Painting of the Day

21 Jun

Udnie, Young American Girl. by Francis Picabia (1879-1953). Oil on canvas, 1913. Currently on view at the Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris, France.

Notes from 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die:

Francis Picabia set out on his artistic adventure at the outset of the twentieth century–an exciting time for modern French painting. Not happy to settle with one particular style, from 1902 to 1908 Picabia drew from several influences. Experimenting first with Impressionism then Fauvism, he constantly pushed the boundaries of his art, until he found a brief resting place in 1911 with Section d’Or–a group of painters who, fueled by the questions posed by Cubism, began to move the pictorial plane in new directions. Following a trip to New York, where he worked on what he called “abstractions” or “pure paintings” no longer enslaved by reality–Udnie, Young American Girl seems to take what Cubism offers and toys with it. Dancing curves reminiscent of a female frame mark a softening of Cubist forms, while Picabia’s palette–infused with vivid blues and greens, hints of copper, and metallic steel–breaks free from subdued Cubist colors. This playful interpretation of Cubism became known as Orphism. Udnie is thought to have been inspired by a ballerina. Strangely, in Picabia’s bid to escape reality, the bounds to this work seem set by its title. But “Udnie,” perhaps an anagram of “Nudie,” has a distinct erotic overtone which is seen later in more overtly sexual works such as I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie. From 1913 to 1919, Picabia embraced the Dada movement, traveling again to the United States to disseminate its ideas, which influenced Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Conceptual art.

Additional notes from

Once known as “Papa Dada,” Francis Picabia was one of the principle figures of the Dada movement both in Paris and New York. A friend and associate of Marcel Duchamp, he became known for a rich variety of work ranging from strange, comic-erotic images of machine parts to text-based paintings that foreshadow aspects of Conceptual Art. Even after Dada had been supplanted by other styles, the French painter and writer went on to explore a diverse and almost incoherent mix of styles. He shifted easily between abstraction and figuration at a time when artists clung steadfastly to one approach, and his gleeful disregard for the conventions of modern art encouraged some remarkable innovations even later in his career, from the layered Transparency series (c.1928-31) of the 1920s to the kitsch, erotic nudes of the early 1940s. Picabia remains revered by contemporary painters as one of the century’s most intriguing and inscrutable artists.

In the 1910s, Picabia shared the interests of a number of artists who emerged in the wake of Cubism, and who were inspired less by the movement’s preoccupation with problems of representation than by the way the style could evoke qualities of the modern, urban, and mechanistic world. Initially, these interests informed his abstract painting, but his attraction to machines would also shape his early Dada work, in particular his “mechanomorphs” – images of invented machines and machine parts that were intended as parodies of portraiture. For Picabia, humans were nothing but machines, ruled not by their rational minds, but by a range of compulsive hungers.
Picabia was central to the Dada movement when it began to emerge in Paris in the early 1920s, and his work quickly abandoned many of the technical concerns that had animated his previous work. He began to use text in his pictures and collages and to create more explicitly scandalous images attacking conventional notions of morality, religion, and law. While the work was animated by the Dada movement’s rage against the European culture that had led to the carnage of World War I, Picabia’s attacks often have the sprightly, coarse comedy of the court jester. They reflect an artist with no respect for any conventions, not even art, since art was just another facet of the wider culture he rejected.
Figurative imagery was central to Picabia’s work from the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s, when he was inspired by Spanish subjects, Romanesque and Renaissance sources, images of monsters, and, later, nudes found in soft porn magazines. Initially he united many of these disparate motifs in the Transparency pictures (c.1928-31), complexly layering them and piling them on top of each other to provoke confusion and strange associations. Some critics have described the Transparencies (c.1928-31) as occult visions, or Surrealist dream images, and although Picabia rejected any association with the Surrealists, he steadfastly refused to explain their content. Picabia always handled these motifs with the same playful and anarchic spirit that had animated his Dada work.
Picabia learned early on that abstraction could be used to evoke not only qualities of machines, but also to evoke mystery and eroticism. This ensured that abstract painting would be one of the mainstays of his career. He returned to it even in his last years, during which he attributed his inspiration to the obscure recesses of his mind, as he had always done.
Picabia did much to define Dada in Paris and New York, and his reputation as one of the movement’s father figures has stayed with him. But it is perhaps the spirit that the movement encouraged in him – his anarchic spirit and his disrespect for conventional abstract modern art – that has yielded his greatest legacy. It is this spirit that shaped the Transparency series of the 1920s and the erotic nudes of the 1940s, both of which have proved hugely influential – the former on artists such as David Salle and Sigmar Polke, the latter on figures such as John Currin. When many artists thought abstract and figurative art should be separated, Picabia seemed to combine them. When others felt that the nude should remain a noble subject, he debased it. Picabia seems to have had a light-hearted and often cynical attitude to art-making, and while this put him at odds with many of his more serious peers, it is this attitude that seems so resonant to contemporary artists who not only have less faith in art’s ability to change the world, but also have an attitude to museums and galleries that sways between the tolerant and the skeptical.

My comments:
 Although I’ve always admired and loved abstract art, even I underestimated how difficult it is to make abstract paintings, even though it wouldn’t appear on the surface that they call for a high amount of technical skill in the way that Rembrandt or Vermeer’s portraits displayed. Through the studio art class that I took this past semester, however, I discovered that creating just about any image on canvas is extremely difficult. What makes it difficult is that it takes a high degree of imagination even to make a deceptively simple pattern of shapes in a way that is aesethetically harmonious and expressively genuine on the canvas. It’s so difficult to use all the formal elements in a way that creates an object of beauty, even if that object has no recognizable ties to objects in the real world. So I admire what Picabia has done here even though it is abstract and didn’t require him to translate three-dimensional objects (such as faces for instance) onto a two-dimensional surface.
On a separate note, I don’t know how I feel about Picabia’s cynical attitude to art-making that he certainly was not alone in having during the time that he lived. Many people continue to have that cynical attitude today. I don’t think that art necessarily calls for a cynical attitude, and I think that there’s a possibility that it is not art itself that Picabia is cynical towards, but the people of the art world who make it, sell it, and consume it. Picabia reacted to this by using art as a way to thumb his nose at the people he probably felt tarnished art’s identity, but in my opinion this only made Picabia and other members of the Dada movement look bitter and as if they were holding on to grudges forever. Instead of using art as a way to draw attention to its abusers by making fun of them, I think it would have ultimately lead to more beautiful art being created if instead the Dadaists had devoted themselves to creating what they thought would be the most beautiful art possible. Because sometimes, hearing about how artists like Picabia were secretly trying to mock the viewers of his art offends people who did take art seriously and were more on his side than on the side of those who didn’t truly appreciate art but rather used it as means to other ends. Dada art mocks everyone who looks at it, not just those who are the intended objects of his mocking. This unfortunately turns even more people off to art that would have been necessary, which is always a shame.

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