Author: Marijke Peyser
Francis Picabia was both admired and criticized during his career. In the 1910s and 1920s he was one of the most important Dada artists in Paris and a friend of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, but he also made pseudo-classical works and ‘transparencies’. His stylistic eclecticism amazed his critics. Like Duchamp, Picabia went to New York a number of times and in 1913 attended the renowned Armory Show. In 1922 he designed a number of covers for André Breton’s magazine Littérature.
On 30 October 1922, accompanied by their partners, Picabia and Breton drove to Barcelona for the opening of the Francis Picabia exhibition on 18 November in Galerie Dalmau, where fifty of the painter’s recent works were shown. The evening before the opening, Breton delivered a lecture entitled ‘Le caractère de l’évolution moderne et ce qui en participe’, in which he charted the current situation surrounding the Dada movement. At that time the Dada movement was past its peak and several Dada artists were moving towards Surrealism, Picabia among them. Breton wrote the favourable foreword for the exhibition catalogue. He stressed the fact that the works were ‘very recent’ and the titles ‘necessary additions’. However the exhibition was not a success: nothing was sold and only one positive review appeared in the Spanish press. The works exhibited, including Radio Concerts, with their circles, squares, lines and triangles are typical of the late Dada machine style. The titles Hache-paille (1922), Totalisateur (1922) and Décaveuse (1923) refer respectively to a machine that cuts straw, to equipment used at horse races and to excavations. Almost all Picabia’s machine-style or ‘mecanomorph’ works from 1922 have an identifiable source – illustrations from the popular science magazine La science et la vie. Radio Concerts refers to a radio set.
In January 1915, Picabia had presented mecanomorph works for the first time in Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery ‘The Little Galleries of the Photo Secession’ – better known as ‘291’, after the address at Fifth Avenue, New York. Like Duchamp, Picabia was inspired by the technological developments in America and he used machines or parts of them as metaphors for the modern human mind. In Ici, c’est ici Stieglitz (1915) Picabia portrayed the photographer and art dealer as a broken bellows camera. The word ‘ideal’ is an allusion to Stieglitz’s progressive but precarious undertaking to introduce modern art and photography into America as a serious art form. The works created during Picabia’s second ‘machine-style’ period (1921-22) went further in their abstraction and stylization. By way of magazines, exhibitions and contacts, and in particular the leading lights of De Stijl, Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, Picabia saw and heard about the non-figurative art of Constructivist artists like Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky and Làszló Moholy-Nagy. Radio Concerts, which summons up parallels with these artists in its abstraction, dates from this period.