Mr. Roboto: The Human Mechanics of Francis Picabia’s Art

“The machine has become more than a mere adjunct of life. It is really a part of human life…perhaps the very soul…” said the French Dada-artist Francis Picabia (1879-1952). While unbeholden to any singular artistic style, Picabia built a world out of his Transparencies and machinery or “mechanomorphs” ­­− a world that mirrors and reveals the construction of our own.

Influenced by the fast-paced grind of American industry and specifically New York life in the early 20th century, Picabia paintings display the blueprint of an ascension, of our mechanical evolution over time, and the trajectory in which we still head.  They just as poignantly, if not more so, represent the breakdown of our being. The machine art shows our bones as the iron rods of structure, skin the plastic covering of protection from the natural world, hands the functional pieces of control, eyes the vulnerable software of information accumulation, to be transmitted further to the central mainframe for processing, and most importantly, our intelligence and emotions as just another piece of the whole. Though lively and supple, we still function as a machine, and our modern dependence on gadgets only assists in a deepening of ourselves not as masters of the machine, but merely another piece within a larger apparatus.

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Francis Picabia. Behold the Woman. 1915. Watercolor on paper. 75 x 49 cm.

These mechanomorphs, or portraits of a machine, were Picabia’s answer to the modern world’s need for modern art. The rise of the machine wasn’t a Flight of the Conchords style futuristic scenario, for the artist it meant a greater appreciation of technology and industry. Each machine functions and performs its duties according to its programming, and its physical construction dictates a variable of abilities. Each machine created for separate purposes or used predominantly for a specific one or multiple ones depending upon the controller. They sometimes interact and work together if need be: the computer and the printer, or more simply, the bolt and the wrench. The bolt, though created for the sole purpose of keeping other pieces in place, is used on numerous, disparate appliances, thus it is rigid as itself yet malleable in its use. We are not so different.

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Francis Picabia. Girl Born Without a Mother. 1916-1918. Work on paper. 50 x 65 cm.

Picabia’s  Transparency pictures illuminate this truth, this seeming dichotomy of existence. Picabia shied away from the idea of a difficulty in representation, but in the combination of his machines and Transparencies he ties together the variability of a mechanised entity and the framework created out of small pieces fastened together to create a seemingly soft and enigmatic life.

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(Left) Francis Picabia. Hera. c. 1929. Oil on cardboard. 105 x 75 cm. Private Collection (Right) Francis Picabia. Phoebus. c. 1930. Oil on Panel. 152. 5 x 96.5 cm.

While multi-faceted being works for actual homo sapiens the same can be seen in famous AIs from cinematic history. For true sci-fi lovers, The Terminator series is a pinnacle of robotic glory, but what makes the beloved metallic Schwarzenneger so intriguing is the pivotal point of departure in the character’s being due to programming and operations. In the first film, the Terminator was exactly what its name says it is: a machine built to extinguish life. In the second, the tune has been changed, and the Terminator serves a wholly antonymic purpose.

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Terminator. Terminator. Terminator. But one of these is not like the others.

In contrast, Ex Machina shows just how the systematic procedure of human emotion and action can be manipulated and wielded to meet a specific goal of production. The tables turn, and it is the machine that becomes a powerful force of creativity, whereas the human is formulaic.

Ex Machina. Publicity Image. 2015.
Ex Machina. Publicity Image. 2015.

The idea of the human dissension is also exacerbated by our physical weakness. The fear of our mortality motivates us to build subjects, robots, androids in our own image –  ones that (potentially will) surpass us. We are impotent deities built from impotent deities building impotent deities. Nothing makes that more clear than the android Roy Batty’s “tears in the rain” speech in Blade Runner: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…” it says then going on to give examples of things humans cannot understand. Roy tells precisely what humans can’t do or even fathom in our near-obsolete form.

In Picabia art we see the multiple facets that are and that can be. The robotic dance that blends the worlds, clicks the cogs together, and separates them again. The human is and is allowed to be the machine, and it also performs more fluid and unstructured actions; the line between metal and flesh is blurred. At its core, Dada was about experimentation and a rethinking of the world as it is; it was anti-war, anti-bourgeois, anti-establishment. “Papa Dada” a popular moniker given to Picabia, saw the way in which our mechanisation forces us to follow patterns, programs, socially and personally, but the multitude of variables causes that system to chug along undetermined rails.

In Picabia we have the machine of life and its indelible process of reconfiguration.

Need to see it to believe it? Visit MOMA’s Picabia exhibition, Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction in New York from November 21, 2016–March 19, 2017.

By Alice Bauer

AC Dada, TS Dada

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