L’Adoration du veau (Adoration of the Calf) by Francis Picabia

Francis Picabia

L’Adoration du veau (Adoration of the Calf), 1941–42, Oil on board, 106 x 76.2 cm, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, AM 2007-198, Philippe Migeat © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

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Blind Power

Commentary by

Draped in blue cloth, Francis Picabia’s calf is not golden. Nor is it clear that it is humanly-made. The calf’s grey, muscular torso, evokes classical marble sculptures of the Minotaur, but its pink-tinged nose suggests life. Its teeth are bared crookedly and menacingly, though it offers no attention to the objects it threatens. Its eye—the one that is not obscured by shadow—looks off to the side, half-closed. What kind of idol is this?

Based on a photograph of a dead calf by Erwin Blumenfeld (The Minotaur or The Dictator c.1937), Francis Picabia’s painting Adoration of the Calf (1941–42) interprets the biblical scene of idolatry loosely. Important details have been changed from both the description in the scriptural text and the tradition of golden calf paintings. Gone are the sumptuous golds of medieval and Renaissance interpretations of the scene. The worshippers have become mere hands and arms, extended in adoration. The divinity they adore is not intelligent, but it is clearly powerful. Its muscular figure, its regal blue garment, the way it dominates the scene, the way the canvas is itself over one metre high—they suggest literally brutish political force. This is an idol of blind power.

The role of sight, in Picabia’s painting, is inverted. Where many have interpreted the golden calf story as a parable about the dangers of sight, Picabia’s painting offers a visual warning about the dangers of not seeing. Blindness abounds: it is not clear the worshippers see the calf (since we can’t see their eyes). The calf certainly does not seem to see the people, or anything with much focus or clarity. The painting in this way warns of the golden calves that arise in the political sphere, playing on our fears and draping themselves in the costumes of legitimate governance. To see them for what they are, that is the hope to which the painting exhorts us.

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