Modern Art and Spirituality: Picabia

1. Who was Francis Picabia?

1.1. From Sisley to Dada…

This week we turn to another of Duchamp’s friends, Francis Picabia. Picabia’s juvenalia resembled Alfred Sisley, who preferred quiet nature scenes. Soon, however, he found such romanticist natural scenes trifling and turned to cubism in search of a more honest sentiment. Picabia unique sensibility, however, started developing after a longer than unexpected stay-over in New York during June 1915 involving him in the New York Dada movement. Through Dada, Picabia found a freedom allowing him a playful engagement with the writer without which one cannot approach him, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Many have noted Nietzsche’s influence on Picabia. Dada and Nietzsche overlaps in their recourse to art and culture as institution free meaning-making machines. Today, Alain de Botton and his gang at the School of Life are the leading pop proponents of this view. Such existential readings are, as some may know, the opposite of continental philosophy’s attempts at decentralising the subject.

1.2. …from Nietzsche

Anyway, Nietzsche’s influence is clear in Picabia’s post-New York art and literary productions. Picabia plastered the pages of 391 (his Spanish Dadaist magazine) with Nietzschean aphorism sans references. Indeed, some think Picabia used Nietzsche’s aphorisms like Duchamp used objects for Readymades. Quotes became found objects ready for remixing and reframing. Nietzsche also surfaces in the psychological feel of his art. Picabia loved overlapping human forms and ideas with gears, hydraulics, and smoke stacks.

Even Picabia’s writings pays homage to Nietzsche with their esoteric aphorism and wittiness. Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère (1920), for example, could just as well be Nietzschean text with added drawings. Of course, Nietzsche fanboys like Picabia cannot help but dialogue with religion.

2. Machines and a Rastaquouère

2.1. Undercutting Institutional Stupidity

Picabia engaged faith from his Crucifixion (1912) and later his Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère (1920). He liked sketching Jesus as the playful artist not bound by institutions or petty moral obligation. In short, Jesus wasn’t part of, or beholden to the system but was fully himself. And as the title Rastaquouère suggests Jesus was a foreigner with an enticing message and manners who revealed institutional stupidity. Like Nietzsche and Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère Picabia wanted to undercut and question this institutional stupidity.

After finishing a painting entitled The Machine Has Power, Picabia published a serious of interesting poems/sketches criticising faith in technology, religion, and science. All these small poem-sketches are worth pursuing, but for a moment we’ll focus on a single sketch called Narcotic (the featured image for this blogpost).

2.2. Modern Narcotic

Narcotic is a simple drawing/poem with the words error/truth/Jew/Christianity written on different lines; four words which should already give Nietzsche aficionados more than enough info to decipher the sketch. Or maybe not. The trick with the drawing is the false idea of progress suggested. One can, for example, read the poem upwards, downwards, or even from the (double?) horizontal datum. Although these lines take up most of the sketch and carry almost all the words. The important parts of the drawing are, however, the small semi-circles bending and cutting the lines. Representing moments of faith, these semi-circles each manipulates an epochal label. The Jewish semi-circle, here, is unique, bending the line towards Christianity without cutting it.

All-in-all Picabia’s Narcotic extends his critique of modernity’s infatuations with answers. As he writes on the 44th page of Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère: “L’erreur du public est de regarder les œvres modernes, comme un rébus dont il faut découvrir la clé” [The mistake of the public is to look at the modern works, as a rebus, the key of which must be discovered]. For Picabia, following Nietzsche, there are only genealogies of faith bending and cuting epochs, no morality as such. Who or what, then, typifies the current faith cuts and bends?

3. Picabia’s contribution to Spirituality?

The question of epochal identification brings us to Picabia’s contribution to spirituality. In many ways, Picabia plays with already existing contemporary dialects such as religion/anti-religion, art/anti-art, etc. Picabia, however, was the clearest exponent of the psychological relation between technics and man. His paintings representing the human in the machine and the machine in the human prefigures writers such as Simondon and Stiegler who later commented on human-technological codependence. Here, Picabia had a few inklings about machine-human spirituality.

3.1. Humans & Their Machines / Machines & Their Humans

First, Picabia’s mixture of psychological and machine hints at both the question of the relation between human consciousness and materiality, and the possible awareness of produced machinery (computers, etc.). Picabia prefers the paradoxical middle road to sentience. Consciousness comes neither with scaled complexity based on materiality nor from obscure spirit coagulating into materiality. The ghost is in the machine, just as much as the machine is the ghost. Indeed, Picabia titled a series of machine sketches Fille née sans mère [Daughter born without a mother]. The series was based on a quote from his friend Paul Haviland: “The machine is his ‘daughter born without a mother’”.

3.2. Spirit in the Bone

Second, Picabia often commented on the false dualism between the spiritual and carnal. He, for example, suggests that religious faith is no more elevated a source of sustenance than is a beefsteak (Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère, 26). As such, Picabia believes, like Hegel, the spirit is in the bone. Unlike Hegel, he does not consider the spirit anything but bone. Picabia sees no world spirit guiding history.

3.3. Criticizing Art Commodification with Art

Last, Picabia like other Dadaist, illuminated capitalism makes everything a commodity. An interesting case here is Duchamp’s Tzanck Check:

When Duchamp moved to New York City, he once found himself without the funds to pay his dentist, Dr Tzanck. He painted a check for $115, signed it with his name, and the doctor was astute enough to realise that the check was worth at least the amount painted on its face. In fact, even autographs of artists of Duchamp’s character are worth large sums, without the witty imitation of a check (or is it an “imitation” when both utterer and recipient accept it as legitimate?). To complete the transaction, some years later, Duchamp repurchased the “check” from the dentist.

Such artistic gestures raise more question than answers. Has the artist become a commodity or the other way around? Ported to the religious. Once God becomes human has God become more a human or the human more God? Such questions face us more and more with each perceived technological extension of our species’ dominance.


Works Consulted

  • Bru, S., 2013. Avant-Garde Nows: Presentist Reconfigurations of Public Time. Modernist Cultures8(2), pp.272-287.
  • Hayden, S., 2013. Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère: Francis Picabia’s Anti-Art Anti-Christ. Irish Journal of French Studies13(1), pp.41-67.
  • Picabia, F. and Ribemont-Dessaignes, G., 1920. Jésus-Christ, rastaquouère: Dessins par [Georges] Ribemont-Dessaignes. oV.
  • Risatti, H., 1979. Music and the development of abstraction in America: The decade surrounding the Armory Show. Art Journal39(1), pp.8-13.
  • van Rensburg, H.J., 1987. Picabia and Nietzsche. S. Afr. J. Cult. Art Hist1(4).

Author Details

Calvyn du Toit

Calvyn C. du Toit is a PhD-candidate in Christian Spirituality at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and a Research Associated in the Department of Christian Dogmatics and Ethics at the University of Pretoria. He lives in New York City, where he is h(o)us(e)band to Christine, and 6PM Music Director at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal).

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