Vol.1 / Issue 3

Between Music and the Machine:

Francis Picabia and the End of Abstraction

by Roger I. Rothman


Ce qui est extraordinaire, c'est que malgré leurs audaces,

l'un et l'autre souffraient d'un mal qu'il leur était difficile

de préciser : une sorte de nostalgie de la forme objective,

le regret du motif et de toutes les formules classiques

dont ils s'étaient peu à peu détachés.

—Gabrielle Buffet








Click to enlarge
Figure 1
Figure 2
Francis Picabia,
Dances at the Spring I
Francis Picabia,
Procession in Seville, 1912
Figure 3
Figure 4
Francis Picabia,
New York, 1913
Francis Picabia,
Negro Song I, 1913

In January 1913, just two months after their trip to the Jura mountains with Guillaume Apollinaire and Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and his wife, Gabrielle Buffet, boarded an ocean-liner for New York. They arrived just three days after the opening of the Armory Show, where Picabia showed Paris, Memory of Grimaldi, Dances at the Spring (Fig. 1), and Procession in Seville (Fig. 2). (1) More clearly cubist in technique and less radically at odds with perceived notions of modern painting than the work that drew the bulk of the critics' ire, Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, Picabia's three paintings nonetheless received considerable attention in the press, some of which was quite positive. (2)

Almost immediately upon his arrival in New York, Picabia was introduced to a small group of artists interested in the European avant-garde, including Mabel Dodge, Alfred Stieglitz, Marius de Zayas, and Paul Haviland. In March, Picabia had his first one-man show at Stieglitz's gallery where he presented a collection of freshly completed drawings and watercolors (Fig. 3,4), works he described as abstractions, pure paintings having no longer any relation to perceived reality. As he described his works in a text written expressly for the exhibit: "In my paintings, the public is not to look for a ‘photographic' recollection of a visual impression or sensation, but to look at them as simply an attempt to express the purest part of the abstract reality of form and color in itself." (3)

Click to enlarge
Figure 5
Figure 6
Picabia, Udnie, 1913
Picabia, Edtaonisl, 1913

In April, he and his wife returned to Paris, where he immediately began work on translating these small watercolors into large, ambitious paintings, designed, in all likelihood, as grand salon-pieces, manifesto-works of his commitment to abstraction (a word, claimed Duchamp, "that he invented" (4) ). At the Salon d'Automne, Picabia presented two of these works, Udnie (Fig. 5) and Edtaonisl (Fig. 6), both of which stand about nine feet on each side, with their perplexing titles
Click to enlarge
Figure 7
Picabia, I see again in memory
my dear Udnie
, 1914
printed in block letters at the top. Both are dominated by interlocking curved forms suggesting something organic, as if the painting itself was in the process of growing: Udnie expanding outward from the center, Edtaonisl stretching upward from the bottom ("a rhythm of impulse," as he was to refer to it (5) ). Picabia had described them in a letter to Stieglitz as "a purer painting of a dimension having no title, each painting hav[ing] a name in rapport with the pictorial expression, [an] appropriate name absolutely created for it." (6) Throughout 1913 and into 1914, Picabia continued with his practice of "pure painting" as Apollinaire referred to it. But, sometime in mid-1914, Picabia painted I see again in memory my dear Udnie (Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie) (Fig. 7), a work that, in its incorporation of vaguely machinal elements with an otherwise abstract composition, prefigured a radical shift that was about to take place in the painter's work.

In early 1915, Picabia and his wife returned to New York, where he took up again with the Stieglitz group, itself experiencing a shift toward a more explicit embrace of modernity and its technological inventions. Along with de Zayas, Picabia began work on a new magazine, 291 (named after the address of Stieglitz's gallery). As part of a celebratory, inaugural gesture, Picabia prepared a series of mechanical portraits. He represented Stieglitz as a camera (Fig. 8); Haviland as an electric lamp; de Zayas as a complex arrangement of a woman's corset attached to a spark plug which was itself attached to an engine (Fig. 9); Agnes Meyer (a collector and close friend of de Zayas) as a spark plug. Picabia represented himself as a composite horn-cylinder-spark plug (Fig. 10) (appropriate for a man who was to own some 120 cars during the course of his life (7)).

Click to enlarge
Figure 8
Figure 9
Figure 10
Francis Picabia,
Here, This is Stieglitz / Faith and Love
cover of 291,
July-August 1915
Francis Picabia,
De Zayas! De Zayas!,

291, July-August 1915
Francis Picabia,
The Saint of Saints / This is a portrait about me, 291, July-August 1915

In the following months, Picabia transformed these mechanical portraits into larger paintings, referred to by most scholars as "mechanomorphs." Unlike the earlier portraits, these works were more elusive, less concerned with the accurate depiction of real machine parts, than in manipulating the formal properties of various fragments of largely unrecognizable machines. In transforming the modest portraits of 291 into large-scale paintings on board, Picabia was reenacting the process used in his earlier transformation of the small New York watercolors into the enormous abstractions painted upon his return to Paris. >>Next


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1. The Armory show opened on February 17, 1913. Details of Picabia's life are drawn from William
Camfield, Francis Picabia (Princton: Princeton University Press, 1979); and Maria Lluïsa Borràs, Picabia
(London: Thames and Hudson, 1985).

2. Borràs records a number of these articles in Picabia, p. 98.

3. Picabia, "Preface to the Exhibition at the Little Gallery," 291 (March 17, 1913); reprinted in Borràs,
Picabia, p. 109-110.

4. Duchamp, in Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues With Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (New York: Da Capo,
1971) 43.

5. Picabia, quoted in an article by Henry Tyrell in World Magazine (February 9, 1913); reprinted in
Borràs, Picabia, p. 106.

6. Picabia, letter to Stieglitz. Stieglitz/O'Keefe File (New Haven: Beinecke Rare Book Library, Yale
University). For the complete citation, see below.

7. For a concise description of these five portraits, see Francis Naumann, New York Dada, 1915-23
(New York: Harry Abrams, 1994) 60-61. Of the five, three include the name of the person represented (de Zayas,
Stieglitz, Haviland). The fourth, Picabia's self-portrait, includes the phrase, "C'est de moi qu'il s'agit dans ce
." The fifth drawing, titled Portrait d'une jeune fille américaine dans l'état de nudité, was proposed
by William Innes Homer to be a portrait of Agnes Meyer (See: William Innes Homer, "Picabia's Jeune fille
américaine dans l'état de nudité
and Her Friends," Art Bulletin LVII.1 (March 1975): 110-15.