Anne Berest Explores The Living Legacy of Francis Picabia
'76 Faubourg' (Sotheby’s French magazine) met up with her to talk about the figure of Picabia, family and artistic legacy.
Anne, how exactly are you related to the Surrealist painter Francis Picabia?
Francis Picabia married Gabriële Buffet, and they had four children. The youngest, Vicente, was my grandfather on my mother’s side. Unfortunately, I never knew him, since Vicente died in 1947. He committed suicide very young, at the age of 27. He was a tormented, melancholic young man. It must be said that Francis Picabia and Gabriële were “parents terribles”, to borrow Cocteau’s expression. Francis and Gabriële were not so much parents as they were geniuses.
You dedicated a previous book to Gabriële, and her influence on Francis Picabia, co-written with your sister Claire…
The book is called Gabriële, and it was published in 2017. It tells the story of how Gabriële met Picabia… And then how Marcel Duchamp made his way into the couple.
In his book Les Héritiers, Henri Gourdin wrote: “As strange as it may seem, the story of Anne Berest discovering her ancestors in a dictionary at the age of 11 (…) is not unique.” Is that true?
Yes! It is absolutely true. I was looking up the name “Francis Picabia” in a dictionary when I learned about his importance with regard to art history. It was a mysterious subject for us, the Picabia name. Generally, when children are born, a family story is passed down to them. But at our house, it was the opposite. There was a silence concerning that branch of the family. Just the fact that it was hidden from us suggested that there was a dramatic story behind it.
Why was it hidden?
Family drama, just like in any family.
'I do not draw on his depressive melancholy, I take his liberty – his liberty and his creativity – as models. There are a lot of ways that the legacy of Picabia has an influence on my life'
What is your relationship with that legacy? Do you consider yourself Picabia's great-granddaughter?
I profoundly believe that a legacy is, above all, what we make of it. We decide what our ancestors pass down to us, or not. Personally, I prefer to leave aside the misanthropic side of Picabia, his darkness. I do not draw on his depressive melancholy. However, I take his liberty – his liberty and his creativity – as models. There are a lot of ways that the legacy of Picabia has an influence on my life.
What is your relationship with his art?
I was able to read into his paintings as a child, even before I learned about art history. I always had an instinctive understanding of painting, like other people have an ear for music. You can’t explain it. Moreover, I am very familiar with Picabia’s body of work. I am not an art historian, but let’s just say that through my own work, I'm beginning to master the subject! I love his work. That’s not imperative. You don’t have to love the work of your ancestors.
Did writing this book bring you closer to your great-grandfather?
I researched a great deal into him, his life and his work. In the end, it created a strong connection. An emotional connection. When I’m feeling down, for example, I go back over some of his letters to Gabriële. That gives me determination. For example, sometimes I can hear him whisper to me, “All those who speak behind my back... My arse contemplates them.” And I want to burst out laughing.
What, in your opinion, makes Picabia so modern?
His modernity first arose in his transition from figurative to abstract art, with works such as Caoutchouc, which was considered – rightly or wrongly – as one of the first abstract European works. He went on to become the first Frenchman to discover Dadaism. But he broke away from it very quickly. Then he set off a return to figurative art before anyone else did. Basically, he never did what you might expect.
What is his legacy?
His work is always in movement, and is continually reinventing itself. Picabia is always surprising. But his modernity also lies in the way that his work continues to permeate the work of up-and-coming generations. He is an artist who never ceased to assemble, disassemble and reassemble. That movement is very modern, really.
How do you think contemporary artists interpret the legacy of Picabia today?
Picabia was resurrected thanks to them. Plastic artists recognised themselves in him. He was so prolific, so polymorphous, that a number of artists have been able to draw on his work. He was a non-conformist. In fact, many artists recognise his influence as direct and fundamental. A quote from François Morellet comes to me - when he described himself as being the “monstrous son of Mondrian and Picabia”. I also think of Anne Imhoff, who used his work Portrait de Cézanne, Portrait de Renoir, Portrait de Rembrandt (1920) as one of the central inspirations for her recent carte blanche at the Palais de Tokyo, called Nature Morte. Someone like Philippe Dagen draws obvious connections between Picabia and Damien Hirst, speaking about his monochrome circles; but also between the hanging dummies and Maurizio Cattelan. Or Jeff Koons, with his simplified sexual geometry.
Picabia is acclaimed throughout the world today, but his popularity had a setback just after the war. What do you think are the reasons for that?
I see several reasons for that. First of all, Picabia initiated a return to figurative art very early on. You can say that he was, once again, on the leading edge of the avant-garde. For example, take the whole Pin-Up series, from the early 1940s, which were not well-received. They were considered vulgar and realist... And today that series is very sought-after by collectors. Also, it is important to remember that, beginning in the 1930s, Picabia went through major periods of depressive melancholy. He quarrelled with everyone and mocked institutions, all the while not receiving their honours. He wrote atrocious letters to people, telling them how stupid they were. They are very funny to read. But these misanthropic and sometimes paradoxical behaviours did not help him gain popularity. To top it off, his lack of heroism during the Second World War alongside his last wife, Olga, who was from German-speaking Switzerland – his wait-and-see attitude – might explain why he was snubbed by public opinion in the years following the war. Whereas, during the same period, Gabriële Buffet and their daughter Jeannine were both risking their lives in the French Resistance.
Picabia said of Gabriële“Her spirit is a natural spring along a roadside. She wants to allow everyone the pleasure to draw on it.” What role did Gabriële Buffet play in Picabia’s story, and what was your approach to telling it?
Officially ignored by historians for many years, Gabriële never sought to claim any artistic body of work whatsoever, contrary to reality.The reflex of a woman conditioned by her time? Or a deliberate determination to remain in the shadows? Probably a bit of both in Gabriële’s case. So we wrote this book about her, to show how she participated in the great revolution of modern art. We wanted to bring her back into the light.
Anne Berest portrait: Marie Marot