"Francis Picabia, Singulier idéal"
@ the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville Paris
by Joseph Nechvatal
The almost splendid retrospective exhibit "Francis Picabia, Singulier idéal"
just opened at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville Paris. This is the first
presentation of Francis Picabia's oeuvre in Paris since the Grand Palais
retrospective of 1976. Picabia (1879-1953), of course, was principally a
jocund painter - but he also was a poet (in 1918 he published a book of
poems and drawings entitled "Poèmes et dessins de la fille née sans mère"
("Poems and drawings of the girl born without a mother")), pamphleteer,
enfant terrible, and avant-garde publisher of such reviews as 391 and
Picabia (born François Marie Martinez Picabia) became friendly with
Guillaume Apollinaire and Marcel Duchamp, associated with the artistic group
which met in Jacques Villon's studio in the village of Puteaux in 1911-12,
and later (1918) was allied with the Zürich Dadaists, specifically
associating with Tristan Tzara. 1915 saw the emergence of Picabia’s
machinist period when he discovered industrial design as a pictorial source.
See for example the painting in the show from The Peggy Guggenheim
Collection, Venice called "Très rare tableau sur la terre" ("Very Rare
Painting on the Earth") (1915).
Picabia eventually blended this machinist aesthetic with representations of
the human body, creating his significant auto-erotic (and dea ex machina)
mechanomorphic period - the strongest work in the show. By this artistic
amalgamation, prevailing cyber-sensations were admirably hypothesized in
advance. Indeed, one immediately thinks of the contemporary paintings of
Gerwald Rockenschaub, with their hard-edge metallic geometric renderings of
computer scenes and/or creatures. Yes, through Picabia we may trace the
movement from mechanomorphic art into infomorphic art.
Painting in a dry but radiant, even combustible, style (for example in the
painting "Parade amoureuse" (Love Parade) (1918)) Picabia raises the issue
of a bottomless contemporary dilemma - the interface/dialectic between body
and machine. If in cyberspace our ontologies are adrift vis-a-vis how
personal subjectivity was once understood, Picabia's central idea in "Parade
amoureuse" leads us right up to that slippery elocution between mechanical
embodiment and subjectivity - between physical embodiment and machine
assistance/circumvention - where we viractually teeter this very moment.
Undoubtedly, with the Dada mechanomorphic period Picabia illustrates nicely
our spatialized digital paradigm by mixing implied bodies with mechanical
schematics. Here the cyborg body receives an ecstatic capability through the
repetitions of machinery. Of course what "disappears" or is "disembodied" is
not the material body but an abstract notion of the self. This
de-presentation is followed by a reconstruction of embodiment into what is
now commonly known as the posthuman condition.
But after viewing at length "Francis Picabia, Singulier idéal" one wonders;
should belief in the body’s semi-obsolescence as depicted in the
mechanomorphic period be theorized as an expression of narcissistic
cybernetic post-flesh - or, rather, as a refusal of technocratic control in
that the intractability of the body would no longer be so central an issue?
Still not sure, but what we recognize in his mechanomorphic paintings is
that by entering into the repetitions of the machine the subject may fuse
into gyrating repeats in a complex and cryptic way. Here flesh is no longer
the grounds for subjectivity. At the same time the subject is licensed
through a décadent extension into self-motorized possession as the subject
achieves disembodiment within high technology. Persuasive simulated worlds
can exist for us as "real" because we can perceive them through the
techno-apparatus of our body spliced into the cybernetic circuit. I
understand this anti-materialist lurch towards liberty in terms of
self-transcendent race and gender collapse.
Even without citing the efficacious theoretical influence of Donna Haraway's
cyborg-theory, the depictions of post-flesh in "Parade amoureuse" and
"Magneto anglaise" (English Magnet) (1922) seem to courageously facilitate
an inebriated subjectivity by constructing an imaginative space of
accommodation for an intensely onanistic existence. Here flamboyant
self-reliant relationships between the protoplasmic body-image and mechanic
spatial conceptions are visualized as self-prosthesis. This makes Picabia’s
mechanomorphic avant-garde period impressive in philosophical terms, as
fairly recent contemporary thought has been concerned with the
poststructuralist deliberation on the notion of the subject in order to
question - and unlasso - its traditionally privileged epistemological
status. Particularly in respect to the techno realm there has been a
sustained effort to question the role of the subject as the intending and
knowing autonomous creator - as coherent originator. Again, Picabia’s
mechanomorphic period informs us here. In fact, for me, this period of his
work has become emblematic of this rigorously scrutinizing of the subject
which Jacques Derrida has described as ‘logocentrism’: the once held
distinctions between subjectivity and objectivity; between public and
private; between fantasy and reality; and between the unconscious and the
Today we understand that these distinctions are breaking down under the
pressure of our speeding and omnipresent computer communications network
technologies. We are now part of an automated technologically hallucinogenic
culture that functions along the lines of a dream, free from some of the
classical strictures of time and space; free from some of our traditional
earthly limits which have been broken down by the instantaneous nature of
electronic communications (particularly with its crown jewel, immersive
virtual reality). The modernist existential concept of the singular
individual has been supplanted by the electronic-aided individual, in a way
liberating the body from linear time and vaporously placing it in a
technologically stored eternity (simulacrum-hyperreality). This quality of
phantasmagorical and perverse displacement has for some signified a
tightening spiral which formulates a new vision of existence - a vision
which Jean Baudrillard has called ‘pornographic’.
But too, I think that what interests me in the mechanomorphic Picabia as
harbinger was his connection to Raymond Roussel's mechanical line of thought
(in 1912 Picabia, along with Duchamp and Appollinaire, attended a
performance of Roussel's play "Impressions of Africa"). With them, it seems
to me the post-bachelor machine was already there, waiting for Deleuze and
Guattari to hook it up to the body-without-organs, to plug it into the logic
of the desiring machine so as to achieve a calculated interconnectivity with
the infoworld through schizo-capitalism. Yes, Raymond Roussel too because
in his work he invents crazy machines that produced ecstatic results through
the use of repetitions and combination/permutations. An obsessional
machine-like logic provided his art with a seemingly pure spectacle of
endless variety of textual games and combinations flowing in circular form.
I see this trend in the Dada mechanomorphic Picabia also.
I think that Roussel relates to Picabia’s search for a self-machine-location
beyond genital-identification because Roussel's themes and procedures
involved cryptograms and torture by language - all formally reflected in his
working technique with their inextricable play of double images,
repetitions, and impediments; all giving the impression of the pen running
on by itself through the dreamy usage and baroque play of mirrored form.
Picabia’s mechanomorphic technique and the process he developed also lends
itself well to the creation of unforeseen, automatic and spontaneously
inventive movements which give me the feeling of prolonging action into
eternity through the ceaseless, fantastic constructions of the work itself,
transmitting an altered, exalted and orgasmic state of mind which after the
initial dazzling creates one predominant overall effect - that of creating
doubt through mechanical discourse.
Also, like Roussel, the image of mechanic enclosure is common with Picabia
in his Dada mechanomorphic period where a secret to a secret is held back,
systematically imposing a formless anxiety through the labryrinthian
extensions and doublings, disguises and duplications, which makes vision
undergo a moment of annihilation. For me, Picabia presents to us the model
of silent perfection of the eternally repetitive mechanical machine, which
functions independently of time and space - pulling us with the artist into
a logic of the infinite. Yea - Picabia is the mastermachine because his
mechanomorphic human-machines map out a mental infospace which is circular
in nature and thus an abstract attempt at eliminating time.
In Picabia’s mechanomorphic period the body - through a dismemberment of
traditional narrative subjectivity - is undone by a proscribed clamor it
cannot contain. Here trans-crystalline notions of the self reflect the
formational effect of webbed high technology. Here the kind of top-down
logic (with which we are all too familiar) is opposed by an intricate
interplay of complexity. There is no Debordian spectacular society where all
people are advertisements for the status quo portrayed here. Rather, Picabia
traces the tensions between human narrative and the mechanical spectacle.
Thus Picabia is the mythic oracle pointing us to an indeterminate but
artistic resolution between the two competing categories of being today –
the mechanic and the organic. For Picabia, mechanical penetration achieves
and performs direct bodily engagement. The subject's existence is enhanced
by his/her disappearance into technology-induced realms. The body's
dissolution may be empowering then.
But is Picabia just being Dada disingenuous by proposing this posture? Given
the period’s death, or explanation of, the mythic Father/God - alongside the
enduring wish of Western modern thought to trundle exterior reality - I
think not. Here, in the mechanomorphic operation, the paradoxically
simultaneous experiences of death and immortality that is fundamental to
Western religious practice is laid bare. Having explained God, Picabia
creates a post-flesh art by virtue of a relocation of
body/machine/consciousness. Actually, Picabia seems to address here how
technological consciousness infects people like a virus. That such a
semi-programmed Dada philosophy engages our contemporary fixations today is
not remarkable. All told, Picabia remains quite formidable in his versatile
span; a span which leaves many current cultural producers looking dismally
"Francis Picabia, Singulier idéal"
Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville Paris
November 16th, 2002 – March 16th, 2003
11, Ave du President Wilson