The surprising Francis Picabia

Francis Picabia: Our Heads are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, now at the MoMA through March 19, is one of the most exhilarating, energetic, and fun exhibitions in town.

Surprise awaits in every room of this comprehensive (over 200 works), elegant survey of Francis Picabia (1879-1953), the elusive French artist who is less well-known than other moderns because of his restless, relentless exploration of a wide diversity of styles, platforms and techniques.  “If you want to have clean ideas,” he once wrote, “change them as often as your shirt.”

Impressionism; Pseudo-Classicism; Cubism; Fauvism; Dada; Figuration; Surrealism; Collage; Appropriation; Photo-Realism.  Picabia’s been there, done all that.

He was also a poet, publisher, film performer, set designer, and scenarist. Entr’acte, the exuberantly absurd 1924 cinema classic he wrote and appears in (heavy-set man on the right bouncing in slow motion at the beginning), is showcased within the exhibition.

Among the film’s many multiple camera tricks (slow-mo, double exposures) is a tiny bit of stop-motion animation of a cannon.  Picabia said the film “respects nothing except the right to roar with laughter.”

Most of his art holds a merry Till Eulenspiegel skepticism, a cynicism that questions what is art and it’s purpose, while manipulating high/low expectations.

In his personal life, he even turned the starving artist trope on its head.  Born wealthy, he stayed that way.  Befitting his catch-me-if-you-can, shape-shifting personality, he indulged in a love for luxury motorcars, and interchangeable wives and mistresses.

Picabia’s nose-thumbing started, as does this exhibition, with his early Impressionist landscapes inspired not en plein air, but by postcards!  One painting caught my animator’s eye with its cartoon-ish organic shapes, unnatural colors, and a mysterious anthropomorphism in the shrubbery.

I can’t help having an animator’s sensibility, a condition once described by Pixar’s Andrew Stanton thusly:  “I can’t remember not thinking that my bike was cold in the rain, that fish are lonely in their bowl, that leaves are frightened of heights as they fall.” (The New Yorker, Oct. 17, 2011.)

In addition to perceiving anthropomorphism, the animation sensibility is seeing potential for motion and emotional expression in static art, in its staging and techniques.

For example, in another early period of the highly-changeable Picabia’s work, we leap with him into a cauldron of giant Cubist canvases roiling with serpentine motion, interlocking sensual shapes, and glowing neon colors.

In my imagination, they are an abstract, arse-over-teakettle Laocoön.

They contrast with a later blue-hued, contemplative, obviously representational human in the cubist-informed painting, Figure Triste (Sad Visage).




Basic animation principles –caricature, metamorphosis and exaggeration — are in a series of so-called mechanomorph drawings of invented machines.

Picabia’s close friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), is the subject of one sketch that manages to be funny and poignant.  Apollinaire, a passionate defender of Cubism and Surrealism (terms he originated), is portrayed as a stout container, affectionately labeled “irritable poète.”  A second caption, Tu ne mourras pas tout entier (“You will never completely die.”), reveals this drawing to be an obituary portrait of Picabia’s friend.

Picabia’s lifelong love of music is expressed in a joyful, spare abstraction resembling animated, multi-colored musical staffs, titled Music is Like Painting.  It triggers thoughts and sounds of a Harry Bertoia kinetic sound sculpture. This, in turn, reminds me of Bertoia’s friendship with abstract animation filmmaker Oskar Fischinger, which began in 1944, a few years after Fischinger’s disastrous experience working at the Disney Studio on Fantasia, to which he contributed numerous concept sketches for the Bach Toccata and Fugue section, ideas that were ignored or abandoned.

Picabia’s caricatures include a series of so-called Côte d’Azur Monster paintings savaging his fellow 1920s leisure class party revelers.





There is also the intriguing Transparence series, dreamlike layering of diverse images, seeing through and beyond the obvious, revealing an alternate view, like a camera cross-dissolve, double exposure, or (in traditional hand-drawn animation techniques) a cel overlay that allows a new depth to an image.  Here, the angularity and simple lines of Picabia’s overlay image anticipates the spare modernism that would later exemplify UPA’s cartoon aesthetic.


Greeting visitors to this large, satisfying exhibition is a giant photo blow-up of the artist, riding a tiny cart in an ornate living room. There is a wild-child look on his happy face, challenging you to hop on and join him.
Do it!
You’ll have the ride of your life.

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Close Up: Jules Feiffer at Canio’s

Photo Copyright © Kathryn Szoka

Canio’s Books is a tiny treasure of a bookshop in Sag Harbor, Long Island.  Housed within an old wooden building, it personifies the word “cozy” and has a time-tripping, Americana charm and warmth reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s 1950 painting Shuffelton’s Barbershop, which depicts three rural elders ending their day by playing a violin, clarinet and cello in a barber’s back room.

Sometimes, Canio’s offers live music among the books rising like stalagmites from the floor and leaning from the crowded shelves.  But mostly it is the bookstores’ seminars, workshops and public forums that support the East End community’s interest in literature, visual arts, and current events.

One cold evening last November, the great Jules Feiffer was at Canio’s for a book signing and a “talk.”  Now in his late 80s, Feiffer recently published two brilliant graphic novels, Kill My Mother and Cousin Joseph. Click on the covers below to read my reviews in the East Hampton Star.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, author of more than 35 books for adults and children, plays (e.g, Little Murders), screenplays (e.g., Carnal Knowledge), an Oscar-winning animated short (Munro), Feiffer is perhaps most famous as a speaker of truth-to-power for over forty years in his weekly Village Voice comic strip.

As an audience of about thirty assembled on folding chairs, Feiffer sat quietly on a couch.  Dressed in an oversized green shirt and brown corduroy trousers, bespectacled, bald, with a wisp of a white beard, he looked like a frail hatchling.

When he took to the podium on the postage-stamp stage, however, his innate energy and laser-keen intelligence came forth for a riveting demonstration of his art and political savvy.  First, he showed drawings and discussed a work-in-progress, The Ghost Script, the final of a trilogy of graphic novels.

But soon he segued into the current event on everyone’s mind:  Donald Trump’s stunning upset against Hillary Clinton for the presidency.  Feiffer began by commenting that for years, “Republicans have wanted to kill the New Deal.”  And now, he said ruefully, they have their best shot at it.

He acknowledged the fear and loathing by many on the left, and the confusion about how to react and what can be done.  Then he read from a letter that he wrote to his three daughters on the night of the election to quell their fears and put events into a historical context. The letter is sharp, sober and tough.  And inspiring.  I asked his permission to publish it here in the hopes that it inspires you as well.

9 November 2016

My Daughters,
None of this is new, it just feels new because we’ve suppressed our history.
Except, we know about the Indians, and how we slaughtered them, and broke treaties where we swore to protect them, and made Westerns glorifying marauding and murderous cavalry and ranchers. They were the good guys. Indians, whose land we stole out from under them, were the bad guys for resisting our theft.
And that still goes on, at this very moment, in Wyoming [Native American tribes supporting the Dakota pipeline dispute].
In the late 19th and early to mid-twentieth century, labor unions were denied the right to strike, or even organize. Strikes were broken up by police and National Guards, workers shot down or beaten bloody, and it was legal to do so.

Other workers, when they reacted with their own acts of violence, gave the government in the 1920s the excuse to seize foreign laborers and deport them, and their families by the thousands, intern others in concentration camps. There was no national debate on this.

Aliens, as we called them, were a threat to our sacred institutions, and good, hard working Americans had the right, the duty to defend ourselves against these outsiders, who were genetically inferior– science said so! — had smaller brains, were criminally inclined, carried communicable diseases that would infect and bring down the white race.
And then, all through the early 20th century, Negroes are lynched down South, and sometimes in the mid west. No one was brought to trial, and in the few cases that Klansmen were tried, they went free.
The vindictiveness and rage that brings us Trumpism is as old as the Constitution, even older.

But what makes us special as a people, and unique among nations, is that a minority, then a true constituency, and then thousands, and then millions put themselves on the line to fight for change. To encourage the dream that we were actually better than we often behaved, and miracle of miracles, slowly, with endless effort and countless defeats, we saw change.
And we, some of us, thought the fight was won, we had learned from our mistakes. Our history proved it.
But the truth, now and always, is that history has no learning curve, and old lessons, once learned are forgotten, or become twisted and rejected.

And so we must start from scratch, all over again. That’s the secret of America. We fight the same fights over and over and over again, without many of us knowing that today’s fight is a retread of previous fights going back decades, or centuries.
So Trump was elected President.


Time again to fight.

Copyright Jules Feiffer 2016

John Canemaker with Jules Feiffer at Canio’s, Nov. 25, 2016.






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