After 391: Picabia's early multimedia experiments
by Chris Joseph
(This version 14/02/2008; first version 01/04/2002)
This essay attempts to answer a simple question: why did Francis Picabia stop publishing 391? By October 1924, when the final issue was published, 391 was the longest running magazine related to dada and the burgeoning surrealist movement, and Picabia was well established as one of the premiere avant-gardists in Paris and beyond, with literary, artistic and personal connections to all the major players in the movements that had turned the art world upside down for almost a decade. What caused him to suddenly cease publication of his provocative (but well respected) journal?
Instantanéisme: the movement of perpetual movement
The most obvious reason for his ending 391 at this point is that he felt the magazine had simply run its course. He had broken with the dadaists in 1921, and in 1924 also became estranged from the French surrealists, led by André Breton. But Picabia was not one to simply run out of steam, and he clearly relished the chance to spar with the surrealists. The real story behind the riddle of 391’s demise begins several months earlier, in July 1924, with the publication of 391 issue 18 ('Black and White'), and a small, apparently innocuous notice on the back page:
SAISON PROCHAINE ['Next season']
R E L Â C H E
d'éRIK SATIE et FRANCIS PICABIA
In itself, this may not seem particularly noteworthy. Ballet was a fashionable art in Paris at this time, and it would have been natural for Picabia to collaborate with one of the most experimental Parisian composers, Erik Satie.
Three months then pass until 391 issue 19 is published in October 1924. This final issue of 391 ostensibly launches Picabia's 'instantanist' movement, which was primarily directed against André Breton and the surrealists, and particularly against the First Surrealist Manifesto which had just been published.
In answer to Breton's manifesto, Picabia wrote: "André Breton is not a revolutionary... he is an arriviste... he has nothing to say; having no sensitivity, never having lived, this artist is the type of petit bourgeois who loves little collections of paintings..."
The front cover details his instantanist 'manifesto':
L'INSTANTANÉISME: DOES NOT WANT YESTERDAY.
L'INSTANTANÉISME: DOES NOT WANT TOMORROW.
L'INSTANTANÉISME: MAKES ENTRECHATS.
L'INSTANTANÉISME: MAKES PIGEON WINGS.
L'INSTANTANÉISME: DOES NOT WANT GREAT MEN.
L'INSTANTANÉISME: BELIEVES ONLY IN TODAY.
L'INSTANTANÉISME: WANTS FREEDOM FOR ALL.
L'INSTANTANÉISME: BELIEVES ONLY IN LIFE.
L'INSTANTANÉISME: BELIEVES ONLY IN PERPETUAL MOTION.
On left and right hand sides of the cover we see:
THE ONLY MOVEMENT THAT IS
INSTANTANÉISME: IS FOR
THOSE WHO HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY.
IT IS NOT A MOVEMENT
IT IS PERPETUAL MOVEMENT!
in its next number
"391" will give a
list of the premier
In many ways 'Instantanéisme' can be seen as simply another of Picabia's dadaist manoeuvres: a movement that is not a movement, with members to be presented in the next issue of 391 (which of course, never arrived); the list of "exceptional men" conflicting with the previous proclamation against such "great men". However the theme of a movement that is "perpetual movement" is important with regard to Picabia's subsequent endeavours, and is something I will return to later.
On the back page of this final issue of 391 the ballet Relâche is announced again, but as a half-page advert on the back cover (apart from publishing information, these are the last ever words of 391):
THE SWEDISH BALLET PRESENT
AT THE CHAMPS éLYSéES THEATRE
" R E L Â C H E "
IN TWO ACTS, ONE CINEMATOGRAPHIC INTERMISSION,
AND THE TAIL OF
FRANCIS PICABIA'S DOG
CHOREOGRAPHY BY JEAN BORLIN
BRING BLACK GLASSES AND
WHATEVER YOU USE TO STOP YOUR EARS.
RESERVE YOUR PLACES!
EX-DADA GENTLEMEN ARE REQUESTED TO COME TO APPEAR AND ESPECIALLY TO SHOUT: "DOWN WITH SATIE! DOWN WITH PICABIA! LIVE THE NEW FRENCH REVIEW!"
In the three months between issue 18 and 19 we can see an element was added to Picabia's Ballet Instantanéisme - a "cinematographic intermission". This small but crucial addition holds the answer of why Picabia ended 391.
At the time of publication of 391 issue 19, and just before the publicised opening of his Ballet Instantanéisme, Picabia saw the first showing of Ballet Mecanique, a film produced and directed by French modernist painter Fernand Léger - a friend of Picabia's since their days in Paris before the War. The film is a classic of experimental, avant-garde filmmaking, and one of the first known examples of loop-printing. Accompanying the screening was the music of Erik Satie, the collaborator on Picabia's ballet project. Picabia commented that cinema should:
"give us a sense of vertigo... [it] must orient itself towards the spontaneity of invention which will always be more alive than the foolishness of a beautiful photograph." 
It is no surprise that Picabia found the possibilities of film intriguing. It was a means of overcoming the static nature of painting that dada had long fought against by using a 'moving' picture. The complex combination of mechanics, optics, chemistry, and time-lag which makes cinematic reproduction possible would have fascinated Picabia, whose love affair with machines can be seen on the cover illustrations of several issues of 391, including the first issue in 1917. He had seen enough the burgeoning cinema industry to decide to finally move away from the 'static' print of 391 to the dynamism of cinema, a form that truly embodied his instantanist principle of "movement that is perpetual movement".
Picabia's Ballet Instantanéisme was titled Relâche. The word is a term used by theatres to indicate that they have closed - "No Performance Tonight". It is believed that Picabia entitled the work Relâche when he learned that the opening night might be obstructed by censors, but typically Picabia himself wrote "Relâche has no meaning... When will we lose the habit of explaining everything?"
However, sure enough, when the audience arrived at the Théâtre des Champs Elyseés for the opening night of Relâche, they found the theatre closed. ("Relâche"!). The first performance had actually been cancelled because of the ill-health of one of the stars, but the public were outraged, believing Picabia had staged another Dada stunt.
The "cinematographic intermission" which had been advertised in the final issue of 391 issue was René Clair's film Entr'acte, for which Picabia had written the outline of sequences. The ballet and film were conceived as a total performance that was meant to attack the viewers' conventions and values. In the program for the performance, Picabia wrote "I would rather hear shouting than applauding". At the performance, large signs tanted the audience: "If you are not satisfied, go to hell!" and "Whistles are for sale at the door." Fernand Léger attended the presentation and summed up the effect of the ballet and the film as "a lot of kicks in a lot of behinds, sacred or not".
The performance opened with a 'curtain raiser' in the form of a short film sequence: Picabia's and Satie's cannon shot aimed at the audience. Then the ballet began. It was performed by the Ballet Suédois, in their final Paris performance. The background to the stage consisted of a wall of oversize phonograph records. The main characters were a fireman and a woman in evening dress. There were dances of a revolving door, wheel-barrow and crown. A group of eight men in evening wear dress and undress on stage. The crown is placed on the head of a member of the audience. Finally the woman rejoins her armchair.
Entr'acte was shown after the first act of the ballet. Unlike Léger's fascination with non-narrative mechanical movements of objects, Entr'acte consists of loosely connected narrative sequences. The actors are Picabia's friends, who (at that point) were neither in Tzara's dada nor Breton's surrealist camps: Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Eric Satie and members of the Ballet Suédois.
The film consists of a series of comedic gags: Picabia 'hosing down' Duchamp's and Man Ray's game of chess on top of a roof; a dancing ballerina filmed from underneath, only to be revealed as a bearded man; a huntsman shooting an ostrich egg, only to be shot himself; a funeral hearse drawn by a camel, and the chase of the funeral procession after the hearse; and finally the huntsman dressed as magician climbing out of the coffin. These gags were suggested by Picabia, who wrote about the film in the program: "Entr'acte does not believe in very much, in the pleasure of life perhaps; it believes in the pleasure of inventing, it respects nothing except the desire to burst out laughing."
click here to see images from Entr'acte
click here to view Entr'acte at ubu.com
The critic Rudolf E. Kuenzli describes the film as follows:
René Clair playfully explores the full cinematic potential of Picabia's proposed scenes by using the whole inventory of cinematic tricks and techniques: changes in tempo, superimpositions, sudden disappearances and transformations. In the first part of the film, the discontinuous episodes of the chess game, the ballerina, the shooting of the ostrich egg are connected through superimposed and interjected lyric images of rooftops and buildings of different long shots of houses and roofs seen diagonally or upside down. In the chase scene, which makes up the second part of the film, Clair explores cinematographic movements of all kinds, and via montage to increase the temp from slow motion to only blurs of movement. The funeral procession, which runs faster and faster after the hearse, is joined by a group of racing cyclists, speeding cars, an airplane, and a racing boat.
At the end of the film cinema us revealed as an illusion-producing apparatus. The huntsman emerges from the coffin in the guise of a magician who, through the waving of his wand, makes the coffin, the members of the funeral procession, and himself disappear. The word "End" appears on screen. Suddenly a man in slow motion jumps through the 'film screen', breaking the illusion of the magic and chase scenes.
The audience was assaulted with a series of non-related and often provocative images within a work which stressed the pleasure of inventing new spatial and temporal relations while provoking random laughter. While Clair later referred to his early film as "visual babblings", audiences of today can see the film as a serious attempt to subvert traditional values, both cinematic and social.
According to Hans Richter, Picabia had intended that the sound of the audience would contribute as background noise to the film (making the piece an early progenitor of John Cage's 4'33''), "but they all fell silent, as though the sight of his extraordinary cortège had taken their breath away. Picabia, enraged, shouted at the audence "Talk, can't you, talk!" Nobody did."
Instantanéisme and multimedia performance
At the end of Relâche, Satie and Picabia squeezed into a tiny 5 horsepower Citroen car and drove round the stage waving to the acclaim of their cheering friends. The whole performance naturally caused mayhem in the audience. Picabia had successfully recreated dada within a fully multimedia event, combining live performance with cinematic material.
The musical elements of the Relâche night are particularly recognisable in modern multimedia performance. Entr'acte consists primarily of very short repeated fragments of music - the most distinctive being derived from Chopin's 'Marche funèbre' - a standard piece for accompanying funerals and deaths in silent films - which Erik Satie used (as he often did) in a satirical manner. Repetitive music is especially effective in films because its non-developmental nature ensures a stable base for the visuals to rest on. This was the aim behind Satie's score for Entr'acte. The film is mostly non-narrative, although the second half does follow (in a fragmentary way) the progress of a funeral procession, and is principally interested in camera effects, and movement. There are very few stationary shots and the scenes are short. Satie's music provides a background of continuity against which these changes can occur without too much confusion. The overall impression of movement and speed remain, but without the confusion that would have resulted had the music not been based on simple repetititions.
Satie's music to this film was one of the very first instances (if not the first) of a film score composed frame-by-frame specifically for the film to ensure the music will match exactly with the visuals. It was his only film score, and Relâche and Entr'acte were also his last works (he died in 1925). However this opened the doors for other composers to work in film: for example, Shostakovitch wrote his first film score in 1929 for New Babylon.
One month after the opening performance of Relâche and Entr'acte, Picabia and Clair collaborated on another ballet entitled Cinésketch. For this, the stage was divided into three equal sections, in which actors performed simultaneously. The stage light focussed on one section, then cut over to another, achieving an effect similar to a rough montage in film. Picabia commented: "Until the present the cinema has been inspired by the theatre. I have tried to do the contrary in bringing to the stage the method and lively rhythms of the cinema." 
The end of 391
Returning to Picabia's final issue of 391, and the front cover manifesto of Instantanéisme, we can suggest that there was only one place Picabia believed "a movement that is perpetual movement" could be achieved: in cinema and the moving image. He does not publish any more issues of 391 because he believes cinematic technologies offer a greater power than print to disrupt the expectations of the audience and to undermine the norms and codes of social conventions. He transfers his 'esprit dada' into a new phase of artistic production which involves - and fetishises more than ever before - the machine, speed and the 'now', in a post WWI age where the machine was no longer (solely) feared as a primary engine of world destruction. As Hans Richter writes:
"The word 'Instantaneism' emphasized yet again the central experience of Dada, as Picabia saw it, and as he wanted it to be: the 'value of the instant'." 
This work ( http://www.chrisjoseph.org/after391 ) is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.
A PDF version of this text is available at http://www.chrisjoseph.org/after391/After_391_Chris_Joseph_2008.pdf (370KB). Other versions are available upon request.
 Quoted in William Camfield (1979), Francis Picabia [Princeton: Princeton University Press], p.208 back
 All translations by babel 2002/2008 back
 Rudolf E. Kuenzli (1987), ed: Dada and Surrealist Film [New York Willis Locker Owens] p.7 back
 Quoted in sleeve notes by S.W. Bennett - SATIE, E., et al. (1968), Homage to Erik Satie original works for orchestra and orchestrations [New York: Vanguard] back
 Fernand Léger, Vive 'Relâche', Paris-Midi 17th December 1924 back
 From the 'Programme de Relâche' in La Danse (November 1924), repeated in Francis Picabia (1978), Ecrits [Paris: Belfond], II, p.167 back
 Rudolf E. Kuenzli, op. cit, pp.5-6 back
 "The film is really Picabia's, the man who has done so much to liberate the word and the image. In Entr'acte, the image is not required to be significant but has an existence in its own right. These visual babblings seem to me the most correct course for the future of the cinema." - Rene Clair, quoted on MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art, USA), http://moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?object_id=91485 - source unknown back
 Hans Richter (1965), Dada: Art and Anti-Art [London: Thames and Hudson] p.198 back
 Quoted in William Camfield, op. cit, p.213 back
 Hans Richter, op. cit. p. 192. back