Wednesday, December 17, 2008



Caught By The Tail: Francis Picabia and Dada in Paris by George Baker
(MIT Press, 2007)


I Am A Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose and Provocations by Francis Picabia, translated by Marc Lowenthal
(MIT Press, 2007)

“’This portrait is about me,’ he claims, collapsing the genre of the portrait with a ‘mechanical object floating in an empty space without context, a stunning marriage of the impersonality of the drawing’s production to the lack of personality to which the portrait can now attest. But Picabia is not finished. ‘Le Saint des saints,’ he inscribes it: the saint of saints, the holy of holies, ‘this portrait is about me.’”(31)

And so opens chapter 1 of Caught By The Tail, one of two books released by MIT press on Francis Picabia, enfant terrible -- or, at least, one of them -- of the Dadaist movement. The first, Caught By The Tail, and the second, I Am A Beautiful Monster, demand to be read together as each touches on only one aspect of this master; the first on his non-poetic side and the second on the poetic. In addition, Caught By The Tail provides an overview of the Dadaist movement during its Paris years with such chapters bearing such subtitles as Dada Drawing, Dada Painting, Dada Photography, Dada Abstraction and Dada Cinema with an Epilogue bearing the title ‘Long Live Dada: A Dada Montage’ and, as such, should be read/discussed first.

But first, a bit of bio. Francis-Marie Martinez Picabia (January 22, 1879 - November 30, 1953) was born in Paris of a French mother and a Spanish-Cuban father. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and the École des Arts Decoratifs. The year 1911 proved pivotal for him for it was in that year that he became involved with the Puteaux Group which met at Jacques Villon’s studio in the village of Puteaux. There he became acquainted with Marcel Duchamp as well as several prominent Cubist artists and poets including Apollinaire, Albert Gleizes, Roger de La Fresnaye, Fernand Léger and Jean Metzinger. The introduction to Caught By The Tail concerns this period. In what has come to be characterized as his ‘proto-Dada’ period, from 1913 to 1915, he traveled to New York several times developing his portraits mécaniques. This led, in 1916, while he was in Barcelona, to his starting the Dada periodical 391, in which he published his first mechanical drawings. Around 1919, he became involved with Tristan Tzara at the Café Voltaire in Zurich moving back-and-forth between there and Paris. Shortly thereafter, he came under the sway of Surrealism abandoning Dada for it.

The Le saint des saints drawing referred to in the opening quotation was created in 1915. This formed part of his ‘portraits mécaniques’ and was created while Picabia was in New York. In 1920, Le saint des saints was exhibited in a one-man show in Paris “organized as part of the initial onslaught of Dada in Paris.”(33) As part of this onslaught, Picabia introduced in his publication, 391, another drawing, La Sainte-Vierge or The Blessed Virgin, consisting “of an accumulation of splashes, or better violent drippings of ink on a white sheet of paper…seem[ing] to have very little to do with Picabia’s earlier mechanomorphic images, given over as the latter are to the impersonal artistic language of mechanical drawing, and to the readymade condition of the copy…take[s] its place alongside a host of other Dada experiments with chance procedures, its technique every bit as impersonal -- as violent toward authorship -- as Picabia’s earlier appropriated images.”(33) This quote expresses one of the important ‘technical’ influences of Dada -- chance technique -- which would come to influence the art and writings of John Cage and the poetry of Jackson Mac Low as well as the New York School of John Ashbery and Frank O’hara. After discussing various interpretations of this ink smear by various art historians, Baker makes a very important artistic statement: “Art history seems to have forgotten that Dada was not entirely interested in discovering the meaning of works of art. Meaningless was its goal. Iconography, even ‘hidden’ or secret meanings, were surely invoked by many Dada works. But usually this was done in the spirit of travesty, a devastating annihilation of the apparatus of meaning that had always supported the traditional work of art. Perhaps the time had come for the deployment of another interpretative model. And indeed we could start with the simple suggestion that Picabia’s La Sainte-Vierge is not an image ‘of’ anything at all.”(39) This sentiment seems to have been in the air in other arts as it was around this time that Stravinsky, in a speech at Princeton University, declared music to be devoid of meaning. But Picabia didn’t stop there; from nothing, he created another nothing, as Baker continues, p. 40: “One could never pastiche La Sainte-Vierge, divorced from the hand of the artist and thus purges of any traces of what we might call ‘style,’ one could only follow Picabia’s procedure, producing other Saint-Vierge, itself inimitable in turn. Picabia would do this.” And thus -- La Saint-Vierge II (see p. 41) Thus, Dada came to Paris in 1920 in the form of drawing. Of this period, Baker says “I like to think of several moments of the 1920 Paris Dada season as defining its paradoxical ‘greatness’, as defining, that is, the coiled energies that fuelled Dada’s inevitable failure.”(56) -- one of these moments being the arrival of Tristan Tzara in Paris announced by a ‘reading of his poetry’ “in a popular cinema on the Rue St. Martin”(56) where arrangements had been made that, immediately upon Tzara beginning to read, André Breton and Louis Aragon, who had been waiting in the wings as prearranged, began ringing electric bells preventing anyone from hearing a single word. In concluding this chapter, Baker describes the accomplishments of the Paris Dada period as “meaning would be confronted with nonmeaning, life with death, and discourse with the immense void of silence. Such was the logic of the limit. As a word, as a signifier, ‘silence’ itself could be considered ‘sacrificial’.”(91) We have been shown how this applies to Picabia’s visual art. We will later examine whether this can be applied to his poetic art.

The year 1921 takes us to chapter 2 and to Dada Painting, it takes us to Picabia breaking away from the Paris Dada Group even as he evokes it using a collage technique to gather all the faces of the principals together -- but not their bodies; it’s as if he’s leaving the bodies behind, the faces soon to become the memories of those he once worked with and was inspired by -- and he’s doing this in the collage and photomontage he titled L’oeil cacodylate. Baker says of this:
Instead, L’oeil cacodylate was a collective work, a gesture that insisted on the group; but it was made just as Picabia ceded publicly from the Paris Dada group in the summer of 1921, becoming, in effect, the first and most important ‘dissident Dadaist.’ None of Dada’s central tactics, Picabia’s prior tactics, seems to prevail anymore in 1921: chance, readymade, diagram, mechanical drawing. Stylistic inconsistency rubs hands with medium incoherence, suspending the object between text, photographic and painting,. Seemingly, the work’s inconsistencies know no bounds.(97)

Prior to breaking away, Picabia, thinking that perhaps a live monkey would cause too much controversy, attended at a toy store to purchase a stuffed one and pasted it to a canvas calling it Nature mortes thereby inaugurating what would become know as Dada painting.
In Nature mortes, Picabia presents a readymade but, typically, insists on attaching the object to a canvas surface, forging an indissoluble link between the readymade and painting, a bond that somehow resists easy resolution into the category of collage, just as it does not quite enter the free standing object domain of sculpture (a step definitively taken by Duchamp’s readymades). Duchamp’s insistence that the readymade emerges only as the product of a collision between a chosen commodity object and, just as important, a verbal inscription -- their ‘rendezvous’ as he might have put it -- this was followed by Picabia.(sic) But Picabia’s readymade stubbornly clings to the domain of painting -- a domain whose certainties and conventions, however, now find themselves brutally eviscerated.(101)

After discussing the importance of this, as well as that of Tableau Dada II and Duchamp`s reproduction of the Mona Lisa, replicated this time with a moustache and goatee, Baker looks to the analogy between the visual and the written:
Learning from Natures mortes and L.H.O.O.Q., a Tableau Dada necessarily engaged the question of language -- but language turned against itself, the twisted language of the pun. It reconfigured the status of the mark -- of writing, of drawing -- as a form of the graffito, striking with violence against the proprieties of representation. It enacted a thematics of castration -- suggested, in the closely squeezed legs of Picabia`s monkey; denied, in the presence of Duchamp`s phallic Mother; and redoubled, in Picabia`s erasure of L.H.O.O.Q.`s facial goatee or tail.(109-11)

Baker then takes the reader through a discussion of Jean-Joseph Goux’s concept of general equivalents which Baker defines as “represent[ing] a standard measure – that object against which others are compared, making disparate things commensurable, rendering them in some sense equal, opening up the question of an ordered system of substitutions or exchange, and with that, the correlative question of value.”(111) Baker goes on to examine how this relates to Dada, then introduces the fact that money has been separated from the gold standard resulting in a crisis which “parallels a concurrent series of other representational crises: the contestation of realism in the novel, the relinquishment of figuration in painting, and Saussure’s momentous severing of linguistic signs from their referents in the real world.”(126) The result: “the disentwining of the functions of the general equivalent in modernity”(126) and resulting in the creation of the token. Finally, after a lengthy discussion lasting several pages, he arrives at the applicability of this analysis to Picabia and his work: “These words could have been written directly for Picabia, for the critique of painting that his Natures mortes conveys, or for the vast, repetitive system of parody and pastiche that his work would later enact. In the wake of Dada, Picabia’s lifelong dedication to the copy, his initiation of an aesthetic system of perpetual parodic acts, embraces the mimetic copy only in its absolute bankruptcy a bankruptcy in the face of the unrepresentable nature of the token sign, but also, one realizes, a bankruptcy on which the token sign will be founded.”(129) Later that same year, Picabia signed his name proclaiming that act to be itself a readymade. “Reduced in this way to language, the work of art assimilates itself to a function of the genral (sic) equivalent just as much as those Dada works that embraced the forms of monetary economy -- language being the general equivalent of signs as money is the general equivalent of products.”(139) Feigning an inability to paint due to an eye infection, Picabia refused to participate in the ‘Grande Saison Dada’ of 1921 -- perhaps because of the presence of the Surrealists Breton and Aragon who were just beginning to make their presence felt -- and, instead, invited a select group of friends to his apartment to view his paintings.

Photography has been a part of Dada since its inception. After all, during the period when Dada was in New York, Alfred Stieglitz’s studio was used as a gathering spot. But, in discussing Dada photography in his third chapter, Baker focuses primarily on the Dadaphoto as seen in the April 1921 publication New York Dada. While continuing with his theme of the connection between language and the visual arts, he begins to embellish on his discussion of Lacanian analysis which he had started briefly earlier. Rather than on Picabia, this chapter focuses on the relationship between the American dadaist Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. Using the nude photo of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, he attempts to refute the charge that Dada was misogynistic although he is not altogether successful particularly when one of the photographs under discussion is Man Ray’s Portmanteau which features a nude model, masked and with one black stocking on standing behind a coat rack which divides her sex.

Prolem Sine Matre Creatam: Dada Abstraction’ returns us to Picabia proper examining various artworks including La Veuve Joyeuse (The Merry Widow) and Chapeau de Paille? (Straw Hat?), both from 1921. Baker describes this period: “And similarly, Picabia’s formerly ‘poetic’ verbal inscriptions become less a series of lines of flight than an assault and a graffiti once more, the open-ended ‘M…..’ calling up inevitably the Dadaists’ favorite exclamation: Merde. Shit for whomever looks at this! Or better: Fuck anyone who looks at this.”(208) Picabia’s move to abstraction signalled, in the eyes of the Picabia scholar Maria Lluisa Borràs, the end of Dada. The eve of this ending was signalled by Picabia travelling with Andre Breton to Barcelona in August 1922 for one of the most important Dada exhibitions, Baker characterizing it as “the Barcelona show was deeply representative of what Dada means…, part and parcel of a movement that was never more powerful than when it was in full flight, or when it was devolving into absolute disintegration. Dada was a complete success in just those moments when it could only be judged a total failure.”(214)

An important development in Picabia’s oeuvre, and for poetry in general, took place during the creation of the last of the mechanomorphs around 1922. “All of the last mechanomorphic titles, in fact, were seized on readymade from captions, taken directly from the explanatory labels affixed to photographs and diagrams in the magazine La Science et la Vie. They were readymade captions. But now, the images that they so clearly identified could not be seen as such. They were captions pinned hopelessly to abstractions, disassociated phrases attached to still potent enigmas whose source had now been flipped away from the verbal and into the operations of visual form itself.”(230)

Baker concludes this chapter with an examination of the drawings from late 1922 through 1924 where “the last mechanomorphs marry abstract form to the part object”(268) -- Optophone, Lampe which are “an embrace of the figurative-as-pastiche that soon left any concern with abstraction far behind.”(271) These incredible pieces “at their most bold…violated the neo-classical body of post-war French art with the hallucinogenic, pornographic intensity of a 1924 drawing such as Érotique, a vision worthy of Bosch, with the stark bodily contour of a renewed figurative line doing nothing to stem the tide of transformations initiated by the part object to which this line nevertheless attempts to give form, and from which it takes the modality of its form.”(271)

A short way into the chapter ‘Intermission: Dada Cinema’, the ‘intermission part assumed from the film made by Picabia, Eric Satie and René Clair in 1924 titled Entr’acte, Baker states that “Dada’s origins lie in an engagement with performance and theatre, from the moment that the first Dadaists coalesced in 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire in Switzerland. Paris Dada, in its own way, intensified this theatrical origin.”(292) Baker, in this chapter, concentrates on descriptions of the film which he does exceedingly well including various stills to emphasize his points. The film has numerous reversals with “shots that are simply ordered backward in relation to a standard pattern of narrative ending.”(315) The “crucial lesson to be learned”, he says, is that by “simply reversing standard shot order, meaning is not merely sapped or voided. A whole new series of connections comes into play, connections usually repressed by narrative causality.” He elaborates on these connections on p. 318: “Yes, an order of representation here is targeted; and yes, its annihilation proceeds as if from within, via the upending and sheer reversal of that order’s conventional symbolic structures. However, in this upending, the cuts between scenes in Entr’acte may at first not appear ’logical’ or motivated by the conventions of storytelling, but they weave a vast tapestry of interconnections nonetheless, a series of exchanges and comparisons whose overall effect is one of a general symbolic contagion.” Baker cites Walter Benjamin’s response to Dada cinema as well as to Picabia’s poetry, Benjamin calling Picabia an “artist of correspondences” and, as a result thereof, Baker states, at p. 320-21, that:
The Symbolist heritage of the ‘correspondences’ survives in Picabia’s work, no matter art history’s long insistence that Symbolist aesthetics were precisely targeted by Dada as an avant-garde, like the perfume of so many vibrant flowers falling before the aggressive petrol stench of the machine. But instead of seeing this heritage liquidated in the moment of Dada as an avant-garde, one might suggest that ideas such as ‘correspondence’ were only radicalized by artists like Picabia – transformed beyond recognition, but not relinquished.

And so Baker, following Dada Cinema, prepares to silence himself. But in the process of speaking, he has said a great deal leaving us with a much better understanding of Dada and Francis Picabia. The discussions he has had throughout regarding the connections between Picabia’s language and his art have prepared us for Lowenthal’s translation. And so he passes on the torch so Lowenthal can speak.

And speak Lowenthal does. He begins his ‘Translator’s Introduction’ with the following:
The Dada movement has been framed and assessed in numerous ways: as the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for performance art, a prelude to postmodernism, an influence on pop art, a celebration of antiart to be later embraced for anarcho-political uses in the 1960s, as well as -- perhaps its most common summation -- the movement that lay the foundation for Surrealism. However one wishes to use Dada, though, its one overriding significance for the twentieth century, and its one attribute that continues to cast a formidable shadow into the twenty-first, is the way it managed to, however briefly, embody an attitude…What the unconscious was to Surrealism, refusal was to Dada; and that this nihilistic spirit remains potent (and emulated) to this day is in no small part due to the contribution of Francis Picabia. A self-declared funny guy, failure, alcoholic imbecile, and pickpocket (not to mention painter and poet), Picabia was above all a most ‘beautiful monster’, who for a significant period of time during the heady years of early modernism was able to rightly claim the distinction of being the anti-artist par excellence.(1)

This introduction is excellent providing one with a vivid, although succinct, portrayal of Picabia and the world of Dada. For example, he describes, at p. 10, the connection between Picabia’s painting [as an aside, Lowenthal informs us that Picabia began as a post-impressionist landscape painter who eschewed modernity] and his poetry: “Whether because of his frequent and doubtless wearisome journeys by boat, his troubled first marriage and reluctant solitude in New York, or his nervous depression and recuperation from opium addiction in Switzerland (where a doctor actually forbade his to paint), Picabia’s early poetry arose from an absence of painting, which, despite his frequent antagonism toward the art world, was ultimately his real refuge and for him a truer source of pleasure.” What sets Picabia apart from such other Dada poets as Kurt Schwitters or Hugo Ball is that “Picabia’s literary abstraction operates on the level of syntax and sense, bur rarely on the level of the word and sound itself, and the few exceptions were more for the sake of satire than experimentation.”(13)

Upon arriving at the poetry, there are two things one immediately notices. The first is that Lowenthal provides excellent introductions to the poems. For example, in setting out ‘Delightful’, he precedes it with an intro which provides a picture of Picabia’s life in New York: “Gabrielle Buffet [Picabia’s first wife] was in Switzerland with their children. Picabia was sharing a New York apartment with Edgard Varèse [the composer of Amériques in which he used one of the first electronic instruments, the ondes Martenot, and Ecuatorial in which he used the Theremin], and having an affair with Isadora Duncan [the originator of Contemporary Dance].”(28) We see the influence of Mallarmé in the way the poem is set out on the page:
                  Being both
from day                   to day
              more alone than anywhere
                  to sometimes bring to an end
                                    the tip of my nose

in my authentic
if it’s possible
                  I am sure
                                material necessity
                                    brings good luck

We can see Picabia’s anti-art perspective in the last line of the first stanza ‘the tip of my nose’ throwing in the unexpected and unusual which wrenches the lyricism that preceded it to a grinding halt -- something fitting for his mechanomorphic attitude. The poem combines both the aural and the visual which is fitting for an artist both visual and poetic. Note how ‘life’ hangs as if that aspect, perhaps his life as a post-impressionist landscape painter, has been ejected or, perhaps, has committed suicide so that the ‘real’ life of Picabia can emerge. The second thing to be noticed is that there is no French counterpart which is something every translation should have. However, considering that this book is already over 400 pages in length, this is, perhaps, understandable.

Picabia’s first book, ‘Fifty-Two Mirrors’, was published in Barcelona in 1917. There are a few poems which combine the aural and the visual but, for the most part, a straight lyric structure is present. Take ‘Basin’: “Crossed out in a little courtyard/of twisted cable./Wisteria in the pansy joy./The pattern and its dance/marks the duration between the curtains.” Present is the convoluted syntax ‘Wisteria in the pansy joy’, the displaced word ‘duration between the curtains’, the shock and awe of unrelated images piled one atop the other creating a disorientation all aligned at the left hand margin. We miss the joyful exuberance of space, the dance of words across, along and down the page.

This, as well as several other, poems reflect an interesting aspect of Dadaist poetry -- an aspect which Lowenthal never mentions. To understand this, we must go back to Charles Baudelaire, the father of French modernism, and, more particularly, to his poem ‘Correspondances’ (Correspondences) with its line “Les parfums, les coloeurs et les sons se répondent.” which C.F. McIntyre, at p. 13 of his French Symbolist Poetry, translated as “perfumes, sounds, and colors correspond.” This is the essence of what came to be known as Symbolism. Poetry Portal ( says of this that “Baudelaire's poetry explored symbols selected for their tendency to evoke one sensory experience through another, so elevating experience to the level of intellect.” It says of another Symbolist poet, Mallarmé, that he “populated a universe with symbols lacking obvious referents.” We can see the transition of this symbolic correspondence from Baudelaire through Mallarmé to Picabia; from symbols that have reference to symbols that lack the obvious to symbols that themselves are corrupted but have reference although to things which lack any conceivable correspondence other than that they have been juxtaposed together merely as a result of language -- correspondence of the ludicrous. And it is this which gives Dadaist poetry its disorienting effect. How else do we explain this line in ‘Basin’: “Animals encounter the solitude of screws/at the arabesque hour in the keys.”(35) Or the example of ‘Somersaults’:
            Dislocation of the still water
            The signal of flutes comes
                  At my feet.
Crooked in the fold of its hieroglyph

We can see where John Ashbery in part derived from.

Further development is readily seen in Picabia’s next book Poems and Drawings of the Daughter Born Without A Mother (Prolem sine matrem creatam), published in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1918, whose title was apparently derived from Ovid’s second Metamorphosis via the Petit Larousse dictionary which Picabia tended to have with him at all times. Some of his poems, such as the second stanza of ‘Belladonna’, give the appearance that he would randomly select words from that source: “Gladiator pickpockets/tedded by the dancers of a terrifying dream/nightmares in the red ring naturally/we chose the simple sensualities/of flabby clowns flagellated in the sky/where iron soothes the dangerous place/I myself tremble from the sparkling reflections”(71). Or this from ‘The Maid’: “If only the arrogant shoes/understood the amethysts/with the feathers of living rabbits.”(81) Included amongst the poems are eighteen of Picabia’s mechanomorphs. Also included is the poem ‘Cacodylat’ whose opening stanza reads: “Her parade whose turmoil has ruthless milestones/led a procession of a bright pink cacodylate eye/through my life of Swiss overeating./The reclining chairs were to be found after death/which they clearly though covers abandonment/all that in a bit of crystal doctor –“(79).

In late 1918, Picabia published two chapbooks -- The Mortician’s Athlete, subtitled Poem in five cantos, and Platonic False Teeth, subtitled Poem in two chapters: Pharmacist of chance. Both were published in Switzerland. In the first, his longest poem to date, he titles each canto: Canto I: salt water, Canto II: forkscrews, Canto III: coconut, Canto IV: gingerbread, and Canto V: houses of cards. Lowenthal cites P.A. Benoit’s statement that “Picabia had taken a mass of the poems he had been writing since The Daughter Born without a Mother…removed their titles, and joined them together to compose this poem.”(98) Canto I opens with “The palm tree of flooded wives/turns towards me the prodigy road/of coffeeless thorn bushes, which sing/of liquid bracelets.”(99) This is again an enhancement of what has gone before. While he had used the prose poem format in an earlier poem ‘Ideal Gilded By Gold’, found in his first book, Platonic False Teeth is written entirely in that style. The ‘First Chapter’, subtitled ‘Foulbrood’, begins:
The regime of the photographic radium screen’s wind rests every day in the effluvia of the sublime family of great vices when the pyre laughs at the pirate world. Blushing gets pretty dangerous if paralyzed King lacks a Queen, and Jesus Christ, crazed with the sorrows of a society violated in public hereditary silence, operates early in the intrigues of the seraglio, vizier of heaven’s administration.”(112)

During the course of the poem, Picabia takes liberties with himself: “Francis Picabia, I’m understanding you less and less.”(115) Then, after an intervening paragraph: “I’m beginning to understand you, dear friend!” -- this hucksterism becoming an enduring -- and endearing -- aspect of his poetry from this point on. I cannot help but hear the echo of Shakespeare’s Mark Antony in the opening line of Chapter II: The Towel Rail Amazon: “The crime that a man commits becomes a pleasure in his ears”(116).

The rest of the Pre-Dada poetic period, 1917-19, is completed with a few loose published poems plus Purring Poetry, consisting of one long poem published in Lausanne in 1919 which contains the first instance of the word ‘Dada’ appearing in one of Picabia’s poems.

The Dada period proper begins with what appears to be one long poem, Thoughts Without Language, published in Paris in 1919 -- the first Dadaist poem to be published there. The poems which appear to make up this one long poem lack titles leading to confusion as to where one ends and the next begins although, in the original edition, each poem appeared on a separate page. Lowenthal comments that “Obviously, Picabia is using language (and his concluding note should dissuade the reader from concluding that these points are language without thought); but rather than reproducing through and within the framework of language, the title points to an effort at reversing this conventional process by reproducing language through the framework of thought; an inversion not unlike Picabia’s later allusions to a ‘frame without a picture.’ It is striking, then, to see how Picabia has arrived at an idea of automatic writing and unconscious language similar to that of Breton’s, but through his own approach: one derived from Nietzsche rather than psychoanalysis and Freud.”(150) This is the last half of the first stanza:
love talk
which is not a military service
I already see the little cross
fitted out with a ribbon smoking a cigarette
over the ruins(153)

The note referred to appears as a P.S. at the end and reads: “To all those itching to say that this language is without thought, I recommend a dangerous visit to the zoological gardens.”(177) Enigmatic, non! Enigmatic, yes!

We come now to one of Picabia’s most famous works -- the Unique Eunuch, published in Paris in 1920. As Lowenthal states, at p. 182: “This book is considered by many to be the summation of Picabia’s early poetry, and one of the more emblematic productions of Paris Dada. Its most immediately noticeable feature is the fact that a good number of verses run backward, evidence of the poet’s continued interest in the idea of isotropic poetry, but also a liberalization of the wordplay between vers and envers (‘reversed verse’, so to speak).” as can be seen here: “Ancient lit trimming black/Bicycle horizon the toward/Etiquette breast the in/Raven a with pregnant is/The League of Nations/Camel a or/With D’Annunzio’s nightmarish spices”(184)

Lowenthal describes Picabia’s next poetry book, Jesus Christ Rastaquouère, published in Paris in 1920, as “Picabia’s most accomplished literary work…Although this book has come to be considered one of the credos of the Parisian Dada movement, its opening ‘interlude’ already demonstrates a distancing between Picabia and the Dadaists.”(223) The interlude describes a trip on a ship where all the passengers are on horseback except for Picabia who is on a wooden horse: “We disembarked at a new land where horses were unknown; the natives took our ship’s mounted passengers for two-headed animals and didn’t dare approach, consumed with terror; only I, recognized as a fellow human being by these primitive people, was taken prisoner.”(225) Here, prose and verse are intermingled, each being given equal billing:
Lyrical poets, dramatic poets, you worship art to escape from literature, and you are nothing but literary hacks. Struggling painters, the regions you explore are old anecdotes. Musicians, you are pebbles skipping on water…

            A man these days
            Is a kind of mirror
            When the curtain rises,
            The audience member’s seat
            Is completely free,
            He has no faith
            And you impose prejudices on him,
            How canon have hope?(226)

Divided into seven chapters, each heavily subdivided by subtitles, this is a Dadaist version of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons which was published some seven years previous. Interesting -- one of the most profound Cubist literary works has found itself transformed into one of Dada’s most profound, the two antagonistic to each other -- or, so Picabia has led us to believe. There is a passage in chapter V that is a new direction in Picabia’s poetry but reminds one of the sound poetry of two other Dadaists -- Kurt Schwitters or Hugo Ball:
‘Ka tangi té Kivi
‘Ki vi
‘Ka Tangi té moho
‘hi hi e
‘pi pi e
‘ta ta e
‘ta kou ta ka jou (245)

Which Lowenthal, in his extensive notes to the poems, quotes Tristan Tzara as saying that this “is an abstract poem, ‘composed of pure sounds invented by myself and containing no allusion to reality’”(460) although it appears that “in a different form and in its original context, it is from a Maori work song for hauling trees.”

The end of Dada, at least for Picabia, was announced in 1921 with a flurry of aphorisms, prose and manifestoes.

The period following Picabia’s renunciation of Dada was marked by individual prose and poetry published in small presses approaching the vitriolic. It was not until 1939 (published some sixteen years later in 1955) that he wrote another book of poems, Poems of Dingalari. Of this, Lowenthal says: “Picabia began to write poetry again, but in a very different manner from his earlier years: sarcasm had given way to melancholy lyricism.”(346): “I need air to breathe/before me Switzerland with its sunken eye sockets/looks at me/I hear the word war uttered/the ground is soft/I feel like I’ve fallen/and it won’t be possible to stand back up”(347). Granted there is a war on, but this is a poetry of regret. Picabia’s moment has passed and he is aware of it. “I am rid of my youth/rid of its unbearable oppression/all that remains to me/is hashish/women now/are delightful pianos”(353). As is evidenced here, he is still capable of coining an intriguing metaphor. But this is not the Picabia that brought us Dada, which violated all of the strictures and, in doing so, challenged those that followed to see things in a new way, to write in a new way.

This is not to say that there are not some interesting moments nor that Picabia ceased being creative. In some of his later work, he quotes, without stating the source, from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. This is spoken of derisively by Lowenthal. And it would probably be so by any writer. Except -- and this is a very important exception -- Picabia’s poetry oftentimes mirrored developments in his painting. Is it not possible, then, that he considers the words of Nietzsche splayed out in a book as found objects, as readymades to be used as he desires without the need for attribution? After all, did Duchamp attribute the urinal he turned without modification into art to the manufacturer? Then why should it be done for words other than that there is an antique convention respecting that? Conventions of any sort were not respected by the Dadaists.

MIT Press, George Baker and Marc Lowenthal must be showered with accolades for bringing out these two excellent books that, together, reveal one of the most interesting of poets/painters/writers/funny guys of the twentieth century -- one that has had a profound influence on what came after. Literature would be profoundly different today were it not for Picabia and Dada.


John Cunningham is a poet and writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Every once in a while he emerges from his igloo, hitches up his dog sled team, and sets off across the white expanse of emptiness known as Canada in order to write poetry reviews. He does o in Canada for Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Arc, Antigonish Review and Fiddlehead, in the U.S. for Big Bridge, Galatea Resurrects, Rain Taxi, Rattle and Quarterly Conversations, and in Australia for Jacket.

1 comment:

  1. I love the art of Francis Picabia. That's why I just published a gallery of his work on my site along with a fun puzzle of his self portrait. If you have a sec, pass by my blog and tell my what you think. Thanks! :)