BRIDGET LESLIE | DATE 3/10/2018
Originally produced as potential covers for André Breton's 1920s Surrealist literary journal, Littérature, the twenty-six subversive—at the time, even scandalous—Francis Picabia drawings that are collected in this remarkable new limited edition from Small Press Books had been sealed in an envelope (dated August 8, 1923) and forgotten for decades until Breton's daughter, Aube Breton-Elléouët, unearthed and exhibited them in 2008. Of the original group, only nine of these playfully insurgent works were actually published by Breton. According to a 1922 letter from fellow Dadaist Marcel Duchamp to Breton, American retailers considered Picabia's cover graphics far too salacious to be displayed on their newsstands. Thus Duchamp was forced to become the journal's only American micro-distributor, circulating it among likeminded friends until its demise in 1924.
In keeping with Dada's core "anti-art" principals, Picabia's uneasy black-and-white figurative drawings reject logic. They pun. And they brilliantly critique the conservative art and literature industries of the day. Many of the images present an erotic duality, the subject neither a he nor a she, neither human nor beast. Contrasting figure/ground relationships are distinctive in these drawings, as are a certain profane blend of religious iconography, eroticism and sly Surrealist humor.
Several of the drawings feature a simian creature, perhaps poking fun at the pretentious traditions of high art and those who associate with it. Is Picabia commenting on the monkey's identity as a common circus animal that plays out the commands of an audience without any original thoughts of its own? Perhaps, he is creating a parallel between the naturally unruly ape and the Dadaists themselves, who delighted in rebellion and irrationality.
Other drawings present tongue-in-cheek renderings of performers in submissive or humiliating positions, many of them bound, at the mercy of the viewer.
Double entendres arise. For example, in one drawing, Picabia breaks the title of the journal into two parts, each with its own meaning. Lits translates to "beds" in French, and ratures translates to "mistakes," or "erasures." Picabia connects these two ideas with a small heart-shaped et, meaning "and," between coy portraits of a man and a women circumscribed by the outline of the soles of a pair of men's shoes.
The only text that accompanies the suite of drawings gathered in Francis Picabia: Littérature is the elusive first chapter of the artist's "lost" novel, Caravansérail, translated for the first time from the French to the English by Lauren Elkin. Fragments of the text can be seen through eight circular voids cut from the monochromatic, linen-bound cover of the book, which is spectacularly devoid of any competing typography.
The design and pattern of the circular cut-outs derive from the dots on three faces of a die pictured in one of Picabia's cover drawings (below). An enticing design decision: not only does the reference to dice make a direct connection to the Surrealist art-making method where form is determined by chance or improvisation—the flip of a coin or the roll of the dice—but, of course, the cover has been die-cut, or diced, to reveal a collage of fragments of the text within. (It may also refer to Malarmé's revolutionary 1897 proto-Dadaist concrete poem, "Un Coup de Dés Jamais N'Abolira Le Hasard," which translates to: "A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance"). The design of the cover manages to balance both aspects of form and function, thoroughly materializing the enigmatic concept of Dada. Published in an edition of just 500 copies.
Founded in 2017 by writer and journalist Stephanie LaCava, SMALL PRESS is a New York City-based publisher of playful, knowing artist's books, artist's books for children, works in translation and lost classics. Beautifully made with attention to materializing the book as both story and art object, Small Press books are produced in editions of 500 as pense-bêtes, remembrances of old times. Forthcomings titles include Pierre Klossowski's debut novel, The Suspended Vocation (1950), translated to English for the first time and reproduced alongside a portfolio of Klossowski's drawings; and Jose Saramago's only children's book, The Biggest Flower in the World, translated by Margaret Jul Costa.
BRIDGET MOREEN LESLIE (below) is an Australian born, NYC-based artist with a focus on installation, sound, light and writing. She is interested in collapsing spatial and psychological barriers between class, noise, time, fashion, location, and body language. She received her BFA from Sydney College of the Arts, Sydney University, and her MFA from Parsons School of Design, New York.
All photographs of Francis Picabia: Litterature are by ANDI JANOFSKY.
Clth, 9 x 11.75 in. / 64 pgs / 1 color / 25 b&w.