“There is a time to break down, and a time to build up.” Ecclesiastes, man of the ages, is also man of the hour. When Francis Picabia painted this picture, he gave it an absurd name – Estanonisi – but in appropriately double fashion, he subtitled it “Ecclesiastes.” The prescient prankster, Dadaist and cold-blooded brilliant disrupter was living on the edge of the first world, 1913. That explosive cultural moment was a time somewhat like now – all chaos with undetermined possibilities. The unrolling energies in the painting could be Dionsyian ecstasy, the kind that is unleashed by a crowd of foot-loose dancers, or those of the more dangerous frenzied masses.
Picabia’s doubleness fascinates me – his declared mission in life was to destroy art yet what did he do his entire life? He made art. He mocked and ranted against beauty yet his line drawings, his line constructs ring with poetic beauty. He believed in “nothing” but he found endless inspiration in the nothingness he espoused. Beauty is paradox, beauty is in the in-between. The apostate was a hard-core believer.
In Estanonisi, painted in New York, Picabia captures the consumptive drive and fury of capitalism in the jarring cubist frame. In the spotlit center, though, human figures seek to take their place amidst the anonymity. The mix is streaked with shimmering gold. Picabia joins the manmade, human and sacred realms in a roiling mix. Chaos – our human life – is streaked with the possibilities of the encounter, with potential of something glorious in our midst.
The artist is cross-eyed. While one eye observes social strife of the world, the other eye should be disciplined and focused on communicating with those age-old things: beauty, energy, cosmos, paradox.
There is a great line, I’ve heard recently, pronounced by one of the rabbis, if I am not mistaken: “God breaks our heart again and again… Until it remains open.”
So maybe the point of any breaking is not actually to break, but keep things from ossifying, from closing in, and becoming a dogma.
I’m not familiar with this painter’s work — thank you for the introduction!
Thank you for reading, Judy! This is the first American retrospective Francis Picabia’s work (1879-1953), showing at Museum of Modern Art. He’s such a shape-shifter, dipping into all kinds of genres with sharp, tooled mind. IT’s entirely inspiring – if you are in New York this spring, try to see it!