealth. And it was here at the beginning of the 1920s that the consolidation and expansion of Modernity began.
How does one describe it? Governments were in turmoil, the balance of world power was shifting away from Europe to the “New World.” And it was the ones left standing, the survivors, that were left to make the Modern world work. Just think of the devastation, the clearing away of the future, the loss of so many lives, so much potential in such a short period of time. The world was in shock. As it was in the larger society so it was in the Art World. The old codgers of 19th Century Proto-Modernism had passed on leaving Picasso and Matisse, for the most part, the only game in town. A generation of young, bright things had been wiped out in the war, and those that survived the destruction were now seen as damaged goods. Apollinaire, Braque and many others returned from the war very changed human beings. But there was a new generation waiting to arrive with a very different relationship to and experience of Modernism. They were not part of the innovations, not part of the early arguments over the direction of painting and Art. This generation had grown of age with Modernity while experiencing the viciousness of these new technologies and theoretics. They had experienced their families, societies and countries torn to shreds by the war. And they had enough of it. For them, ALL of the old constructs of Art seemed ridiculous in this new world and a real break within Modernism itself began to form.
Old and New
About this time the left bank cognoscenti, those connected, showing and selling artists, began what would become known as the “Return to Order.” This was an attitude, an ideal, among the now-tired and worn out early Modernists, to refocus on Classical ideals, to give the experimentation and subversion of those early hard scrabble years a deeper connection to the art of the past. These Modernists buggered off to the Cote D’azur, the Blue Coast, and began to refine their work through the history and precedent of Mediterranean culture, in the leisurely lifestyles of “la vie en rose.” Bohemia done up at a vacation Mecca if you will. This new attitude towards art precedent was a conceptual reversal of Modernist practice – more accepting, less controversial, almost reactionary in its willingness to wear a toga. This attitude also points to the fact that the Modernists’ once radical theories had become ingrained in the larger culture. It’s the beginning of Picasso’s Neo-Classical bathing beauties and Matisse’s long retreat into the Oriental harem. It was also the beginning of Modernism’s institutionalization as an academic style, a natural consequence of the triumph of Modernity itself.
There was another side to this coin. And this was where artists who had had enough of Modernism, enough of the now “top-down” avant garde culture, enough of the economies of the art markets and the power of the gatekeepers, began to question the way things had been set up. For these artists, nothing, absolutely NOTHING, was correct any longer. Not Art, Language, Culture, Society, or Politics. In their eyes it was all a fat, nasty con game designed to suck one’s soul into the brand-spanking-new Modernist machine. The difference was that these artists professed that they could care less about being accepted by this system. And while the old guard eased into the Southern fog of bourgeois respectability these new kinds of anti-artists began to inhabit “the scene” back in the newly resurgent cities.
Dada, especially in Paris, was the first art movement to ever say “Fuck You” to the art establishment with café élan and outré style. Oh sure, there had been many contrarian movements in Art. But the first Dadaists were beautiful nihilists out to make life uncomfortable for those art world denizens who were happily polishing the brass of their own reputations. There was something louche and unexpected in its criticisms and provacative stances. Dada wasn’t specifically about anything; not painting or sculpting, composition or form, color or light, though it did use all those things. It wasn’t about manifestos or dogma, poetry or theatre, though it also tried its hand with those things as well. Dada, instead, was pure aesthetic opposition to cultural theoretics and social conventions in all their forms. It was ironic, campy, humorous, satirical, and at times, a deadly serious critique of accepted notions of existence in the Modern World.
Dada was an Art of anti-art gestures. It attacked the newly ingrained ideas of Modern beauty, the idea of “the artist,” the romantic ideal of genius driving that artist, the vaunted uses of bravura technique, classical training, historical study and institutional language. It latched onto the growing cult of Freudian psychology and saw advancing technology as a game of sexual power and surrogacy. Dada deconstructed language into sound, images into patterns, life, economics, politics and especially sex into Art. It made culture in all its forms wonderfully pointless. Yet behind this campy nihilism was the specter of the war and the creeping institutionalization of Modern life.
Francis Picabia, “Natures Mortes, Portrait de Cézanne, Portrait de Renoir, Portrait de Rembrandt,” 1920, Toy monkey and ink on cardboard.
Here’s one of my favorite “paintings” of the early 20th Century. After war, after disease, before the “return to order,” before the “lost generation” got to partying, this is Francis Picabia’s devastating critique of the History of Painting as it stood, as it worked in the markets, as it emerged from the institutions. It’s a portrait of Rembrandt, the fallen god of art, Renoir, the kindly old icon of Modern culture now worth millions from his fantasies of a fleshy arcadia, and Cezanne, the radical iconoclast who suffered ignominy to birth Modernism itself. All the same portrait. No paint. Nothing but a collaged still life. Nothing but a goofy toy monkey and some hand written art historical references. This “painting” is vicious in ways we can not imagine today. In our blasé Postmodern art world we see work like this all the time. In fact we teach our students to make work just like this in Painting 101. But in 1920 no one in the art world had seen anything quite like it before. This “painting” carries with it the infamy of Duchamp’s urinal, a dig at the provenance of so-called artistic legitimacy. But this “painting” wasn’t directed only at the gatekeepers. This was an iron gauntlet raked across the face of every ambitious Modern painter making his or her way to the Left Bank. This “painting” was and is about the feckless artist, the careerist.
In one hand the monkey holds his tail pulled from between his legs; a useless prehensile limb, limp phallus, and rude come-on. The other is raised in welcome, calling attention to this ridiculous display. This masturbating monkey clearly wants to be known, to be seen, to be recognized! Around him floats the names of the famous and accepted. The monkey wants to be seen in this tradition. Picabia’s acerbic and bleak “Still Life,” says that this kind of art, these kinds of painters’ ambitions are pathetic, servile, absurd. They are Natures Mortes – Still Lives – quite literally, dead. This is exactly what the Modern World with its technological advancements and theoretical imperatives had done to Europe – created a society of servile monkeys, Natures Mortes, servicing the machines of commerce and government. And this was what had happened to the revolutionary Modern movement as well. The money had come in, professional careers had begun, schools had popped up left and right teaching Modernism, and the gatekeepers were now firmly in place. Picabia, the sublime, bleak fucker that he was, left us this sad, uncompromising, unflinching portrait of an artist’s reality in this new Modern Institutional World. For Picabia, these Artists were dead, stuffed toys of an establishment intent on promoting its own best interests.
“Death is a serious thing, eh?
One dies as a hero, or as an idiot, which is the same thing. The only
nonephemeral word is the word death. You like death for others.
Death, death, death.
Money’s the only thing that doesn’t die, it just goes off on a journey. It is
God, it is what is respected, the serious individual – money respects families.
Honor, honor to money; the man who has money is an honorable man.
Honor is bought and sold like a piece of ass. A piece of ass, a piece of ass
represents life like French fries, and all of you serious people, you will
smell worse than cow shit…”
Francis Picabia. “Manifeste Cannibale,” 1920, from I Am a Beautiful Monster, translated by Marc Lowenthal.
The acerbic critique of Art and Life expressed in much of Picabia’s work of this time is, quite simply, breathtaking. He was fed up with the “importance” of Modernist practice, the failure of doctrinaire abstraction to move into the world in any real way. He began to direct his painting away from visual imagery towards language. In one of the most telling works of this period he signed his own signature, “Francis Picabia by Francis Picabia,” creating a kind of artistic brand more than 80 years before the idea of Branding existed in the art world. This smudgy drawing authorizes the authority of Picabia’s own authorization, which is a similar technical strategy, and quite frankly, aesthetic technique (pleasingly smeared lettering) used by a number of POMO artists working today. With his signature Picabia institutionalizes choice as the only valid art form in the face of Modernity. In the fall of ’21 he exhibited “L’oeil cacodylate.” It’s a painting brimming with signatures, phrases and language detritus left by friends and colleagues. It looks like the graffiti on the wall of a bar room toilet. In this painting the canvas is no longer a window or a mirror, but a receptacle, an arena for “accidental” documentation. Its imagery is the handwriting, the words, the turn of phrase, the graffiti left over time. When, finally, the artist as consumer, chooser, signs it, it becomes an “artwork.”
“The painter makes a choice, then imitates his choice, whose deformation constitutes Art; why not simply sign this choice instead of monkeying about in front of it? There have been quite enough paintings accumulating, and the approving signature of artists – who are merely that, approvers – would give a new value to those works of art intended for modern mercantilism.”
Francis Picabia. “The Cacodylic Eye,” 1921, from I Am a Beautiful Monster, translated by Marc Lowenthal.
Francis Picabia.“The Cacodylic Eye,” Mixed Media, 1921.
I’m fascinated by this period of Picabia’s work, because it was the last he did before he officially quit Dada, quit the whole institution of Modernism itself. What does it mean when an artist officially resigns from a movement that they had begun? Can an artist do such a thing? Can one just quit and hand in the brushes? I personally like this idea very much. It smacks of absurdity. But no matter, with Picabia there was always a method to the madness. He’d had enough of the ambitious Breton and his future Surrealists, enough of the careerists and professionals that were starting to form within Dada. He thought that profiting from one’s ideas, as artists do, want to do, was disgusting. Art should be something more than copyrighted material made for profit. And so he quit, “fuck you very much.”
“By wanting to continue Dada retreated into itself. I regret that writing these lines I may hurt friends whom I like a lot, or worry certain companions who are perhaps counting on their investments in Dadaism…I approve of all ideas, but that’s it, they alone interest me,not what hovers around them; speculations made on ideas disgust me. “One has to live,” you’re going to tell me. You know as well as I do that our existence is brief in regards to the speculation one can draw from an invention; we’ve been on earth since the day before yesterday and we’ll die tomorrow!…Life is only tolerable provided you live among people who have no ulterior motive, no opportunists, but that’s asking for the impossible.”
Francis Picabia. “M. Picabia Separates From the Dadas,” 1921, from I Am a Beautiful Monster, translated by Marc Lowenthal.
This is the beginning of Picabia’s aesthetic “death spiral” for many Modern purists. The great Clement Greenberg, when discussing waning artistic power, always loved to say that artists at some point would “lose their stuff.” This was a way of categorizing periods or weighing an artist’s importance in the sweep of history. And quite frankly, it’s a way of “valuing” an artist for a market. And it is true. In this regard Picabia did “lose his stuff.” But when looking at the breadth of his ideas and the depth of his ideals in his later work, he was just being true to himself. He often said that he hated “serious artists,” and he defined himself as an “unserious” one. Picabia would have crapped his pants if anyone called him a professional. Art should remain a passion, a hobby, so to speak, though he would choke on those descriptions as well.
And it’s also true that he didn’t have to sell his art. He was wealthy and comfortable. And so he wasn’t beholden to a group, nor was he worried about how he fit into “history.” He could and did make his own way, enjoyed his life as he pleased. And in so doing created a body of work so complex and unique that it actually defined how we Postmodern painters have come to approach our work. His work is a wellspring of contentious ideas and unconventional solutions. Yes, we all know the influence of Warhol in our time, mainly because his work is accessibly beautiful, institutionally accepted, ubiquitous. But it’s harder to actually see Picabia. He never once made accessible, beautiful paintings and when he thought he had, he moved on to something else fairly quickly. You have to really work to get his vision, to see through its complexity, its deliberate clumsiness, to the sharp, hard, visual ideas he was working with.
Francis Picabia, “Self Portrait.” Oil on Canvas,1940.
The late works are the most problematic for historians. These are the paintings based on cheesy nudes, media heroes and Spanish ladies. They are all about the seductive structures of Popular culture, the false Classicism of kitsch, the easy access of ersatz history. In other words they are about the Modern media world and its casual exploitation of power, youth and beauty. My favorite of these works is a 1940 collage of painted images cobbled together from a couple of bathing beauty magazine photos and a “movie star” self-portrait of a tanned and self-satisfied middle aged man with wild hair, Picabia, slyly grinning. All done from photos, all painted with a thick hand trying to stay close to the media reality of the images. Yet nothing sits easily in the space of the painting. He has overcrowded the imagery, just as he had done years before with the Cacodylic Eye. It is not a collage like Picasso’s, who would leave the spaces open and free, framing the pieces into a narrative. Instead, this is an interior language of imagery, one that feels closer to disparate thoughts. It prefigures the the way we mix our own images and meanings today, the way that we “photoshop” our own lives through the reality of media. In fact this is the way that we ourselves become media. In the 21st Century we don’t have to think about the way this painting works. This kind of reality is how we live, the way that we casually experience our lives. Picabia saw this coming reality in the movie posters and magazine advertisements of his day. He understood, better than any artists of the time, the abstracting processes and imagistic power of Modern culture itself.
Dada didn’t last long really. It began just before the war, went dorment during the fighting, and returned with a vengence for a few more years. And that’s the dirty secret about Dada. Beneath its cheeky anger made up of mustaches and monkeys, is the harsh reality of Modern warfare and politics, the horrible violence wrought by speed and mechanization. Dada itself was an art of viral consequences and like a virus it fed on the host body until both would be destroyed. For newly empowered Modernists these upstarts were the virulent strain that had to be cured. And eventually, they were cured – with money, respectability and legitimacy. As Picabia wrote, “Dada retreated into itself.” For him, the most acerbic and difficult contrarian among the Dadaists, there would be no Modern cure. Picabia understood that the institution meant destruction, that the virulence of the disease once weakened becomes an antibody, a helpful and socialized cure. So, he became a kind of mutated germ and spent his time sending up every received notion of Art that he could find. He lived his life in exactly the same way, going through friends, colleagues and lovers like a plague. He continued to paint without the official sanction of the Modern Art World, continued to confound and tweak. I wonder how he would feel about the fact that his ideas had infected later generations of painters, had mutated into an institutional strain of critique. I wonder how he would feel about a Postmodern artist using his ideas to advance a career while claiming that this work is “Classical.” I’d like to think he’d have been appalled.
Don’t spit indeed.