June 23, 2016

"Francis Picabia. A Retrospective" @ Kunsthaus Zürich

"Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction" said Francis Picabia in 1922, and change direction he did, over and over again throughout his long and productive career as a painter.  Born in Paris in 1879 to a French mother and a Spanish father, Francis Picabia's œuvre is a merry-go-round of artistic styles and expressions, always evolving and never boring.

As part of the on-going celebrations of the centennial of Dada, the Kunsthaus Zürich, in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, New York, is presenting "Francis Picabia.  A Retrospective".  As you have probably surmised, this exhibition of over 200 works is nothing if not varied.  From Picabia's early Impressionist canvases to his final point/dot paintings, visitors follow the thread from period to period as he constantly reinvented himself and confounded artistic classification.

"Effet de soleil sur les bords du Loing, Moret", 1906

This beautifully installed show looks at the man behind the paintings - the contradictory, nomadic genius who constantly changed his style as a protest against being an individual with established traits.  A painter first and foremost, Francis Picabia was also an active writer, poet, filmmaker and bon vivant, respected by his artistic peers from Marcel Duchamp to Alfred Stieglitz.

"Danses à la source [1]", 1912

Beside his obvious intelligence and creative talents, Picabia also had a gift for making money.  Far from a starving artist, he indulged his passions for motorcars and travel and had the luxury of being able to paint with abandon.  After his initial, and extremely lucrative, forays into Impressionism, Pointillism and Fauvism, he began to explore the more radical schools of Orphic Cubism (see above) and, of course, Dada, of which he was an early and staunch proponent.

"Prenez garde a la peinture [Watch out for Painting]", 1919

But almost as decisively as he embraced Dada he dropped it for Surrealism, becoming one of the pioneers of "installations" as art and exploring film as a medium to make the absurd a reality.  He portrayed Spanish Señoritas in his "Espagnoles" series, then collages, then monsters, always pushing the boundaries, always changing.  

 "Mardi Gras (Le Baiser)", 1924-26

During one phase he used the industrial enamel paint Ripolin on his canvases giving them the illusion of kinetic movement forty years before Op Art became the rage.

"Volucelle II", 1923

One of my favorite genres of Picabia's work are his "Transparences [Transparencies]".  Elegant and fascinating, he paints layer upon transparent layer giving the work countless possibilities, thematic but disjointed at the same time.

"Atrata", 1929

In 1933 his wife left him and he moved with his son and his long time mistress, who also happened to be his son's nanny, to a yacht on the Riviera.  This change in living arrangements caused yet another dramatic shift in style, this time to a more "Brutalist" manner - coarser, less idealistic and harbingers of World War II.

"La Révolution Espanole", 1937
Probably my least favorite phases of Picabia's work is his 1940s kitschy "bunny" paintings, also known as his "Realistic" period.  While his behavior during the war (not joining the Résistance, marrying a German woman) marked him as suspicious among his peers, the nature of his art earned him the label of degenerate by the Third Reich.

"Cinq femmes", 1941-43

Finally we come to the final chapter in the long and varied career of Francis Picabia.  In what can almost be considered a return to his Dada roots, Picabia turned back to targets, spirals, circles and dots, themes of his Dada works and symbols of eternity.  Through these works, "Picadada", as he was nicknamed, influenced the generation of neo-Dadaists, artists, like Lucas Fontana and Yves Klein, who sought to attack and destroy art thereby making it new again. 

"Haschich [Hashish]", 1948

In 1923, Francis Picabia was quoted as saying "Each artist is a mold.  I aspire to be many.  One day I'd like to write on the wall of my house:  Artist in many genres".  I think you will agree, he was successful in that quest.

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