“Many people answer with ‘Yes, but . . .’” wrote Marcel Duchamp in 1954, in a tribute to his great friend Picabia, who had died the year before. “With Francis it was always: ‘No, because . . .’” Inventor of the “machinist painting” and carrier of the Dada virus to New York and Paris, Picabia was editor of the journal 391 and author of numerous books of poetry and prose, along with manifestos, aphorisms, and scenarios for ballets and films. He impressed everyone who met him with a cocksure nihilism. “Anybody called Francis is elegant, unbalanced, and intelligent,” Gertrude Stein opined. Tristan Tzara wrote that “Picabia has destroyed ‘beauty’ and built his work with the leftovers,” while André Breton noted his “impulse toward sabotage.” Picabia himself claimed to be “an imbecile,” “a pickpocket,” and “the only complete artist.” According to Marc Lowenthal, an editor at the MIT Press who undertook the mammoth task of translating and annotating more than 160 pieces of writing by this protean nutcase, he was a “most ‘beautiful monster,’ who . . . during the heady years of high modernism was able to rightly claim the distinction of being the anti-artist par excellence.”
Abstractionist mischief, more than literary genius, makes I Am a Beautiful Monster worth reading now. Picabia frothed at the mouth. He hated the art market, critics, impresarios, painters, rules, and schools; he believed not in aesthetics, politics, or psychoanalysis but in erotic instinct and scabrous comedy. As Lowenthal points out, Picabia merged the Dadaist practice of automatic writing with the idea of the word as readymade to produce a “mechanomorphic language.” Puns and sonic coincidence pleased him. Autobiographical spleen was indulged, yet obscured by a practice of revision as randomized word substitution. Picabia’s poems are mad syntax machines, always threatening to fl y to pieces, generating reams of junk. But they also seethe with heady rhythms, gleeful aperçus, and—pace Tzara—moments of a sharp and wistful paratactic beauty. The neurasthenic fever of his style notwithstanding, Picabia wrote in response to social stimuli: the doings of artist friends and enemies, his complex domestic arrangements, two World Wars. He lifted language wholesale from the “pink pages” of the Petit Larousse (a compendium of foreign phrases in translation) and from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. And, of course, he talked to Duchamp. Before and after, but especially during the Dada period, the conspirators traded obsessions.
Lowenthal’s astute asides on pastiche, appropriation, and the entwining of art and friendship (or breakdown thereof) make one wish for a longer essay discussing sources and resonances. A biographical sketch—and more illustrations—would be welcome, too, though lesser poems would have to be sacrificed. As it is, the book clocks in at 560 pages, and there are explanatory headings on many entries. But such piecemeal theorizing can be confusing. The reader careens, seasick, between the scholarly apparatus and the poet’s logorrhea.
Lowenthal confesses that “translating Picabia’s poetry was an arduous and frequently maddening process.” The completist will appreciate the scope of the collection, which excludes only a novel, Caravansérail (1924), and the letters. Others will need to browse lest they be maddened, too. As a kind of mental inoculation, however, small doses are a pleasure. The translations are tough and nimble, as in “Dada Cannibal Manifesto” (1920), which rises toward incantation without prettifying:
Death, death, death.
Money's the only thing that doesn't die, it just
goes off on a journey. It is
God, it is what is respected, the serious
individual . . . DADA smells like nothing, it is nothing,
It is like your hopes: nothing
like your paradises: nothing
like your idols: nothing
like your politicians: nothing
like your heroes: nothing
like your artists: nothing
like your religions: nothing.
Hiss, yell, smash my face in, and then, and
then? I will tell you again that
you are all suckers.
In contrast, a passage from Thoughts Without Language (1919) catches a frisson of the inframince:
bridal trash basket
women talk to themselves
kiss sumptuously on the mouth
rapture of warmth on the seat
in the boudoir
The volume also offers the complete text of Jesus Christ Rastaquouère (1920), an unlikely favorite of both Ezra Pound and Serge Gainsbourg, here translated by Raphael Rubinstein with Lowenthal consulting. Picabia found the odd noun rastaquouère in Petit Larousse: "a stranger living in grand style whose means of existence are not known." "Is this not precisely the case with God?" he asked. His rakish Christ, inevitably, develops as an avatar of himself— a luminous nonentity whose sufferings are real. In the section titled 'Man's Most Beautiful Discovery Is Baking Soda," the reluctant loudmouth asserts:
All the painters who appear in our museums are
failures at painting; the only people ever talked
about are failures; the world is divided into two
categories of people: failures and those unknown.
In "No One Is Unknown Except for Me," he adds:
Words are what exist, that which does not have
a name does not exist. The word light exists,
light itself does not.
Picabia painted and wrote, and shone, and showed off, in this glare.
Frances Richard is a poet who teaches at Barnard College and the Rhode Island School of Design.