Francis Picabia: playboy prankster, art loser, chameleonic modernist, monster, trouble maker—these are the labels found in prominent reviews of MoMA’s exhibition, Our Heads Are So Round So Our Thoughts Can Change. The title of the show originates in Picabia’s letterpress cover La Pomme de pins (The Pinecone) from 1922 and leaves little to the imagination with regard to how curator Anne Umland positions Picabia within the greater scheme of Modernism. Reframe. Rediscover.
Umland and fellow critics construct a narrative of an independent artist full of technical mastery, potential, and a fractious attitude, ostracized and neglected by the canon and now served up in recent years for our recognition. The show chronologically marches through the beats of Picabia’s artistic career starting with, appropriately, “Beginnings, 1905-1911,” a gallery dedicated to the artist’s irreverent flirtation with Impressionism. While the Impressionists vehemently dedicated themselves to painting en plein air, Picabia’s blasphemous process included the appropriation of imagery from photographs and other paintings. He exhibited profound artistic talent. Even a casual observer could note Picabia’s technical mastery and clear references to Cezanne, Lautrec, Matisse, and Monet. Yet inauthenticity runs thick in the gallery air; and, as one traverses from each room to the next, Picabia’s fleeting and affected flirtations present themselves.
The great rebel, master appropriator, and clown, Picabia precariously embedded himself into the folds of artistic circles while producing works that undermined and distorted the tenets of each style. He parodied the conceptual and theoretical convictions of their practitioners and questioned the supremacy of artistic dogmas. Perversity presents itself in every gallery, in each piece, and Picabia seems to revel in this obstinance with selected quotes and narrations that reaffirm him as a self-declared trouble-maker.
What value is gained through this exhibition? Does Picabia provide a greater contribution that we must seek out? Should we carve out a box within the canon with which we neatly place this artist for all of posterity? Walking out of the gallery with feelings of discomfort and disenchantment might lead one to believe that there is little value or contribution offered in his work—that Picabia should be placed back within the confines of text where we find his name haphazardly tossed among the goliaths of Modernism. However, the exhibition seems to celebrate and highlight Picabia’s perversity, which reveals the dark underbelly of the historical context that birthed the great artistic movements of the last century.
Political and social critique abound in his work. It is difficult to view Picabia without noting a critique of capitalism in a broader sense, but also of its corruption that bled into the art world. L’Adoration du veau provides an example of Picabia’s nihilistic caricatures. An appropriation taken from a 1938 photograph by Erwin Blumenfeld, this piece is largely regarded as a commentary on Nazi Germany; yet, the dark and imposing calf with adoring outstretched hands populating the foreground can be seen as taking on another meaning within the greater context of the show. Undoubtedly the presentation of a regime, one must ask what authority Picabia presents? Perhaps the historical contexts the artist worked under not only bled into, but were absorbed and appropriated within the art itself, contaminating the esteemed convictions we all know so well. Are our heads so round our thoughts can change?
Picabia’s pranks and jokes, his contaminated aesthetics, his dark and distorted imagery all lead us to pause in disquiet. Perhaps the lens he provides broadens our scope and alters our perspectives on the role that playboy pranksters, art losers, chameleonic modernists, monsters, and trouble-makers play. These rediscovered nonconformists can reframe our thinking, we only have to allow them the opportunity to do so.