Francis Picabia

Alarm Clock


Not on display

Francis Picabia 1879–1953
Original title
Réveil Matin
Ink on paper
Support: 318 × 230 mm
frame: 500 × 410 × 45 mm
Purchased 2011


Alarm Clock 1919 is a unique work in black ink on paper, made by printing directly from the inked-up mechanism of an alarm clock. The various cogs of the clock form a pattern across the paper, joined by simple linear elements. The title, in French, is written in block capitals near the bottom of the sheet, and the artist’s name appears along the left-hand side. By taking the clock apart and printing from it, Picabia enacted a critique of the wartime and post-war status quo, showing the disintegration of human logic through the symbol of Swiss neutrality, the clock. Working without the constrictions of any single style, Picabia embodied the lack of orthodoxy that is still associated with dada, producing some of its most challenging images.

After peripatetic wartime years spent principally in New York and Barcelona, Picabia arrived in Switzerland in the summer of 1918 in order to enter a clinic. His occasional publication 391 had attracted the attention of the Zurich dada group. It encouraged dada poet and writer Tristan Tzara (1896–1963) to greater radicalism in the typography and content of the periodical Dada. Having corresponded with Tzara for some months, Picabia arrived in Zurich on 22 February 1919, sparking a period of fervid activity and mutual collaboration. Tzara and Picabia wrote a joint text for the eighth issue of 391 and Picabia made Alarm Clock, which was reproduced on the cover of Dada issue number 4–5. This was the first of the Zurich publications to bring together mentions of similar activities that had been going on in New York, Barcelona, Berlin and Paris, and which, in retrospect, constitute dada.

In 1955 Tzara and French sculptor Jean Arp (1886–1966) went to see Picabia while he was in the process of making Alarm Clock. Art historian Ellen Sharp has described this encounter as follows:

Jean Arp wrote about the excitement and curiosity which he and Tzara felt as they went to meet Picabia for the first time. On their arrival at his hotel, they found him busy dissecting an alarm clock. Arp commented with typical wry Dada irreverence that it reminded him of Rembrandt's Anatomy in the museum in Amsterdam. Picabia dipped the disassembled parts in ink and stamped them on paper. He then finished the drawing with a few lines and added his signature.
(Sharp 1976, p.194.)

Though modified with hindsight, Arp’s account gives a flavour of the awe in which Picabia’s action was held as well as alluding to the broader body of mechanomorphic works for which he was known. The iconoclastic gesture of Alarm Clock may be compared to Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. 1919 (private collection) – the readymade in which Duchamp drew a moustache on the face of a postcard reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which he made while staying with Picabia in Paris later that same year. Through such works rationality and cultural values were upended.

Further reading
Jean Arp, Francis Picabia 1879–1954, Orbes 1955.
Ellen Sharp, ‘Toward an Iconography of Tristan Tzara’, Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, vol.54, no.4, 1976, pp.191–205.
Anne Umland and Catherine Hug, Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2016.

Matthew Gale
October 2010

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Display caption

Picabia associated himself with the subversive, anti-rational Dada movement, and made this work during a visit to Zurich when he first met fellow Dadaists Tristan Tzara and Jean Arp. In inking-up the cogs of a clock (a key Swiss product), Picabia undermined the rational measuring of time upon which the social order was based. Conversation, made three years later, also links the measurable (the carefully delineated stripes) and the sensual (the nude female torsos).

Gallery label, July 2011

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