Photo: @castaandre, via Instagram.
“These are vulgar individuals, dirty egoists who think only of their financial interest.” Artist Francis Picabia wrote this after his Côte d’Azur studio was “taken by some Jews” following the liberation of France by Allied forces during World War II. It’s a quote found buried in the 33rd footnote to curator Anne Umland’s opening catalogue essay, which accompanies the artist’s current retrospective at MoMA.
As its title, “Our Heads are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction,” hints, the exhibition positions Picabia as an almost-impossible-to-pin-down figure artistically, shifting styles from Impressionism to Dada to his famous monsters. In person, he was known to utter anti-Semitic comments and to womanize. He was “willing to try anything, fueled by nihilism and prone to depression,” Umland writes after asking, “How does our knowledge of Picabia as a political subject inform our reading of his wartime works? Does it change the way we perceive his achievements?”
Yes. And it should. One can see Picabia’s troubling politics surface most obviously in the photo-based paintings he produced from 1940 to 1943 while living in Vichy-controlled France during World War II. Picabia primarily drew from soft-core porn magazines of the 1930s to create the paintings. Many show naked women, creepily objectified, or the kind of hard-jawed, muscular man that evokes a now-familiar type of Nazi iconography. Then there is Portrait of a Couple (1942–43), which graces the back of the catalogue, showing a handsome white man and woman duo, smiling happily and frolickingly in cherry blossoms. It screams “master race.” As critic Jason Farago quipped of these works, “What else is there to say except that they look like Nazi porn?”
But, posits Michèle C. Cone in her catalogue essay on this period, Picabia’s nudes did not convey the Nazis’ “propagandistic messages to encourage the rise of birthrates,” but rather they participate in that style “while at the same time subverting it.” I don’t doubt the analysis or quality of scholarship here. Assigning politics to an artist can be a slippery task and artistic subversion can be a meaningful political gesture. But today, very little about these works feels subversive in a particularly valuable way, especially when one thinks about what was happening across Europe in the early 1940s. Yes, Picabia is enigmatic, as is his work. But the political landscape in which he existed was remarkably unambiguous, or at least remarkably unsuited to ambiguity.
That Picabia was arrested following the liberation of southern France and accused of collaboration—though he was eventually released without trial for lack of evidence—doesn’t aide a charitable reading of the works. Still, Picabia wasn’t a fascist per se, not when compared to contemporaneous artists like Mussolini fan Ezra Pound or Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (admittedly a low bar). And in some works produced in the early ’40s, Picabia seems straightforwardly critical, or at least fearful of the kind of group mentality that allows for someone like Hitler to rise to power.
In The Adoration of the Calf (1941–42), for example, Picabia worked from a surrealist photograph by Erwin Blumenfeld showing a towering calf, wrapped in a blue cloak. In his painting, Picabia added the waving hands of adoring masses beneath the figure. The work is ominous, suggesting the impending doom embodied by worshiping the dictatorial animal, one that the crowd seems to knowingly, or blindly, embrace. It is genuinely powerful, and has disheartening connections to the present day. The accompanying wall text concedes such readings are hard to avoid, while also noting that Picabia was a “resolutely apolitical artist.” But I mean, come on. Was anything apolitical in Vichy France?
Then there is Le Juif Errant (The Wandering Jew) (1941), a disquieting painting created some time after October 1940, when anti-Semitic laws were enacted in Vichy before a governmental body had been established to oversee them. The titular subject is cloaked in red, eyebrows raised, and cast in a dark shadow. Behind him is a ghostly, naked woman who appears to be a figment of his imagination or desire. The work takes its name from an anti-Catholic novel but it invokes, of course, the anti-Semitic myth of the Jew forced to roam the earth after taunting Jesus on the crucifix. One wonders why Picabia took the rare step of writing the title of the work on the front of the painting, assigning a faith to a figure whose religion might otherwise be unknown. And the evocation of a wandering Jew when, we now know, thousands were being rounded up across Europe is nauseating.
But, cautions Umland, “the work is hardly a straightforward or transparent document that can be used, like a piece of evidence in a courtroom, to establish Picabia’s complicity.” This word—complicity—is tricky in and of itself. Once again, a supposedly unbreachable ambiguity is central to the argument, and Umland adds that the woman in the work’s background comes from a porn magazine, suggesting “perhaps that the protagonist is as much a suave ladies’ man as a persecuted refugee. Is Le Juif errant sincere or insincere? Romanticizing or callous? Demonizing or idealizing, especially relative to the often heinous depictions of the same subject that were coming out of Germany at the time?” It is fair that a museum poses questions and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. But I find the work to be much less ambiguous than that.
Still, MoMA should be credited for including this thorny chapter of Picabia’s life and recognizing the pieces are troubling. The works, after all, have been controversial over the years. They fell out of favor after their first exhibition in France in the 1940s, though it isn’t clear if the resemblance to Nazi iconography or their figurative style (at a time when abstraction was the norm) was to blame. A 1970 retrospective of Picabia at the Guggenheim completely omitted his photo-paintings. And when they were exhibited in the 1980s, they were generally treated as an art-historical rebellion against modernism, rather than objects with politically loaded connotations. They were viciously criticized in 1984 by Yve-Alain Bois, who wrote an article titled “Francis Picabia: From Dada to Pétain,” claiming the works exhibited a “reactionary indifference.”
There is, in these instances, an element of the trial Ulman warned against. And some may brush off this kind of sweeping political critique of an individual in relation to their work as being childish, reductive, or naive. Bad people can create good art, it is said. But art is also inseparable from political and personal ideology. It is inseparable from the historical moment in which it was created. Once the full measure of an artist’s political persuasions is known, some viewers may decide to place this knowledge in parentheses in order to mine their artistic output for other value. (In college, a friend called this “saying yes to the text.”) But one should be transparent about taking that position, especially since hanging a work at a major institution necessarily bestows upon it and the artist a certain power and stature.
The Vichy room is, admittedly, the most interesting of the entire Picabia exhibition. It poses difficult questions with real stakes that echo far beyond Picabia or even MoMA. Ambiguity is central to art. But at what point does ambiguity become a mechanism for deflecting a rigorous interrogation of the artist and their work? And do we inevitably embrace this ambiguity more in the case of artists who are, say, white men of canonical significance? For me, the answers are clear.