“Away with form! Out with perspective! Down with all effort toward materialization!” Picabia declared in an interview with Henry Tyrell, soon after arriving in New York in January 1913 to attend the Armory Show. “Make way for the rhythm of impulse, the tonality of emotion, the equilibriumized expression of the inevitable” (published in World Magazine, 9 February 1913; in M.L. Borràs, op. cit., 1985, p. 106).
Animation, painted in Paris little more than a year later, fulfills all these avowed criteria for the new kind of painting Picabia had in mind, and began to practice during his revelatory stay in New York. While one may relate the elements in this watercolor to various instances or sources of visual experience, there is nowhere to be seen a representation of anything that is recognizably material, only the artist’s sensation of such things, not as directly perceived, but as he experienced them subjectively—emotionally, most forcefully—in his memory and imagination.
Among works of this period, Animation represents an astonishingly vital conception of metamorphosis and kinesis, perhaps unsurpassed in any other watercolor by this artist. Animation moreover stands out among them as a consummate tour-de-force of precise, unerring technique in this un-retouchable fluid medium.
For formal comparison, one must turn instead to the large, concurrent oil paintings Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie and Mariage comique, which represent the ultimate flowering in Picabia’s art prior to the beginning of the First World War (Camfield, et al., vol. 1, nos. 489 and 490). “Picabia produced some of his finest work in his career,” William Camfield stated, “while modern art in the cultural center of the western world was at the peak of its energy” (op. cit., 1979, p. 57). This dynamic intensity is manifest everywhere throughout the watercolor Animation.
During 1913-1914, Picabia moved beyond the Cubist fixation on conceptually dissecting the “realism of the object,” and into a realm that Picasso and Braque, even in their most daringly hermetic, analytical phase, declined to investigate, refusing to have anything to with the new manner of “pure painting”—art-making that made no discernible reference to the world of physical appearance. Like Delaunay, Kupka, Léger, and especially his close friend Duchamp, Picabia was feeling his way toward abstraction. Apollinaire had dubbed this circle the Orphist painters, after the great lyric poet, musician, and prophet of ancient mythology.
Notoriously indulgent in his ardor for women and fast cars, Picabia’s approach was the most convulsively impassioned, even hell-bent, of them all. “Baudelairean modernity, with all of its subjective avatars—intoxication, vertigo, oblivion, diversion, distraction, physical pleasure—would form the world, the constant tropes, of Picabia’s own modernity,” George Baker has written. “The experience of the modern occasions an incessant triggering of subjective excess; modernity can only be portrayed as a perpetual motion machine” (Francis Picabia, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2016, p. 44).
Duchamp provided a potent catalyst for the Orphist impetus in Picabia’s work with the gift he made to his colleague of the painting La Mariée, which he painted alongside Le passage de la vièrge à la mariée in Munich during July-August 1912 (Schwarz, nos. 253 and 252, respectively). Duchamp claimed to have experienced in La Mariée his “complete liberation…expressed by the juxtaposition of mechanical and visceral elements”; the artist knew he had “embarked upon an adventure which was no more tributary of already existing schools” (quoted in Marcel Duchamp, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1973, p. 263). Duchamp transmuted evocative but ambiguous forms one into another, conjuring—between volume and void—states of perpetual passage and becoming, as the mind perceives the world and itself.
In a similar manner, Picabia responded to New York the following year. “The spirit of New York is so elusive, so magnificent and so tremendously atmospheric—while the city itself is so concrete,” the artist stated in interview. “Your New York is the Cubist, Futurist city; with its architecture, its life, its spirit, it expresses modern thought. I do not paint all those things my eyes see, I paint what is seen in my spirit, by my brain...My brain records the impression of every moment…I capture these impressions without any hurry to transfer them to the canvas. I let them rest in my brain and then, when I am visited by the spirit of creation, I improvise my painting just as a musician improvises his music…On my return to Paris I will capture on canvas the Post-Cubist qualities of your New York…I have passed utterly beyond the boundaries of the material and that is why there is nothing material in my studies of New York…Art must be pure” (“How I See New York” in New York American, 30 March 1913; quoted in M.L. Borràs, op. cit., 1985, pp. 110 and 111).
“The objective representation of nature through which the painter used to express the mysterious feelings of his ego when faced with this subject or ‘motive’ can no longer embrace the fullness of his new consciousness of nature,” Picabia wrote in the catalogue preface for his exhibition at Stieglitz’s Little Gallery (“291”) in March 1913. “The qualitative conception of reality can no longer be expressed in a purely visual or optical manner…The resulting manifestations of this state of mind, which increasingly approaches abstraction, cannot themselves be anything but abstraction…This new expression in painting is ‘the objectivity of a subjectivity’” (ibid., pp. 109 and 110).
Animation abjures any sense of spatial orientation or specificity of context. Freed from the force of gravity, the surging, undulant forms amalgamate in a tumultuous mass, seeking out affinities amongst themselves, by way of sensuously fluid harmonization or abrupt, hard contrast. That which is “elusive” and “atmospheric” contends with the “concrete”, as Picabia described the realities of cosmopolitan living, then in Paris as he had earlier experienced them in New York.
Picabia intended to show Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie and Mariage comique at the 1914 Salon d’Automne; the German advance toward Paris, however, caused the cancellation of this annual exhibition. The paintings were instead premiered the following year at the Little Gallery (“291”) in New York. Suffering from neurasthenia, Picabia spent most of the war in New York and Barcelona. By the time he resumed working in Paris in 1919, the intoxicating spell of the pre-war years was a distant memory, and he was deeply immersed in his subsequent phase of Dadaist mechanomorphic production.
The Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, the most discerning among collectors in his circle, was an early owner of both Duchamp’s La Mariée and Picabia’s Animation, having acquired both works from Picabia. Éluard surely responded to the mysteriously lyrical, Orphist qualities manifest in each picture. Roland Penrose, a devotee of Surrealism and a close friend of Picasso and Éluard, acquired Animation when he purchased Éluard’s collection in 1938, reserving preferred works in the group for himself, while putting the rest into the stock of his London Gallery.