Vol.1 / Issue 3

Between Music and the Machine:

Francis Picabia and the End of Abstraction

by Roger I. Rothman



Painting the Machine

Picabia was called up for service soon after the war broke out in August. With the aid of Buffet's connections, he was able to find a relatively secure post as a general's chauffeur. Soon thereafter Picabia's father, on the staff of the Cuban embassy, arranged to have his son assigned to the task of negotiating shipments of sugar from Cuba to France. On their way to meet this mission, Picabia and his wife stopped off in New York. They arrived in June of 1915 and managed to postpone the trip to Cuba until some time in the late fall. In the meantime, Picabia resumed contact with de Zayas, Haviland and others around Stieglitz and his gallery. Almost immediately, he began collaborating on the group's newest project, the magazine 291, a large-format magazine, aggressively avant-gardist in design, far more experimental than that of Stieglitz's rather sober Camera Work.

Click to enlarge
Figure 24
Picabia, Girl Born without a Mother,
291, June 1915

One of the first of Picabia's contributions to 291 was a small ink drawing (hand-tinted in the deluxe edition) entitled Daughter Born without a Mother (Fille née sans mère) (Fig. 24). With its schematic depiction of a coiled spring alongside a collection of floral forms, the drawing recalls I See Again in Memory my Dear Udnie, a work he had probably "seen again" in New York for the first time since de Zayas took it with him in September the year before. (54)

In its more clearly mechanical appearance, the drawing also suggests that his renewed contact with Duchamp (who arrived in New York around the same time) may have encouraged Picabia to harden his earlier organo-mechanic hybrid into something more obviously machine-like. In Duchamp's studio, Picabia must have seen not only Duchamp's Chocolate Grinder (Fig. 25), but also the two glass works, the 9 Malic Moulds (Fig. 26) and the semicircular Glider (Fig. 27), as well as the newly purchased glass plates that were to be used for the construction of The Large Glass. He must also have seen at least a few of Duchamp's readymades (the recent coinage of the term probably made the works all the more enticing). In other words, Picabia must have confronted, in one small space, almost the entire range of Duchamp's new, unequivocal rejection of modernist painting.

Click to enlarge
Figure 25
Figure 26
Figure 27
Marcel Duchamp,
Chocolate Grinder
, 1914
Marcel Duchamp,
9 Malic Moulds,
Marcel Duchamp,

Click to enlarge
Figure 28
Marius De Zayas,
Abstract Portrait of Picabia
, reproduced in Camera Work, vol. 46,
Oct. 1914

It is no surprise then to find that Picabia's first major project consisted of a series of mechanical portraits, each of which was drawn with the precision used by Duchamp in his various glass works. In this, he was perhaps also drawn in by de Zayas' so-called "absolute portraits," one of which, a portrait of Picabia himself, was published in Camera Work in October of 1914 (Fig. 28). The drawing consists of a cascade of repeating curves, each of which appears as if they were made with the aid of a ruler. Included alongside this abstract design is a pair of mathematical formulas ("a+b"; "a+b+c"). De Zayas' suggestion that his sitters are best captured without reference to their superficial appearance, is entirely in keeping with Picabia's subsequent mechanical portraits, one of which depicts de Zayas as a bizarre contraption made of an engine attached to a spark plug, itself connected to a woman's corset [fig. 9]--just the sort of diagrammatic (55) representations that Duchamp was preparing for the Large Glass.

Figure 29
Francis Picabia, Behold the Woman, 1915

Although the machines Picabia used were more emphatically modern than Duchamp's Chocolate Grinder, his commitment to a similarly dry technique, drawn from the example of mechanical drawing, points toward a practice almost entirely at odds with well-worked brushstrokes and rich color combinations of his earlier abstractions. Perhaps the best example of this more modernized chocolate grinder is Picabia's Voilà la Femme (Fig. 29), a small watercolor of what appears to be a fragment of a piston. With its suggestion of a mechanically repeated back-and-forth motion, the image operates within the very same kind of sexual metaphorics that Duchamp was to make so central to his Large Glass. (56)

In other words, early in 1915, Picabia seemed poised to follow Duchamp in breaking altogether with the practice of painting (and all its attendant values and promises). An observer of Picabia's labors in the Modern Gallery, the offices of 291, might well have imagined that the painter had given up all the concerns that guided him up to that point.

And yet almost immediately after preparing the mechanical portraits for 291, Picabia began to paint again, working with oil, gouache, and, in some cases metallic paint, on board. Over the course of the summer and fall of 1915, Picabia painted six works of almost equal size, each measuring around three to four feet on either side. (57) A Little Solitude in the Middle of Suns (Petite solitude au milieu des soleils)(Fig. 30), Reverence (Révérence) (Fig. 31), Paroxysm of Sorrow (Paroxysme de la douleur) [fig. 18], Machine without a Name (Machine san nom) [fig. 19], This Thing is Made to Perpetuate My Memory (Cette chose est faite pour perpétuer mon souvenir) (Fig. 32), and Very Rare Painting on Earth (Très rare tableau sur la terre) (Fig. 33) were shown together in February of 1916 along with 10 other works, including a number of smaller watercolors and drawings from the same period, (such as Voilà Elle and This Machine Laughingly Castigates Manners) as well as three abstract paintings from 1913-14 (Catch-as-Catch-Can (Fig. 34); Comic Force; Horrible Sorrow).

Click to enlarge
Figure 30
Figure 31
Figure 32
Francis Picabia, A Little Solitude in the Middle of Suns, 1915
Francis Picabia,
Reverence, 1915
Francis Picabia,
This Thing Is Made To Perpetuate My Memory
, 1915
Figure 33
Figure 34
Francis Picabia, Very Rare Painting on Earth, 1915
Francis Picabia,
Catch-As-Catch-Can, 1913

Despite the immediate question posed by the fact that these six mechanomorphs were shown alongside three abstract paintings from the year before, scholars have been all but unanimous in their depiction of 1915 as the year in which Picabia made an absolute break with his previous concerns. (58) Implicit here is the consideration of Picabia as having followed a course parallel to that of Duchamp. (59) The explanation for this shift, when it is offered, typically turns on the outbreak of the war, (60) the confrontation with New York City's technological marvels, (61) the appeal to the idea that Picabia was a man with a "compulsive need for change." (62)

And yet a number of things suggest that something more complex is at work here. For one, there is Buffet's insistence that Picabia, "was never able to suppress his pictorial vision. He remained a painter even in his most aggressive works." (63) Buffet's observation is all the more relevant here in that she used it to distinguish her husband's work from that of Duchamp for whom the abandonment of painting was a necessary logical step in his aesthetic of "destruction," as she put it. Indeed, it is somewhat surprising that Buffet has been the only one to make note of this most obvious distinction between these two artists--artists who have been called "Dada's Castor and Pollux, its yin and yang." (64) Buffet's understanding of her husband deserves attention, not only because it enables an entry into the possibility of distinguishing between Picabia's work and that of Duchamp, but also, and more importantly, because it provides the first indication of the ways in which the works from 1915 draw much of their conviction from the particularities of their dialog with that which seems, on the surface, to have been so definitively abandoned. Her observation points toward a more complex understanding of the ways in which the mechanomorphs draw from and respond to the ambitions, promises--and failures--of abstract painting. >>Next

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54. See letter from de Zayas to Stieglitz, September 13, 1914, transcribed in Marius de Zayas, How, When,
and Why Modern Art Came to New York
, ed. Francis Naumann (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996) 185. Scholars
have often noted the obvious similarity between these two works (Camfield, Francis Picabia, p. 80;
Naumann, New York Dada, pp. 59-60), yet it has not been suggested that the painter's interest in
reconsidering his earlier work was probably inspired by his renewed contact with it. This work provides one
(of the more obvious) links between the painter's abstract works and his subsequent mechanomorphs. I think
Camfield is mistaken when he claims that this 1915 drawing "suggests what little transition exists between the psychological studies of 1913-1914 and the machinist drawings of 1915. It does resemble somewhat Je revois
en souvenir ma chère Udnie
, but a clearer suggestion of rods and springs introduces the machine element which
Picabia himself claimed for 1915." (Camfield, Francis Picabia, p. 80) Indeed, his very acknowledgement of a resemblance suggests the contrary. But, as I argue below, this particular connection is but the most superficial,
and in the end, one of the least significant.

55. Although beyond the scope of this study, the question of the "diagrammatic"--a term Duchamp
himself uses to describe his alternative to the cubist/abstractionist model (Cabanne, Dialogues with Duchamp,
p. 31)--deserves attention as one of the significant, yet entirely overlooked, alternatives to the cubist/
abstractionist model proposed by Picabia in 1913-14.

56. The same is true for the more complex drawing reproduced in 291 (November 1915), Voilà Elle, where a
target is attached, through a pair of strings, to a gun that itself points back to the target. The masturbatory
implications of this drawing have been commented upon by a number of scholars, likewise suggesting its
parallel to the erotics of Duchamp's contemporaneous work. (New York Dada, p. 62; Borràs, Picabia, 158;
Camfield, Francis Picabia, p. 70),

57. Of the six known mechanomorphs, all but one (A Little Solitude in the Middle of Suns) are extant.

58. As mentioned above, Sanouillet considers Picabia's mechanomorphs as the sign that the painter
had "turned his back" on his earlier preoccupations. Pontus Hulten refers to the mechanomorphs as having
"inaugurated an absolutely new pictorial practice, having nothing to do with the brilliant lyricism of the
pre-war period." In a similar vein, Jean Hubert Martin characterized the mechanomorphs as staked upon
the desire "to create a completely new endeavor, without any reference to the past." (Michel Sanouillet,
Dada à Paris
(Paris: Flammarion, 1965/1993) 28; Pontus Hulten, Picabia Catalog, 1979, p. 7; Jean Hubert
Martin, Francis Picabia, exhibition catalog (Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, 1976) 45).
The one exception is that of William Camfield, for whom these works, despite their manifest differences on the
level of iconography, nonetheless "attest to continuities of aim and content. Instead of developing a vocabulary
of abstract forms and colors [as a means of representing the inner, subjective experiences of the painter], Picabia
now sought machine equivalents or symbols to comment on man and human situations, much as the ancient
Greeks and Romans had developed personifications of gods, virtues, vices, war and peace." (Camfield, Francis
(1979), pp. 77-78.) Still, Camfield maintains that beyond this one exception, there exists no other
significant connection between the abstractions of 1913-14 and the mechanomorphs of 1915.

59. Perhaps this is a good place to enumerate some of the more prominent examples of the ways in which
the relationship between Picabia and Duchamp has been dealt with in the literature. The common interest
in man-machine hybrids has been much commented upon (Borràs, Francis Picabia: Máquinas y Españolas,
exhibition catalog (Barcelona: Fundació Antoni Tàpies, 1996) 170; Camfield, Máquinas y Españolas, p. 175);
The mutual influence of figures like Roussel, Jarry and Pawlowski has also been cited by Borràs (Picabia , p.
153) and Camfield (Francis Picabia, 1979, p. 79); In addition, for Camfield, one of the crucial similarities involves
their mutual interest in the "intellectual" aspect of art (Francis Picabia, 1979, p. 85); Ulf Linde considers alchemy
to be a source of mutual inspiration (Francis Picabia, Grand Palais, p. 24), while Martin has focused on their
mutual interests in word games (Francis Picabia, Grand Palais, p. 24).
Regarding the accounts of their differences, Copely argues for dividing the two along the lines of the cerebral
(Duchamp) and the corporeal (Picabia) (Francis Picabia, Grand Palais, p. 15) while Martin distinguishes between
the worldly Picabia and the provincial Duchamp (Francis Picabia, Grand Palais, p. 46). Camfield has distinguished
between Duchamp's attraction to the labor-intensive work of the Large Glass as opposed to Picabia's often improvisational compositions (Máquinas y Españolas, p.175), as well as the more fundamental distinction
between the ways in which sexuality is represented in their work--as preposterous in the case of Duchamp, as
frustrating in the case of Camfield. (Francis Picabia, 1979, p. 70).
In sum, none of the accounts address the distinction that I take to be fundamental: namely the difference
between Duchamp's abandonment of modernist painting (and therefore its attendant aims and values) and
Picabia's continued, if ambivalent, attachment to it.

60. See Virginia Spate, Orphism: The Evolution of Non-Figurative Painting in Paris, 1910-1914
(London: Oxford University Press, 1979).
It should be said that one of the more remarkable aspects of the perspective on the war in 1915 (and one
that surely deserves attention) was that, for Duchamp at least, the foremost thing on his mind seems to have
been not the human devastation of the war, but rather the emptiness of the cafés. Although one may well be
tempted to interpret Duchamp's machinic turn as part of a reflection of the war's introduction of technologically
advanced methods of human destruction, contemporaneous comments present a more naïve, if not utterly self-
absorbed consideration of the effects of the war. In an interview from 1915, Duchamp makes only passing
reference to the violence of the war; his main concern was the sense of boredom he felt with the entire city
talking about nothing else but what was going on at the front:
The Quartier Latin is a gloomy endroit these days. The old gay life is all vanished. The ateliers are dismally shut. Art has gone dusty. You know, at the outbreak of the war, all Latin Quarter cafés closed up at 8 o'clock in the evening. When I abandoned Paris last spring, the hour had been advanced to 10:30. But it is a very different life from the happy, stimulating life one used to encounter. Paris is like a deserted mansion. Her lights are out. One's friends are all away at the front. Or else they have been already killed. I came over here, not
because I couldn't paint at home, but because I hadn't anyone to talk with. It was frightfully lonely. I am
excused from service on account of my heart . So I roamed about all alone. Everywhere the talk turned upon war.
Nothing but war was talked from morning until night. In such an atmosphere, especially for one who holds war
to be an abomination, it may readily be conceived existence was heavy and dull. From a psychological standpoint
I find the spectacle of war very impressive. The instinct which sends men marching out to cut down other men is
an instinct worthy of careful scrutiny. What an absurd thing such a conception of patriotism is! Fundamentally,
all people are alike. Personally, I must say I admire the attitude of combating invasion with folded rms. Could that
but become the universal attitude, how simple the intercourse of nations would be." (Duchamp, in "French
Artists Spur on an American Art," New York Tribune, Sunday, October 24, 1915, section IV: 2, 3).

61. See, for example, Naumann, New York Dada, p. 60.

62. Christopher Green, "Cubism and the Possibility of Abstract Art," in Towards a New Art:
Essays on the Background to Abstract Art, 1910-20
(London: The Tate Gallery, 1980) 164.

63. "Picabia… ne réussira pas à supprimer sa vision picturale; il restera plastique même dans
ses réalisations les plus agressives.
" Buffet, "A propos de l'anti-peinture," Rencontres, p. 249.

64. William Copely, "Du lièvre et de la tortue et principalement du lièvre," Francis Picabia,
exhibition catalog (Paris: Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, 1976) 14.


Figs. 25-27
©2002 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.