Friday, 13 February 2009

Picabia and romantic mechanics



Francis Picabia Movimento DADA 1919


I have a real affection for such drawings by Picabia in his DADA period, as also for some of the more mechanical drawings of Ernst and Malevich and, of course Tatlin. So Picabia, the son of a wealthy diplomat, is in Zürich in 1916 where he meets Tristan Tzara and thinks: This is the most exciting thing that has happened to me !" He already knows Duchamp. Being a natural troublemaker ("Like many of the upper-class / He liked the sound of breaking glass" - Belloc, of someone else) he later falls out, first with the Dadaists, then, three years later, in 1924, with the Surrealists. After 1925 he returns to figurative painting, and during the war starts painting deliberately cheap-looking nudie pictures as in glamour magazines, going on, eventually, to decorate brothels. It's a life. Perhaps if I work very hard at getting rich and louche and fighting drunk there might still be time for me to emulate him. Picabia as Toad of Toad Hall.

But there is something beautiful, playful, a little subversive and strangely romantic about his machine drawings. It is as if art were discovering the geometry of the machine but couldn't help scribbling on it, or pretending it was an angel or a vision of some sort. Picabia in this mood is less Toad of Toad Hall, more Heath Robinson, but without the jokes and everything more-or-less clean. It's all very graceful. Art and the machine do a brief delicate dance. If you pull this lever, it makes that wheel go round, which drives that piston, which then releases that chain that sets off the pulley, and, see, we have made this neat comical-erotic language that tickles the eyes.

And I do find it delightful, and light, and quite heroic in its own frail way. It is certainly more poetry than prose.



4 comments:

Mark Granier said...

"But there is something beautiful, playful, a little subversive and strangely romantic about his machine drawings. It is as if art were discovering the geometry of the machine but couldn't help scribbling on it, or pretending it was an angel or a vision of some sort."

Nicely put. I haven't seen this drawing before and it seems to me very much of its period. I can see why you like it, and I do too: graceful playfulness, always to be saluted. However, Klee is my personal hero from this period, and his work still towers above so many others, present day artists included. He made a study of grace and playfulness, but brought so much more to it, upped the ante above and beyond the po-faced surrealists and Dada's giggling playground nihilism. I blogged a bit about him here: http://markgranier.blogspot.com/search/label/Paul%20Klee

George S said...

Klee is, of course, much superior, an altogether grander figure. It's just that I am aware of him being grander, whereas Picabia's work of this period almost makes me giggle. And I am not much given to giggling. As such. Not quite like your Dadaists in the nihilistic playground at any rate.

But the Surrealists were by no means always po-faced. In fact hardly po-faced at all. Blimey! Think Max Jacob, Jacques Prevert, Max Ernst, Robert Desnos, Rene Magritte!Picasso in his Surreal period. Bunuel! I think it's some other Surrealists you must be thinking of.

I'll trace up your link, Mark. Thanks for that.

Mark Granier said...

Yes, yes, I agree George with much of this. I spoke too quickly and too soon, though I think that the best art, including surrealist art (certainly Picasso's!), rises above any isms or ists. I was thinking of those muddled manifestos of the time, those clunky Dada diagrams and one-off visual puns by Duchamp and some of his followers. But I was silly to make pronouncements about "playground nihilism" etc. Consider my dismissals dismissed.

Poet in Residence said...

At school we had to draw lots of things like that in Physics. I can hear the his chalky utterings:
"Stop asking silly questions Williams!"
How I bravely bore the vindictive stings and thwacks of outrageous misfortune you would not believe my dear George.