April 2008

Len Bracken


On Collecting Picabia’s Writings and the Translation of His Major Poetry and Manifestos

“DADA kisses in the spring water and its kisses must be the contact of water with fire,” Picabia, Philosophical Dada, 1920

I had just turned off a narrow passageway onto a deserted street in an old district of Paris, a street that would have difficulty accommodating two-way traffic. The concrete and granite on both sides ran high, as the facades of apartment buildings or walls that led to courtyards. A white-haired man was walking away from me down the middle street.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said with a voice that was loud enough to reach him.

He turned.

“Do you know where I can find Éditions Allia?”

His white whiskers spread across his face as he smiled.

“It’s right over there.” He pointed to a door next garage door. “You ring and they’ll let you in.”

“Thanks so much.”

“You know they publish Picabia?”

“The painter?”

“He was a great poet. You’ll see.” He pointed to the door with a glint of delight in his eye.

I smiled back while moving toward the door. Having called ahead, I was expected. The lock buzzed and the door pushed open. One ancient courtyard led to another where I could see the editorial offices through modern floor-to-ceiling windows. Although my research and business was related to something else, I assumed, based on the firm’s catalogue, the publishing house was named after the plumbing fixture firm in homage to Duchamp. And I was only mildly surprised to learn that Picabia was a renowned poet.

The publisher greeted me and led me along a book-lined wall to his office. He was an amiable man who gave the impression of being shrewd in business. We discussed a translation project, Gianfranco Sanguinetti’s Real Report, and then he led me back out to the hall lined with shelves stacked with books.

“Find what you want,” he said. “I’ll be in my office.”

“And your Picabia?”

“Ah, you want him too?” He pointed to hardback books on a shelf and left me to look at them.

As I drew near, I noticed another Picabia, a pocket-sized, soft cover booklet, and took in the orange shirt with white flowers. Jesus-Christ rastaquouere. I would latter find out it means “carpetbagger” as I devoured the egomaniacal words: “Don’t work, don’t love, don’t read, think of me; I’ve found the new laugh that gives me a free pass. There is nothing to understand, live for your pleasure, there is nothing, nothing, nothing other than the value you give yourself to everything.”

Back in the states, I went on to read Poems and Designs of the Girl Born Without a Mother and Unique Eunuqe from Allia, as well as Letters to Christine, published by Éditions Gérard Lebovici -- all of which were illustrated with the artist’s designs and drawings. The late publisher’s wife developed a line of Dada books comprising Picabia, printed with lead type and sumptuous design. I met her on another trip to Paris at her storefront on Rue St. Sulpice in the Latin Quarter, and the impression she gave of someone who truly enjoyed her life of books.

From bookstores and libraries in Paris and Washington, my search for Picabia’s writings inevitably moved to the internet. When it came to English-language editions of Picabia, all I could find on the net were two micro-editions crudely yet charmingly printed in Madras: Yes No with a photo of the painter holding his brushes on the cover, and Who Knows with a photo of Picabia on his bike and his dog in a basket. By the time his poems were published by Mémoire du livre, in 2002, I was intrigued enough to translate a few poems, including the pre-Dada "Germ," which is nicely rendered in I Am a Beautiful Monster:

Animal man
Towards nothingness
Envelopes his senses
The shadows of his sewer
Are the impediment to love
Chinese system of atheism
Like an empty gaze
Snail-colored medullae skeletons
Of mutual penetration
Blind and mute mechanism
We shall find the wings that live according to Plato
In the appearances of reality

As a Picabia poetry connoisseur, but by no means an expert, it was a deep pleasure for me to read I Am a Beautiful Monster and the introduction by translator Marc Lowenthal. The collection represents two-thirds of a two-volume collection published in 1975, which Lowenthal says has been supplanted by the Mémoire du livre version of Poemes edited by Carole Boulbés. A second volume comprising critical essays and other texts has recently been published. The collection made available by M.I.T. Press does not include Picabia’s autobiographical novel Caravansérail (1924), which I found at the Library of Congress and now see online for fifty-five euros.

Lowenthal justifies this collecting and publishing of Picabia with scholarly notes by recounting the polemic that Picabia waged with André Breton over the rejection by Gallimard of Picabia’s critical essays. The poet was himself a critic and thus fair game. And part of the fun in reading Beautiful Monster comes when the translator sets up the poems or identifies sly inside jokes in his notes that would be missed by many readers -- for example the one around Picabia’s dedication of the poetic manifesto Philosophical Dada to Breton.

The manifesto was Picabia’s contribution to the Dada issue of Littérature and was read for him at the Université populaire de Faubourg on February 19, 1920. “It was the only manifesto at this performance,” Lowenthal writes, “that the audience listened to in silence.” In this manifesto describing the attributes of Dada and calling it many things, the poet writes, “DADA is an artichoke doorknob.” The translator tells us that these doorknobs were commonplace in France and that the French idiom “il a un coeur d’artichaut” refers to a man who falls in love with every woman he meets. From the translator’s note, which cites various letters and an essay by Breton, the joke seems to be that Dada is the ability to fall in love as easily as one walks through a door.

Lowenthal reveals that the Letters to Christine collection contains verbatim passages from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science and Picabia’s later work Chi-lo-sa is a pastische of the same book. Lowenthal gently notes that nothing was added to Nietzche and describes this appropriation as “the self-transformation that Picabia had perhaps still desired in the final, rather saddening years of his life.”

I don’t know much about Picabia’s latter years other than his villa in Cannes was robbed at one point in his life and all the art he had made and collected was stolen. He had planned to live on sales from the collection through old age and was perhaps desperate enough to engage in wholesale plagiarism. One wonders whether Floriana Lebovici was in on the hoax when she decided to publish Letters to Christine. Evidently even the most forceful letters Picabia sent to his friend, the ones that called for bold originality, were pure Nietzsche.

Lowenthal researched several other accusations while preparing the book. He refutes the accusation that Picabia plagiarized Adon Lacroix, Man Ray’s first wife. In the notes to this discussion of originality, the translator makes the interesting point that critics are discussing the use made of Picabia’s art by Picasso. In the long-running debate over the possibility that a Tzara manifesto was actually written by Walter Serner in exchange for contacts in Paris, Lowenthal says research now shows the handover never happened. The translator is established in the field, having translated considerable surrealist literature, and he is also a literary sleuth to match Picabia, who was known as a “literary pickpocket.”

For readers who want still more Dada with Picabia seasoning, M.I.T. Press brings you The Artwork Caught by the Tail: Francis Picabia and Dada in Paris by George Baker. The work draws on the author’s dissertation, so the interpretation reflects a wide range of influences -- from the general economy of Georges Bataille to the reinterpretation of masochism by Gilles Deleuze. Baker makes close readings of Picabia’s artwork and journals, and gives descriptions of the Paris Dada scene, all of which will be welcomed by historians of modernity.

The interpretation in the epilogue of The Artwork Caught by the Tail of masochism and the “Oedipal tenor” of Picabia’s Dada production is completely uninhibited may indeed be overdue: “And few have pointed out,” Baker writes, “the images of male sexual oblation within the mechanomorphs, such as we witness in the drawing Hermaphorodism, published in Picabia’s 1918 book.”

The author’s psychoanalysis of Picabia’s works and interactions with Breton and others in their circle takes many turns; he draws attention, for example, to the fetishistic high-heel shoes and pipe in the nostril of the collage Tableau Rastadada. The author concludes that Dada was not the father of surrealism and may instead have desired to call itself the mother of the movement. “The Father is Dead,” Baker writes at the end of his book, adding the words famously scrawled on a photo across Picabia’s forehead: “Long Live Daddy!”

In Jesus Christ Carpetbagger the poet said he disguised himself as a man to be nothing, but it would be more accurate to say he disguised himself as many things. He was the chauffeur for a general, then a deserter, and always an independently wealthy womanizer whose erotic aggression is apparent in much of his work. Picabia was the protozinester with his journal 391, inexpensive collected copies of which can be found on sale in Paris bookstores. And he was the force behind the collaborative, graffiti style Cacodylic Eye in which over fifty artists contributed to what is the signature Dada painting.

I can imagine him painting as fast as he drives, going farther than the others. In the Paris rooms to the 2006 Dada exhibit at the National Gallery, taken as a whole, Picabia’s visual art -- from the mechanomorphs to the Animal Tamer -- rises above the rest, even though it would be a sixty-foot version Marcel Duchamp’s Mona Lisa that advertised the event on the front of the museum.

I missed the Picabia exhibit at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris but have the catalogue that provides a comprehensive view of his paintings and excellent essays, including one by Annie Le Brun that sketches the artist’s interior landscape by recounting his breakdowns and zeroing in on certain moments, for example when he would be sexually satiated but nonetheless unstable. The painter’s later works attracted the attention of contemporary artists in the eighties, although some critics say the only reason they like these paintings is that they’re so bad.

I haven’t gone out of my way to track down a Picabia print, much less an original, but I do keep a dated newspaper clipping of one of his monster paintings on my desk at work to remind myself how long I’ve been there. And now that I have I Am a Beautiful Monster, my search for Picabia’s poetry is over; all that remains is the collection of critical essays and the out-of-print novel.

When he broke with Dada, Picabia wrote that the movement would live forever from people cashing in on it. He may not been able to anticipate the pseudodada trinkets for sale at museum exhibitions, but he knew dealers would make fortunes on the paintings well into the future. It was probably wishful thinking on his part, however, to predict that publishers would “treat themselves to cars” as a result of publishing Dada writing. Picabia’s publishers may or may not turn a profit on his words, but they thankfully succeed in keeping his thoughts alive.