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'Everything for today, nothing for yesterday, nothing for tomorrow.'
There is a case to be made that Francis Picabia was the most original and influential artist of the Twentieth Century. A self-proclaimed legend in his own lifetime, this maverick individualist, best-known for the energizing spirit with which he infected both the Dada and Surrealist movements, involved himself with almost every "-ism" of his age from Impressionism to Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism and beyond. In addition, his work both anticipates and casts a shadow over developments in painting such as Pop Art and Post-Modernism, that took place long after his death. While many of these movements often claim Picabia as one of their own, he, in both his life and his art, still transcends all attempts at categorization or definition.
A self-declared nihilist, who followed closely Nietzsche's creative and evolutionary belief that man should strive to become the fullest expression of what he is, Picabia was fiercely individualistic - a man who both welcomed and revelled in the paradoxes of life. 'One must be a nomad,' he said, 'go through ideas as through lands and cities, eat parakeets and humming birds, devour living marmosets, suck the blood out of giraffes and feed on panther's feet'. In other words, the purpose for the individual, Picabia believed, was to open oneself completely to all the extraordinary richness of life and to keep moving along with it, forever changing with the fleeting vitality of present circumstance. 'If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as your shirts', he asserted. 'Morality is the backbone of imbeciles', 'a conviction is a disease', 'taste is as tiring as good company', 'there is only one way to save your life: sacrifice your reputation.' Picabia was not only full of such aphorisms; he lived and worked by them.
During an extraordinary artistic career Picabia raced through one contemporary style after another, mastering Impressionism and Divisionism at an early age before inventing a new emotive Cubo-Futurism and then moving swiftly on to create a mocking machine aesthetic drawn from the world of advertising. This pre-Warholian merging of the worlds of mass media and inner desire seemed, alongside Duchamp's works, to form the essence of New York Dada in its slick war-time satirizing of human sexuality as little more than base mechanics. Excelling as a Dadaist, poet, philosopher and sophisticated anti-moralist, Picabia embodied the irreverent, boundary-less, trans-national spirit of Dada, playing, almost simultaneously, it must have seemed, a key role in the movement's development in New York, Barcelona, Zurich and Paris in and around the years of the First World War. Picabia's complete integration of artistic attitude and aesthetic with the way he lived his life and his apparently inbuilt disdain for all convention and moral authority not only made him the doyenne of radicals and rebels like the Parisian Surrealists, but also set a Rauschenbergian example about the open nature of art and life and their seemingly infinite potential.
Despite his lasting association with Dada, Picabia was in fact a member of the Parisian group for only a few months before the corporate nature of its spirit compelled him to leave. Born the son of a Spanish-Cuban diplomat and a French mother, the restless spirit of independence was simply too fierce in him to subordinate himself to any group, collective or ideal. Even family ties could not hold him for long. Allied to this was an intrinsic curiosity for the new, the revelatory and the absurd, a phenomenon that he, as a nihilist, defined as the 'extraordinary'- the single life-affirming quality of existence that should, he maintained, always be pursued. 'We must create by ourselves... the extraordinary; the extraordinary can be compared only to the person painting, since the extraordinary is far from the common, from the vulgar or the banal; so what we are painting with the automatism of becoming is no longer just the eternal deformation, the eternal imperfection. As an aesthetic phenomenon, existence is unbearable. But through art, the extraordinary offers us a rest from life, and it is this projection that gives us a rest from our own selves. We must therefore rejoice in our madness, which hides the passion for the extraordinary. The extraordinary is always joyous, and a long way from our sensibleness' (Francis Picabia quoted in A. Jouffrey, Picabia, Paris, 2002, pp. 11-12).
In the early 1920s, after gaining complete independence when he received a large inheritance, Picabia took his natural pursuit of the joyous and the extraordinary to new heights. Already an outcast from Breton's fledgling but increasingly puritanical Surrealist group, Picabia continued his independent artistic path developing an increasingly personal and almost impenetrable way of painting that, for a time, led to his gaining new reputation as an anti-modernist, though this period is now regarded as one of the first manifestations of a Post-modernist aesthetic. Proposing a new path of perpetual evolution, which he announced as 'Instantaneism' Picabia embraced, to some extent, the pervasive classicism of the 1920s 'return to order' and, ensconcing himself in a luxurious chateau in the South of France, continued to work intensely, changing artistic styles as easily and as often as he changed either his women or his motor cars. He is thought to have owned over one hundred and fifty cars during his lifetime.
Emerging from the bizarre carnivalesque apparitions of his multiple-featured Monster paintings, Picabia began to appropriate the style and subject matter of the ancient past, drawing on Catalan frescoes, Greek mythology and Italian Renaissance imagery and layering these images over one another in a long-running and film-like series of works known as the 'Transparencies'. These developed a personal language of form and an impulsive and intuitive way of working that engendered a simultaneity of experience and imagery which foreshadows the hallucinatory experiments with layered and multiple imagery of Sigmar Polke.
In the 1930s era of propaganda, idealism and kitsch, Picabia, too, began to create a series of increasingly banal images. These culminated at the end of the decade and in the early 1940s with an extraordinarily kitsch series of paintings based on Paris magazine covers and executed in a sterile and nondescript painterly style later adopted by Post-Modern artists such as David Salle or Martin Kippenberger. These knowingly cheap portraits and bland every-day nudes, drawn from titillating popular magazines or postcards, appear, like the covers of pulp novels, to trash the lofty ideals of high art and for a long time earned Picabia the reputation of a washed-up artist whose sad demise had finally descended into kitsch. Now seen in retrospect against the dominant cultural styles of the late 1930s - the sterility of Stalinist realism, the Puritanism of geometric constructivism, the decadent fantasia of late Surrealism and the predictable kitsch of Fascism - these overt and deliberately bland paintings seem to display an energizing sense of irony that anticipates the slick, hip and dispassionate objectivity of 1960s Pop.
Throughout the war and the Occupation, Picabia remained in the South of France, where his lofty individualism, complete disinterest in all matters of politics and his refusal to let external events dictate the manner in which he conducted his personal life, again gained him another unwarranted reputation - this time as a collaborator. Though in fact he had helped friends to hide from the authorities, his inability to condemn either the Nazis or the Vichy government led, at the end of the war to a brief period of imprisonment, but when no charges could be brought against him he was released.
The extraordinary pace and variety of Picabia's creative evolution did not abate with these changes, however. In the post-war era, Picabia's art evolved into a new kind of abstraction that with typical perversity he dubbed, 'psychic non-figuration'. Seemingly straddling the worlds of figuration and abstraction at a time when the debate between these two styles was a fiercely political one, Picabia was again to find his quirky individualism transcending the artistic orthodoxies of the time. This bizarre series of works still remains largely impenetrable today, but, like so much of Picabia's work, its uniqueness and its authorship are undeniable. 'We are not responsible for what we do' Picabia once said. 'We are ignorant of our acts until we accomplish them.'
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