Littérature, founded in 1919 by André Breton, Philippe Soupault, and Louis Aragon, was couched as an innocent literary journal, but it was known for its avant-garde writings and critiques. In March 1922, André Breton launched Littérature: New Series. He asked his friend, the shape-shifting artist Francis Picabia, to create drawings for the covers. Ultimately, only nine of Picabia’s twenty-six covers were chosen and published. The rest remained in an envelope dated August 8, 1923. They were unseen by the wider public until 2008, when they were presented by Breton’s daughter, Aube Breton-Elléouët, at the Galerie 1900-2000, in Paris.
In an essay accompanying exhibition, “In Praise of the ‘Funny Guy,’ Inventor of Pop Art,” Jean-Jacques Lebel argued that these cover illustrations foreshadowed Pop Art. He credited Picabia with “the transformation of a commercial strategy into a subversive artistic practice.” Picabia’s work provided an early, wicked critique of the art and literature industries.
In a letter from Marcel Duchamp to Breton in 1922, Duchamp wrote that the scandalous nature of Picabia’s images, many of which associate sex and religion, made it difficult for him to distribute Littérature in New York; vendors were reluctant to display it in public. So Duchamp distributed it among his friends instead.
These covers have been republished in a limited edition of five hundred copies by Small Press Books. Francis Picabia: Littérature was exhibited at the MoMA PS1 New York Art Book Fair this past weekend. It includes the first chapter of Piacabia’s “lost” novel Caravansérail, translated into English for the first time by Lauren Elkin. Below, some excerpts of the covers:
Many of Picabia’s drawings feature simian figures. It’s a riff on the long history of monkeys in still-life painting. In this image, the baboon head obscures the sex of a reclining muse or saint (the face appears to be that of an old man.) His/her hand is stroking its fur erotically. A horse, a common phallic symbol, with a cropped tail rears up in the background. A halo surrounds the character’s portrait with the words, “Nul n’est cense ignorer,” meaning “No one is supposed to ignore.” A common theme in these drawings is the relations between men and women and, at the same time, the fluidity of gender. (Another drawing features bubbles with the words “pair” and “impair”—literally “even” and “odd,” but the wordplay on pairs and un-pairs is likely intentional.)
Here, literature is divided into two words in thick all-caps type: LITS, which means “beds,” and RATURES, which means “mistakes” (or, more literally, a crossed-out word on a page). A tiny ET (“and”) is in a heart between two outlines of the soles of men’s dress shoes.
On either side are the bottoms of heels facing the opposite way, as if one could imagine two people in embrace. The female feet are improbably small. (Perhaps she is being lifted off the ground?) Within the shapes, a line-drawn coquette gazes provocatively at an older man.
A monocled strongman in high-waisted shorts, perhaps a self-portrait, balances a plate with a crouching female angel on it. His monocle is attached to his nipple, another subversive joke.
A woman in knee stockings brushes her long black hair and out falls the word Littérature. This may be a nod toward automatic writing or a way of playfully questioning the self-seriousness of literature.
A goddess stands with her hands behind her back, half or her body painted black, her hair tied up in a Hellenistic bun. A tangle of lines surrounds her. One of them leads to a snakelike figure, with Littérature written above his beady-eyed head. This may be a reference to Eve in the Garden of Eden or to Leda and the swan. In any case, Picabia lets us know that he’s not buying the sanctity of antiquity: the two balls at the end of the snake’s tail are clearly suggestive.
Stephanie LaCava is a New York–based writer and the founder of Small Press Books.