Tuesday, July 26, 2011

391: The Rare and Always Provocative Art Journal By Picabia

by Stephen J. Gertz

PICABIA, Francis. 391. No. 3. Barcelona, 1 Mars 1917.
Flamenca. (Cover).
Mechanomorphic plate heightened in silver and copper metallic inks.
"Every page must explode, whether through seriousness, profundity, turbulence, nausea, the new, the eternal, annihilating nonsense, enthusiasm for principles, or the way it is printed. Art must be unaesthetic in the extreme, useless and impossible to justify" (Picabia, on 391).

Three numbers of  391, the Dada  art review edited by  artist Francis Picabia  recently  came into the marketplace.  It is a measure of how influential, scarce (with original print runs of approximately only 400-500 copies), and desirable issues of 391 have become  that these three numbers were priced at $8,000-$9,000 each. They were snapped up immediately upon offer.

Published 1917-1924 in Barcelona, New York, Zürich, and Paris in nineteen issues, Picabia modeled 391 after Alfred Stieglitz's 291, a review to promote the photographer's 291 Gallery and his artistic circle, and which had devoted an entire issue to Picabia, a French citizen of Spanish descent.

In 1916, while in Barcelona and within a small circle of refugee artists that included Marie Laurencin, and Robert and Sonia Delaunay, he established 391. He continued the influential review with the help of Dada big-daddy, Marcel Duchamp, in America. In Zurich, while seeking treatment for depression and suicidal impulses, he met Tristan Tzara, whose wild  Dada ideas thrilled Picabia. Returning to Paris with his mistress Germaine Everling, he was in the city of les assises dada where André Breton, Paul Éluard, Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon met at Certa, a basque bar in the passage de l'Opera. Picabia, the provocateur, was back home.

Picabia continued his involvement in the Dada movement through 1919 in Zürich and Paris, before breaking away from it.  He denounced Dada in 1921, and issued a personal attack against Breton in the final issue of 391, in 1924.

"Picabia's paintings and drawings reproduced in the first numbers of 391 are still very close to his New York work of 1915, although the titles reflect his Spanish surroundings: Novia and Flamenca. They vary, broadly, from composite fantasy machines with sexual analogies...to dry copies of machines or machine parts presented as portraits...

PICABIA, Francis. 391. No. 3. Barcelona: 1 Mars 1917.
Mechanomorphic plate, heightened in blue.

 "...In 391 no. 3, Marie (presumably Laurencin) is symbolised by the fan belt of a car, an object that Picabia particularly liked. Also in no. 3 Apollinaire (deliberately juxtaposed with his former mistress) is a motor-pump, with the inscription 'he who does not praise time past" (Ades, Dawn. Surrealist Art. The Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, p. 138, 151).

PICABIA, Francis. 391. No. 5. New York: Juin 1917.
Ane. (Cover).
Totemic pastel.

391 no. 5 was the first of three issues to be published in New York; nos. 1-4 were published in Barcelona, no. 8 in Zürich, and nos. 9-19 in Paris. The New York issues reflect Picabia's growing interest in typography.

PICABIA, Francis. 391. No. 5. New York: Juin 1917.
Page five.
La peinture moderne by Albert Gleizes.

"[Picabia] went to town in no. 5 in the setting of [Albert] Gleize' La peinture moderne, a text solicited by Picabia which is mostly a reworking of the theories of Du cubisme, but is also full of hostility toward futurist excesses and collage. To show his dislike of the article, Picabia sandwiched it neatly between two machine drawings of a kind uncongenial to Gleizes, chose for it a typeface which is almost illegible, and had the lines set very close together to increase the reading difficulty" (Ades, p. 151).

PICABIA. Francis. 391. No. 6. New York: July 1917.
Américaine. (Cover).
Half-tone photograph, retouched.

Number 6 is second of the three New York issues of 391. Ades notes that "Picabia had never intended to stay long in Barcelona. Nostalgic for Paris, Apollinaire, and 'Les soirées de Paris'...but unable to go to France, he returned in 1917 to New York, where numbers 5, 6, and 7 of 391 appeared monthly from June, taking over from The Blind Man. A chess game had apparently decided which of these two reviews was to function as the organ of the group of American and European artists gathered around  [art collector, critic, and poet] W.C. Arensberg...

"...The covers of these three issues depict objects strikingly isolated...no. 6 has a photograph of a light bulb as a portrait of a young American girl on the front. It was retouched by Picabia, who also wrote 'Flirt' and 'Divorce' on the highlights. [This issue contains a poem by Picabia], Métal, an extraordinary poem written after a visit to an opium den in Chinatown [yes, there were opium dens in New York as late as 1917]: 'delirium without a frame / careless rhythm without length / painting juxtaposed with a bell ringing...'"

Anytime a rare anything sells instantly, the dealer has to wonder, Did I under-price it? Answered, depressingly, in the affirmative with a bell ringing, a visit to an opium den in Chinatown is in order but, alas, they no longer exist.

Images courtesy of Ars Libri Ltd, with our thanks.

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