Unreal Nature

November 7, 2014

An Inkling

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… It was a slow shock … An inkling that this was about another kind of freedom altogether, something more than mastering technique.

This is from Writings in Art by Per Kirkeby, edited by Asger Schnack (2012):

… My name is Per Kirkeby, and for seventeen years I have been pursued by a painter called Francis Picabia. It transpired that he died in 1953, but how was I to know. Now, in 1976, a major exhibition of his paintings has taken place at the Grand Palais in Paris. It’s seventeen years since I saw the first pictures and felt his breath against my neck.

Seventeen years ago I was hitchhiking with a friend of mine. First in Spain, to the Prado Museum in Madrid where I was moved by the bleak Spanish Realists. Then, of course, Paris. There it was the Impressionists I wanted to see. I knew them from the small art books that were so popular at the time. But I was disappointed; small, stupid paintings, that’s what they looked like. That was then. I see things differently now. Art changes all the time like that. But Manet, of whom I hadn’t thought much, was suddenly the thing. Big, ambitious paintings about people, love, and so on.

Edouard Manet, The Balcony, 1869 [image from WikiArt]

[line break added to make this easier to read online] But the Museum of Modern Art, of course, was a must, because I so admired the great Picasso. Among the popular works was a large, clumsy picture. It seemed awkward to me, inelegantly executed, heavy in its colors, rather like Cubism misunderstood. Its strange title was painted on the canvas: Udnie. And the painter’s name, Francis Picabia, was entirely unfamiliar to me. I told myself it had to be some odd French mistake. But I couldn’t get the thing out of my head, from then on it began to torment me: that a picture’s value perhaps had nothing to do with skill in the sense of craftsmanship. It was a slow shock of the kind that dawns when you’re a young man thinking the world will open out for you if only you acquire more knowledge. An inkling that this was about another kind of freedom altogether, something more than mastering technique.

Later I gained admission to the Experimental Art School in Copenhagen in the happy years of communal art. There I learned more about Picabia and Dadaism, but that great canvas became no more comprehensible to me: it remained awkward and unplaceable. I was painting in an age and a context that said painting was no good, certainly not that kind of private painting. And during that period I of course discovered that I needed Picabia increasingly. I gathered more and more pieces of this strange painter’s production. The impossible pictures of the late 1920s through the 1950s.

Francis Picabia, I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie, 1914 [image from MoMA]

[line break added to make this easier to read online] What it all told me when put together was that it was indeed possible to paint if only you never allowed yourself to be taken captive but always kept free of personal style. It was a personal plea of defense — it was all I could do. It turned out not to be that easy, not allowing yourself to be taken captive — by yourself and the others. Therefore I invented the dream of the impossible painting. It was to be a painting no one could say anything good about, which possessed no appeasing elements in the shape of technique, or colorism or anything else at all. It was to be not merely a failed painting but a work that existed beyond the point where a thing could ever be good. And if I had to name an example of something like it, I would say Picabia. Still not knowing that much about it.




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