Between Music and the Machine:
Francis Picabia and the End of Abstraction
Roger I. Rothman
I See Again in Memory…
Some time in May of 1913, Picabia sent Stieglitz an essay entitled "Vers l'Amorphism," recently published in Les Hommes du jour. (Fig. 20) Stieglitz published the essay, as well as the accompanying manifesto of the new school of amorphism ("Manifeste de l'école amorphiste") in its original language and format in the June issue of Camera Work. Of all the texts associated with Picabia's work, this may well be the most difficult to explain. (33)
First of all, the essay and the manifesto, although themselves unsigned, were followed, in the original French version, by an afterward signed by Victor Méric, a figure well-known to have been hostile to almost every form of avant-garde production. (34) Indeed, the magazine itself, Les Hommes du jour, was among the most critical of modernist painting. (35) Immediately the question arises: are we reading a sincere manifesto of the new school of amorphism, or are we reading a parody, a joke at the expense of painters like Picabia for whom the question of pictorial form was at the center of their concerns. The latter seems most likely, especially, since both Picabia's and Braque's names are misspelled "Picaba" and "Bracque," as Jeffrey Weiss has pointed out. In a text otherwise without typographical errors, such misspellings were in all likelihood intentional. But this is just one small indication that something is awry here, and our suspicion should begin with the very first sentence: "L'heure est grave, très grave." Already we begin to suspect the opposite, perhaps one "grave" is convincing, but two should put us on alert. And as Weiss has convincingly demonstrated, the entire text, from beginning to end, is suffused with similar parodic excesses. At one point the author asserts that "the patient research, impassioned attempts and audacious trials of intrepid innovators… are at last going to lead us to… the single and multiple formula that will contain the entire visible and sentimental universe" while the manifesto itself begins: "War on Form! Form, that's our enemy! That is our program." What stands out most prominently in this text is its absurdly hyperbolic tone, the way in which its argument is stitched together as a patchwork quilt of avant-garded clichés.
The most incontrovertibly parodic element here--and one that (most shockingly) has gone without comment in the various literature devoted to Picabia's work (36) --is not to be found in the text itself, but rather in the two illustrations that accompany the manifesto. They claim to be two examples of "l'œuvre géniale" of a painter by the name of Popaul Picador, one of which is titled Femme au bain, the other La Mer. What the reader is looking at, however, is nothing more than a pair of empty rectangles. The caption beneath Femme au bain reads: "Look for the woman, they say. What a mistake! Through the opposition of tints and the diffusion of the lights, the woman is not visible to the naked eye." No less absurd is the caption beneath La Mer: "At first glance you see nothing. Press on. With time you will see that the water reaches up to your lips. This is amorphism." (37) (While it is tempting, at least at first, to consider these as the first true monochromes in the history of modernism, beating Rodchenko by more than five years, the manifest contradiction between the blankness of rectangle and the caption's reference to color combinations makes it impossible to take seriously.)
What then to make of the fact that Picabia sent this to Stieglitz without any additional commentary to signal it as a parody? Could it be that Picabia set out to dupe his American friend? Could it be that Picabia was himself duped? This possibility, although at first seemingly unlikely, becomes all the more complex when we consider that the essay was sent together with a group of other essays and clippings, all of which, in contrast to this one, support Picabia's work with the utmost sincerity. In addition, the manifesto was prefaced by a reproduction of one of Picabia's most accomplished watercolors (Fig. 21). Add to that the fact that the amorphism manifesto was published in Camera Work alongside two essays in support of Picabia's newest abstractions--one by Buffet, the other by Maurice Aisen, a friend of Stieglitz's living in New York. In both, Picabia's work is presented as an heir to that of Cézanne, at once the result of the association of painting with music and the manifestation of what Aisen labeled "a plasticity of truth." Indeed, all indications are that Stieglitz, at least, read the manifesto without any sense of its irony. Likewise, the notion that Picabia set out to undermine his own manifestly sincere effort at what he at that very moment referred to as "pure painting" seems equally unlikely.
And yet it seems no less unlikely that Picabia, at least, would have been unaware of the conservative slant of Les Hommes du jour or Méric's well-known hostility to modernism. As Weiss points out, the very word "amorphe" was at the time an adjective commonly used by critics to express their disdain for the way in which avant-garde painting distorted natural forms. (38) Of course, the clearest sign of the essay's intent to ridicule is surely Popaul Picador's géniale rectangles.
We are left, then, with an unanswerable question: was this a joke perpetrated by Picabia, or a joke perpetrated on Picabia? Weiss, quite reasonably, insists that without further evidence it is impossible to parse the sincere from the parodic. And as his real concern is the problem of blague in general, Weiss stops here, at the moment of undecidability. For Weiss, the amorphism manifesto serves above all as an example of the way in which parody had so buried itself within the discourse of French painting around 1912 that even in retrospect it is impossible to disentangle the genuine from the fake.
But to turn our attention to Picabia in particular, to consider the manifesto in light of Picabia's contemporaneous practices, one is drawn to a different conclusion. To consider them in relation to Busoni's paradox in particular suggests that what we are looking at here is not a parody, not something that mocks from the outside the painter's otherwise sincere commitments, but rather a tension immanent to the paintings themselves. For if it is the case that the search for a fully organic, non-conventional language of musical composition threatens to end up as either incomprehensible if not entirely silent, then the analogous search in the realm of painting may well be threatened by the same paradox. This is to say that the amorphous manifesto, rather than the sign of hoax, is perhaps better understood as the sign of undecidability within the very practice of abstraction itself--at least that of abstraction as Picabia was practicing it in 1913.
Admittedly, we have little to go on here. Between mid-1913, when Picabia scrawled his anxious note to Stieglitz, and the painter's subsequent comments to the New York press in early 1915, Picabia left only one tiny remark to help us out. And yet, as is clear from works like I See Again in Memory my Dear Udnie and all the mechanomorphic paintings that were to follow, something radically new erupted out of Picabia's abstractions, something that very quickly drew these early commitments to a close.
Fortunately, this one tiny remark--offered to the press on the occasion of Udnie's and Edtaonisl's presentation at the Salon d'Automne--is, if only glancingly, revealing of the painter's shifting attention. In December of 1913, Le Matin printed a brief three-paragraph article in which Picabia was asked to say a few words to his uncomprehending public. He began, not surprisingly, with a reference to music: "There is a song by Mendelssohn entitled: The Marriage of Bees… [but] I don't hear a single hornet. In other words, it is not a question of imitation…And yet we accept, without question, by tradition, its title. So why not accept, in a painting, a title that is not evoked by the lines themselves?" All this is familiar territory for Picabia, introduced to the painter over a year before and developed both in New York and Paris. But what follows is something quite different, something inflected less by the notion of purity, of the pictorial fullness of "lines themselves":
Memories, nostalgia, a fleeting impression--these are metaphors that turn not on the notion of purity or fullness, but rather on loss, absence, and metaphors that suggest a troubled relation to the act of representation. What's particularly telling in this statement is the way in which the appeal to a pure painting, a painting having only itself as its subject, rubs up against a very different appeal, one suggestive of a certain melancholy. Alongside the triumphant declaration of a painting at last liberated from the conventions of representation, free to explore the immanent properties of painting in itself, we find the indication of a peculiar sort of doubt, of the sense that perhaps these paintings speak less of the fullness of the "in itself" than they do of some kind of imminent emptiness.
If this admittedly unique text can be said to characterize Picabia's consideration of his work at the end of 1913, if it is not to be understood as a distortion for the sake of the press (and without further textual evidence, this cannot be discounted), then we would have to consider the possibility that Picabia began to see his own work within a distinctly different context. This is all the more significant in that this reorientation is applied not to new work, but to work already completed, work fashioned out of what seemed to be a well-developed, quite justifiable conception of what modernist painting ought to consider as its rightful domain.
It was as if, in a delayed fashion, the negative lesson of Busoni's ambition had begun to eat away from the inside Picabia's confidence in the promise of pictorial autonomy. It was as if the undecidability at the heart of amorphism manifesto was working to undermine the authority of his triumphant aesthetic of "form and color in itself." It was as if these two were now serving as a prognostic of the logical, internally generated demise of abstraction, its unwitting conclusion in the form of the blank canvas. Under such conditions, it is not unreasonable to imagine an attempt to recuperate this loss by turning the process of loss into its thematization. In this way, the experience of demise can be compensated for by its representation.
I say this rather speculatively because Picabia would continue to develop his system of abstraction through the end of 1913 and into the early part of 1914, during which time he was painting some of his most convincing works, all of which, in fact, are best understood within the painter's earlier conception of painting as an autonomous, organic body. Indeed, a work like Little Udnie (Fig. 22) seems only to extend the sort of planar reduction and chromatic uniformity announced in the first version. Here one is left with a radically flattened space, coordinated around a movement from the lower left to the upper right, in a manner that takes Udnie's compressed space to a new extreme. It is difficult, when looking at Little Udnie, to imagine any slackening of attention, any threat to the painter's conviction.
When de Zayas traveled to Paris in the Summer of 1914, he kept Stieglitz informed of his various whereabouts. In a letter from May 22, he expressed a certain reservation regarding Picabia's recent work, describing it as "more simple and direct but still complicated and arbitrary." (40) But just one month later, by the end of June, de Zayas seems to have found three new paintings that interested him, works which he described to Stieglitz as having "forgot[ten] matter to express only, maybe the memory of something that has happened." (41) I would like to underscore the comma that falls between "only" and "maybe," for it seems to me that this comma is like a kind of pivot or fulcrum around which turns the distinction between the notion of abstraction-as-plenitude and its opposite, abstraction-as-loss. "only, maybe": de Zayas' hesitancy seems to me telling, another sign, of sorts, of the ambivalence detected in Picabia's December 1913 statement to the press. Before the comma, at the moment of "only," one could still imagine abstraction functioning within the system of "form and color itself" of ', only color, painting at its most advanced stage of refinement. After the comma, the moment of "maybe," one's grasp of this promised plenitude starts to drain away, threatens to become at best "a memory." In retrospect, de Zayas' assessment of Picabia's most recent work as functioning within the logic of memory, of an experience that is no longer immediately accessible, reflects back on his earlier assessment that Picabia's work was, although more simple and direct, nonetheless "complicated and arbitrary." It was as if de Zayas, in a month's time, reconceived the terms of his own system of evaluation. That which, from one perspective, appears complicated and arbitrary, which is to say, without a structure, lacking a plan, comes to seem from another angle to be a reflection on the very conditions of absence. Where the former interprets the work as having failed to make good on its promise of autonomy, the latter interprets the work as thematizing this failure, as, in a sense, giving form to the experience of lost form.
In his June letter to Stieglitz, de Zayas singles out one of the three works in particular--one that, out of concern that it will not fit through the door of Stieglitz's gallery, he notes to be about two-and-a-half meters high. Although de Zayas does not refer to the work by name, only one of the three fits this description. While both It's About Me and Comical Marriage are two meters on each side, I See Again in Memory my Dear Udnie [Fig. 7] is two meters wide and almost exactly two-and-a-half meters high. This fact, and the consideration of the painting within the context of "memory" suggest that de Zayas was considering Picabia's new paintings through the lens of the title of this one work, the largest of the three. Here the question of memory, of recollection, the theme introduced by Picabia in December of the year before, seems finally to have made its explicit appearance.
I See in Memory my Dear Udnie would seem to mark a backward step, a kind of reclamatory project in which the absent referent of the earlier abstracts is at once regained and reconstructed. Not only is the space not nearly as flat, but the imposition of a central form negates the all-over quality that so clearly determines the structure of the works from just a few months before. Brightly lit in the center of the canvas sits a conglomeration of overlapping and interlocking shapes--quasi-organic, quasi-machinal, shapes that in their color and tone, distinguish themselves from the uniformly brown and grey space surrounding them. This central form is itself supported by what looks to be a ledge that runs from left to right along the bottom of the painting. The ledge alone gives the painting a sense of illusion entirely absent in the previous works. And the fact that the shapes coalesce into a few discrete units suggests again that out of the flat space of the earlier abstractions, solid forms are in the process of reconstruction. With the aid of a few well-chosen formal devices, Picabia had managed to reconceive the painting-as-body of the earlier works into a new kind of painting of bodies.
This new kind of painting bears striking resemblance to a work of which Picabia had been in possession for some two years. Duchamp had given Picabia his earliest mechanomorphic painting, The Bride (Fig. 23), in late 1912, probably around the time of their trip to Jura. As in I See Again in Memory my Dear Udnie, the figural construction in Duchamp's Bride is set off coloristically from the darker and more monochromatic background. Perhaps the only significant difference between the two (besides the question of scale, itself establishing a crucial experiential difference) is that the individual forms in Picabia's work are far less modeled than those of Duchamp, where the central forms are clearly distinguished from the flat and unmodulated background space. Nonetheless, in both cases, the main figural motifs are conceived in the manner of organic-machinic hybrids. (42)
The Bride was one of two key works Duchamp painted in Berlin between July and August 1912, the other being The Passage from Virgin to Bride. Duchamp himself considered it one of his most crucial paintings, wherein he turned from his earlier interest in "kinetic painting," (still evident in The Passage from Virgin to Bride) toward what he referred to as, "my concept of a bride expressed by the juxtaposition of mechanical elements and visceral forms." (43) In addition, The Bride marked a crucial moment in Duchamp's oeuvre, for it coincided with the initiation of his work on The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.
As Duchamp himself notes, it was no coincidence that The Bride was painted just a few months after having seen Raymond Roussel's Impressions d'Afrique. (44) Roussel's collection of absurd events, ridiculous inventions and silly machines, included among others a bizarre "painting machine" demonstrated by one Louise Montalescot. It is not hard to imagine that Duchamp, in his "constant battle to make an exact and complete break" (45) with the aims and procedures of traditional painting, would have found in Montalescot's machine a congenial reference point for his work on The Bride. (46)
This cannot be said for Picabia. He saw the same performance Duchamp did. Evidently, however, his commitment to cubism and abstraction prevented him from making immediate use of Roussel's model. Nor did the presence of The Bride in Picabia's studio make much of an impact in the two years between 1912 and 1914. And yet, out of the blue, in one painting from the middle of 1914, Picabia turns to Duchamp's example, an example that had been staring at him for two full years. Scholars have made nothing of this strange delay on Picabia's part, a delay all the more puzzling in that it erupts, nearly complete in a single work to stand against two years of labor devoted to a practice that, in Duchamp's mind at least, stood at the opposite end of his own endeavors. "Abstraction," recalls Duchamp, was in the years 1912-13, "[Picabia's] hobbyhorse… He thought about nothing else. I left it very quickly." (47)
I want to insist upon this distinction articulated by Duchamp, along with the importance of Picabia's "delayed" reception of his friend's work, in order to get closer to an understanding of what occurred in mid-1914, of that which drew de Zayas' perplexed attention and his stuttered "only, maybe." But I also want to supplement these anecdotes with another, this time from Picabia's wife. As she recalled her husband's disposition in those years, and its relation to those of his closest friends, Buffet offered an assessment that inflects the sense behind the remarks of Duchamp and de Zayas in a peculiar manner. Speaking at first about Apollinaire's strange attachment to the very aesthetic practices against which the poet's own work would seem to have militated, (48) she then realizes that her husband, too, exhibited this same peculiar ambivalence. "What is extraordinary," noted Buffet, "is that, despite their audacity, both suffered from a discomfort they found hard to locate. It was a certain nostalgia for objective forms, a regret over the motif and all the traditional formulas from which they, bit by bit, separated themselves. This break with certain mental habits and inclinations often led them to doubt themselves." (49)
Given the sudden appearance in Picabia's work of Duchamp's mechanomorphic example, it is not too much to suggest that this shift would have been accompanied with a certain "nostalgia" or "doubt" as Buffet put it. And given the peculiar title of Picabia's first mechanomorphic work and the importance the painter placed on his titles, (50) one would be justified in locating in I See Again in Memory my Dear Udnie a certain ambivalence, if not at the center, than at least on the margin. (51)
And it is literally on the margin, along the lower left edge of the painting that we read, in clear, legible block-type, the phrase "Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie." As with Udnie and Edtaonisl, Picabia used a hidden technique in constructing the title. But where the first two were based upon the painter's own invented phrases (Uni-dimensionnel,Étiole danseuse), the later work begins with a pre-given expression--a kind of ready-made title. Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie, was drawn (with slight, but significant modification) from the so-called "Pink Pages" of the Petit Larousse dictionary. These literally pink pages (still present in the most recent editions of the dictionary) provide an annotated list of famous quotations, most of which are drawn from Latin sources. The phrase "Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie," was derived from Virgil's Æneid, from a passage in which Antor, in Italy, recalls his distant homeland, to which he, as a dying man, will never return: "Mourant, il revoit en souvenir sa chère Argos" (Dulces moriens reminiscitur Argos). (52) In adjusting this phrase, Picabia made just three small alterations. He 1.) eliminated the word "mourant", 2.) turned the original third person ("il") into the first person ("je"), and 3.) changed "Argos" to "Udnie."
If we assume that Picabia chose this phrase knowingly, then we ought to consider the connotations of the painter's substitutions. With Picabia (je) in place of Antor (il) and Udnie in place of Argos we find the painter recalling not simply any memory, but specifically a memory of something forever lost. Antor, on the edge of death, will never see his home again; it is only through memory that he can return. Analogously, for Picabia, it is only in memory that he is able to see Udnie. And this is to say that the sense of loss is evoked in two different fashions: first, through the literal meaning of the phrase, in the experience of seeing a love-object in one's memory and not in person; and second, through the very use of Latin, we sense a certain nostalgia in the act of citation itself, for here the dead language is evoked, in parallel fashion, as that which can only be held in memory. In the title "je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie," meaning and method intersect, each magnifying the loss implicit in the other. Where the words "Udnie" and "Edtaonisl" point to a purified realm in which language is continually reinvented, where each word is unique, "Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie" suggests a realm wherein language falls into disuse, where we find ourselves speaking through the words of the departed.
Given the indicators present in the title, the sense of recollection of that which is both dear and departed, I believe we are justified in reading aspects of the painting itself as inflected by the kind of "nostalgia" Buffet spoke of. The first to consider is the palette. In contrast to the aggressively multicolored abstractions of the months before, Picabia has returned to the muted greys and browns of his earlier cubist work. Here and there we find a few strokes of grey lavender, brief moments of color that could suggest a kind of dim recollection of the bright purple tones that dominated the original Udnie. The overall brownish hue of the canvas could be taken to suggest a newspaper faded with age, the once topical stories now a distant recollection. This is, of course, speculative, but it may well have been the case that Picabia's adoption of the palette used by Duchamp in The Bride was meant to suggest, perhaps, that one was looking into a pictorial system (that of cubist representation) that was now, in 1914, somewhat like the Latin language itself, outmoded, no longer accessible to the present. Perhaps this can even be said of the practice of abstraction itself, a practice that Picabia experienced, at least for a few moments, as not simply paradoxical, but indeed impossible, its ambition ending up in the blank canvases of Popaul Picador.
William Camfield suggests that Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie should be interpreted as a pictorial recollection of Picabia's encounter with an alluring, enticing dancer that he met aboard the ocean-liner he and his wife took to New York in 1913. In this way, suggests Camfield, "the forms themselves--cream-colored "female" parts and rubbery, probing "male" elements--suggest… the erotic character of those experiences." (53) And yet there is, I think, another equally justifiable interpretation, one that takes Udnie to be the name of a painting rather than a person. The painter's earlier insistence to Stieglitz that the titles be understood as linguistic complements to the paintings themselves suggests, in fact, that the title here points not to an earlier experience aboard the ship to New York, but rather the experience in front of a painting by the name of Udnie. In this reading, Udnie is not a person and her attributes, but a practice and its promise. In this reading, what is lost is the original promise of abstraction, the promise of purity, of the plenitude of painting understood as a body, complete and coordinated in itself. In this reading, Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie marks the painter's attempt to figure the loss of this original promise, to thematize the condition of painting in the age of the machine, at the moment in which the organic is threatened, if not altogether overtaken, by the technological. In this reading, the erotics of the mechanomorphic image are as much a menace as an enticement.
And if such a reading is warranted, as I think it is--not only by the intersecting implications of Picabia's earlier commitment to the promise of abstraction, as well as by the perceptions of de Zayas and Buffet, but also by the latent content of the title and the pictorial logic drawn from Duchamp's example--then we will have to consider the possibility that Picabia's mechanomorphic turn at the end of 1914 was accompanied by a considerable ambivalence, an ambivalence registered on the surface of I See Again in Memory my Dear Udnie in the form of a peculiar nostalgia for a lost (or abandoned) plenitude.
Where Duchamp's early commitment to the analytical, technical and technological, prepared him to receive the implications of the machinic with the swiftness manifest on the surface of The Bride, Picabia's early commitment to abstraction held such a reception at a distance. Where the machine entered Duchamp's work in an almost natural fashion, with little resistance, it seems to have entered Picabia's more violently, from outside, without the preparatory context in which Duchamp was to receive it. And if this is correct, then we should not be surprised to find Picabia's subsequent embrace of the world of the machine to be inflected, at times, with a sense of longing for that which it has displaced. And this is to say that the mechanomorphs should be understood not only within the context of a triumphant embrace of the new world of the machine, but also within that of the painter's troubled, and ultimately failed, relation to abstraction. In some sense, then, the machine was as much a compensation, a substitute, for that which existed only "in memory." >>Next
33. The text as it appeared in Camera
Work is reproduced without comment in the catalog to the Picabia
34. Borràs (Picabia, p. 112) provides a detailed analysis of this text and provides crucial information regarding Méric's aesthetic position. Remarkably, her analysis does not lead her to question the sincerity of the essay.
35. Jeffrey Weiss has provided the most
extensive unpacking of this text. Jeffrey Weiss, The Popular
36. The only exception, Weiss' account,
comes in what is really a three page appendix to a chapter devoted
37. In French the passages read: "Cherchez
la femme, dira-t-on. Quelle erreur! Par l'opposition desteints et
38. Weiss, p. 87.
39. Picabia, in "Ne riez pas, c'est de la peinture et ça représente une jeune américaine," Le Matin (December 1, 1913) 1; reprinted in Picabia, Écrits I, p. 26.
40. De Zayas, letter to Stieglitz, May
22, 1914, Stieglitz/O'Keefe Archive (Beinecke Rare Book Library,
41. De Zayas, letter to Stieglitz, June
30, 1914, Stieglitz/O'Keefe Archive (Beinecke Rare Book Library,
42. Camfield distinguishes the two by
arguing that Picabia's "forms tend to be more emphatic, the
43. Marcel Duchamp, notes for a slide
lecture, "Apropos of Myself" (1964), cited in: Marcel Duchamp,
44. The first performance of Impressions
d'Afrique opened on September 30, 1911, but was suspended
45. Duchamp to Cabanne, Dialogues with Duchamp, p. 38.
46. In a letter from 1946 to Marcel Jean,
Duchamp notes: "It was fundamentally Roussel who was
47. Speaking of his work in 1912-13, Duchamp
contrasts his interests with those of Picabia: "Picabia
48. This astonished Duchamp as well. As
he put it to Cabanne, Apollinaire was "still living like [a]
49. "Ce qui est extraordinaire,
c'est que malgré leurs audaces, l'un et l'autre souffraient d'un mal
50. This is clear from his 1913 letter
to Stieglitz, where he spoke about "a purer painting of a dimension
51. Carole Boulbès (Francis Picabia:
Le Saint Masqué (Jean Michele Place, 1998)),
interprets the bulk of
52. The entry in the Larousse
includes the following brief explanation of this phrase: "Expression
dont Virgile (Enéide X, 782) sert pour rendre plus touchante
la douleur d'un jeune guerrier, Antor, qui avait suivi Enée en
53. Camfield, Francis Picabia (1979) 69.