Book Notes

‘I Am a Beautiful Monster,’ by Francis Picabia

“Picabia has destroyed ‘beauty’ and built his work with the leftovers.”
— Tristan Tzara

A self-declared poet, painter, idiot, failure, pickpocket, and anti-artist, Francis Picabia was one of the leading figures of the Dadaist movement. Now, almost 50 years after his death, The MIT Press has released the first English translation collection of his writings.

Beginning in Zurich in 1916, Dada’s beginnings as an antiwar statement against the senseless violence of World War I evolved into the first avant-garde art movement. Picabia’s art and writings were always a confrontation, a reaction against the unscrupulous bourgeoisie that led Europe into war, a reaction against capitalism, the art establishment, and the establishment in general. He deliberately slaughtered syntax and deconstructed linear meaning in an attempt to purify assumptions about writing, art and the meaning of existence.

Picabia was celebrated by other Dada and Surrealist personalities like Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara and Andre Breton. Breton in particular was so appreciative of Picabia’s singular point of view, he said he wished he could consult him “… like a barometer on the atmospheric changes that took place overnight.” One of these atmospheric changes was automatic writing, a style that Picabia helped to popularize. Automatic writing is produced by the unconscious in a nonintellectual state of mind without deliberate linear intent. Such work is featured in this volume, which reads like a nihilistic collage of confrontational imagery with whimsical turns of dark, anarchistic phrases.

Translator Marc Lowenthal states in the introduction, “What the unconscious was to Surrealism, refusal was to Dada.” Refusal and negation are the worlds that Picabia populated with his painting and writing. The anti-establishment spirit of Dada produced many of the movements that followed, including performance art, Pop Art and the Fluxus movement through Post Modernism and beyond.

I am a beautiful monster
I have the sin of virtue for
support.
My pollen stains the roses
from New York to Paris.

Francis Picabia pioneered these strange landscapes and left his work as a signpost for what was to follow. His writings are an exclusive glimpse into a noteworthy personality of the
20th century.

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at www.mindtheimage.com.

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