Author: Marijke Peyser
During his lifetime, the Englishman Arthur Cravan, the pseudonym of Fabian Avenarinus Lloyd, was not only a boxer, poet and publisher, but a Dadaist as well. Between 1912 and 1915, pursuing his literary ambitions, Cravan published five issues of the magazine Maintenant. He poked fun at the intellectual ambitions of his contemporaries in poems, articles and texts. His anarchistic personality and provocative behaviour was highly appreciated by Francis Picabia.
During the First World War Picabia and Cravan were members of a large group of English and French artists who fled from the violence and the compulsory military service and settled in Barcelona. On 23 April 1916 the city was convulsed by the scandal surrounding the boxing match between Cravan and the American Jack Johnson. A newspaper published the following report: ‘In the boxing match between the world champion J. Johnson and the Englishman Cravan, Johnson let Cravan exhaust himself during the first five rounds. Then Johnson floored him in the sixth with one sledgehammer blow. The audience were aware of the farce and protested immediately.’
Although Picabia and Cravan were both staying in the vicinity of Barcelona in July 1916 and afterwards spent a lot of time together in New York, we cannot be certain that Picabia’s watercolour Portrait of Arthur Cravan is actually a picture of Cravan. The doubt about the identity of the subject arises out of another title that is in circulation: Portrait of Georges Carpentier. Picabia biographer Maria Lluisa Borràs maintains that it was the boxer Georges Carpentier, because of the friendship between the two men and the style of the drawing. The reminiscences of Marcel Duchamp, chronicled by Paola Magi in Treasure Hunt with Marcel Duchamp (2011), confirm this attribution. In the summer of 1923 Carpentier frequently visited Picabia and his wife Gabrielle Buffet who spent their Sundays at Tremblay in France. Picabia made the watercolour, which Carpentier signed, during one of those visits. A year later when Picabia decided to place this portrait on the first page of the last issue of the magazine 391 – Picabia’s Dadaist magazine which was an obvious reference to Alfred Stieglitz’s magazine 291 – he partially removed Carpentier’s signature (it can still be seen under the removal) and replaced it with the following words ‘Rrose Sélavy by Picabia’. According to Magi it was the physical likeness between Carpentier and Duchamp, whose alter ego had been Sélavy since 1920, that made Picabia do it.