Dance: Picabia and Dance
By Dawn Lille
arttimesjournal March 17, 2017
When MOMA announced the exhibition “A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde” (Dec. 3 – Mar. 12), I was excited to view again the work of so many artists who wished to break away from the past and had worked with, at the same time as, or influenced the like minded dance community of the time, particularly the Diaghilev Ballets Russes.
But the joy and the “thunderbolt” was the concurrent exhibition “Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction.”
The Russian artists have long been a favorite topic when teaching dance history and MOMA has an extensive collection of their work. Nathalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov each had several works in the exhibition. Both were active participants in the Ballets Russes, as well as being artistic advisors and shapers. Goncharova designed Michel Fokine’s ballets Le Coq d’or, Igrouchka, Cendrillon and a revival of Firebird. Larionov was responsible for Leonid Massine’s Soleil de Nuit and two other works of his. Together they designed Bronislava Nijinska”s Renard, and traveled in Spain with Diaghilev and company during World War I.
Alexandra Exter, a constructivist, worked with Nijinska in the latter’s studio experiments with movement and was an early influence on her. Many of Exter’s set designs for theater were on display. El Lissitsky’s “Figurines,” three- dimensional designs for the performance Victory Over The Sun, reveal his understanding of the body, as did the examples of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.
But the real excitement and relevance to today came with the Picabia exhibition, the first in the U.S. to cover his entire career. His relationship to avant-garde dance, the Ballets Suedois in particular, is known, but the range of his stylistic approach, which changed constantly, often returning to one he had previously abandoned, was astonishing.
For Picabia, dance was “a model of an art form detached from mimesis and photographic realism.” Several of the paintings shown at MOMA depicted or were influenced by dance. In “Udrie. Young American Girl: Dance” (1913) one can see the rhythm of the movement. In “Dances At The Spring” (1912) two figures can be discovered ‘midst the twirling abstraction.
The original pull to Picabia was his role in the 1924 film Entr’acte, part of the ballet Relâche [postponed] presented by the Ballet Suedois, a short lived (five years) avant-garde dance company based in Paris. This troupe, led by the Swedish businessman Rolf de Mare, presented over thirty experimental and now forgotten works that joined artists, such as Leger and de Chirico, with contemporary composers, such as Milhaud, Honegger, Poulenc and Porter, in the creation of new dance works.
Relâche (1925), the last production of the company, was Picabia’a idea, which he first presented to Diaghilev, who refused it. Picabia termed it “,,, life as I like it, life without a morrow … everything for today, nothing for tomorrow. Motor headlights, pearl necklaces … publicity … music … movement, play … the pleasures of laughter.” He enlisted Marcel Duchamps, Man Ray, Eric Satie and the then unknown filmmaker Rene Clair to take part in his creation.
The libretto was scrawled on a piece of restaurant paper. Part I of the dance had wheelbarrows, a revolving door, a couple in evening dress crossing the stage on a motorized tricycle, a fireman smoking, water, nine men in top hats and tails undressing down to long, pink, spangled underwear and the dancers Jean Börlin (who did the choreography) and Edith Bonsdorf in some somber dancing. Part II included Picabia’s statements, such as “I would rather hear the audience protesting than clapping,” seen on fabric spread across the stage. For an encore Picabia and Satie came out on a tiny motorized scooter.
The film, shown at intermission, confused the audience, who did not know whether to stay or leave. Many years later, Merce Cunningham, who was familiar with this history, used the same idea in one of his works, having the dancers warm up on stage during the intermission.
Entre’acte, which has become a cult classic, was conceived by Satie, who invited Picabia to join him. It lasts eleven minutes and was shown in silence at MOMA, although Satie wrote a frame by fame score for it, his last composition.
The film opens with Satie and Picabia firing a cannon. This is followed by quick images of the rooftops of Paris, inflatable dolls, disembodied boxing gloves, a chess game between Duchamps and Man Ray, floating paper airplanes and a bearded dancer in a tutu photographed from below.
Next comes the “chase,” the result of a funeral because a hunter (Picabia) shoots and kills another hunter (Börlin). As several well- known people exit the church the hearse, covered with edibles and slogans and pulled by a camel, takes off through the streets of Paris at an accelerating speed. It is separated from the camel, the coffin falls and the copse emerges with a wand and makes everyone disappear.. The critics of the time did not like the ballet, but loved the film.
The exhilarating thing about this exhibition was that Picabia, who was committed to the sensation of the new and reveled in the conflicts he saw between the “isms” of his times, is still challenging.. As he switched from dadaism, to cubism, surrealism, abstraction and realism, and then kept changing back and forth, his work was always fresh, interesting and new. The title covering his exhibition, a quote from him, says it all.
Many young choreographers today are experimenting the same way, some technical, some embracing the old concept of good form. Based on the recent big art shows in NYC (NOT the Armory or the Piers) young artists are doing so as well. Picabia is still an inspiration.