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Gleizes and Metzinger
"Cubism," the collaborative effort of the painters Albert Gleizes (1881–1953) and Jean Metzinger (1883–1956), has been read less than Apollinaire's Cubist Painters, due to the poet's reputation, the charm and wit of his essay, and its greater availability. Yet there can be no doubt that "Cubism" is a more certain embodiment of the ideas of one large group of Cubist painters, and a much more reasoned presentation of artistic theory.
Gleizes and Metzinger had met in 1910, when both had already adopted the new visual language whose initial impulse came from Picasso and Braque. By the spring of 1911, Gleizes and Metzinger banded together with Léger, Delaunay, and Le Fauconnier at the Salon des Indépendants to form a self-aware artistic movement. Although Picasso and Braque remained aloof, Cubism burgeoned over the next months, with public exhibitions, many articles, and incessant interchange of ideas in the studios of Puteaux and Courbevoie. Unlike the two initiators, whose still lifes, nudes, and interiors of studios and cafés showed no overt social concern, the Puteaux-Courbevoie group (by now including among others, the brothers Jacques Villon, Marcel Duchamp, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon) chose themes which they considered more modern, especially the city and its industrial suburbs. In October 1912, they joined in the Section d'Or exhibition, one of the climactic events of prewar painting. Just a few weeks earlier, the essay "Cubism" had been published.
Gleizes and Metzinger had written the essay in the span of months preceding the Section d'Or, the most dynamic period in the history of Cubism. In contrast to Picasso and Braque, who, by keeping to themselves, tended to let others speak for them, the Puteaux group was anxious to explain itself. From their many interviews and articles of 1911 to 1913, we are entitled to conclude that "Cubism" embodies some of the ideas of the circle as well as those of its two artist-authors.
Published by Figuière in 1912, "Cubism" was given its first and only English translation in 1913 by the firm of T. Fisher Unwin. Their successors, Ernest Benn Limited, as far as their rights are involved, have kindly authorized me to reprint it. The 1913 translation is an excellent one, but at times a bit insensitive and lacking in nuance. I have revised it accordingly, especially in order to preserve the flavor of its coined words, and its assertive, energetic mood. I am immensely grateful to the late Daniel Robbins for his comments on my revisions and for his contributions to two editions of this essay, Du "Cubisme" (Sisteron, 1980) and, with Fritz Metzinger, Die Entstehung des Kubismus: eine Neubewertung (Frankfurt, 1990).
The word Cubism is only used here to spare the reader any doubts about the object of this study, and we hasten to state that the idea it implies, volume, could not by itself define a movement which aims at an integral realization of Painting.
However, we do not intend to provide definitions; we only wish to suggest that the joy of taking by surprise an art undefined within the limits of the painting, is worth the effort it demands, and to incite to this effort whoever is worthy of the task.
If we fail, what is the loss! To tell the truth, we are impelled by the pleasure man takes in speaking of the work to which he dedicates his daily life, and we firmly believe that we have said nothing that will fail to confirm real Painters in their personal dilection [dilection].
To evaluate the importance of Cubism, we must go back to Gustave Courbet.
This master—after David and Ingres had magnificently brought to an end a secular idealism—instead of wasting himself in servile repetitions like Delaroche and the Devérias, inaugurated a yearning for realism which is felt in all modern work. However, he remained a slave to the worst visual conventions. Unaware that in order to discover one true relationship it is necessary to sacrifice a thousand surface appearances, he accepted without the slightest intellectual control everything his retina communicated. He did not suspect that the visible world only becomes the real world by the operation of thought, and that the objects which strike us with the greatest force are not always those whose existence is richest in plastic truths.
Reality is deeper than academic recipes, and more complex also. Courbet was like one who contemplates the Ocean for the first time and who, diverted by the play of the waves, does not think of the depths; we can hardly blame him, because it is to him that we owe our present joys, so subtle and so powerful.
Edouard Manet marks a higher stage. All the same, his realism is still below Ingres' idealism, and his Olympia is heavy next to the Odalisque. We love him for having transgressed the decayed rules of composition and for having diminished the value of anecdote to the extent of painting "no matter what." In that we recognize a precursor, we for whom the beauty of a work resides expressly in the work, and not in what is only its pretext. Despite many things, we call Manet a realist less because he represented everyday events than because he endowed with a radiant reality many potential qualities enclosed in the most ordinary objects.
After him there was a cleavage. The yearning for realism was split into superficial realism and profound realism. The former belongs to the Impressionists: Monet, Sisley, etc.; the latter to Cézanne.
The art of the Impressionists involves an absurdity: by diversity of color it tries to create life, yet its drawing is feeble and worthless. A dress shimmers, marvelous; forms disappear, atrophied. Here, even more than with Courbet, the retina predominates over the brain; they were aware of this and, to justify themselves, gave credit to the incompatibility of the intellectual faculties and artistic feeling.
However, no energy can thwart the general impulse from which it stems. We will stop short of considering Impressionism a false start. Imitation is the only error possible in art; it attacks the law of time, which is Law. Merely by the freedom with which they let the technique appear, or showed the constituent elements of a hue, Monet and his disciples helped widen the horizon. They never tried to make Painting decorative, symbolic, moral, etc. If they were not great painters, they were painters, and that is enough for us to venerate them.
People have tried to make Cézanne into a sort of genius manqué: they say that he knew admirable things but that he stuttered instead of singing out. The truth is that he was in bad company. Cézanne is one of the greatest of those who orient history, and it is inappropriate to compare him to Van Gogh or Gauguin. He recalls Rembrandt. Like the author of the Pilgrims of Emmaus, disregarding idle chatter, he plumbed reality with a stubborn eye and, if he did not himself reach those regions where profound realism merges insensibly into luminous spirituality, at least he dedicated himself to whoever really wants to attain a simple, yet prodigious method.
He teaches us how to dominate universal dynamism. He reveals to us the modifications that supposedly inanimate objects impose on one another. From him we learn that to change a body's coloration is to corrupt its structure. He prophesies that the study of primordial volumes will open up unheard-of horizons. His work, a homogeneous block, stirs under our glance; it contracts, withdraws, melts, or illuminates itself, and proves beyond all doubt that painting is not—or is no longer—the art of imitating an object by means of lines and colors, but the art of giving to our instinct a plastic consciousness.
He who understands Cézanne, is close to Cubism. From now on we are justified in saying that between this school and the previous manifestations there is only a difference of intensity, and that in order to assure ourselves of the fact we need only attentively regard the process of this realism which, departing from Courbet's superficial realism, plunges with Cézanne into profound reality, growing luminous as it forces the unknowable to retreat.
Some maintain that such a tendency distorts the traditional curve. From where do they borrow their arguments, the future or the past? The future does not belong to them as far as we know, and one must be singularly naïve to seek to measure that which exists by that which exists no longer.
Under penalty of condemning all modern art, we must regard Cubism as legitimate, for it carries art forward and consequently is today the only possible conception of pictorial art. In other words, at present, Cubism is painting itself.
At this point we should like to destroy a widespread misapprehension to which we have already made allusion. Many consider that decorative preoccupations must govern the spirit of the new painters. Undoubtedly they are ignorant of the most obvious signs which make decorative work the antithesis of the picture. The decorative work of art exists only by virtue of its destination; it is animated only by the relations established between it and the given objects. Essentially dependent, necessarily incomplete, it must in the first place satisfy the mind so as not to distract it from the display which justifies and completes it. It is an organ.
A painting carries within itself its raison d'être. You may take it with impunity from a church to a drawing-room, from a museum to a study. Essentially independent, necessarily complete, it need not immediately satisfy the mind: on the contrary, it should lead it, little by little, toward the imaginative depths where burns the light of organization. It does not harmonize with this or that ensemble, it harmonizes with the totality of things, with the universe: it is an organism.
Not that we wish to belittle decoration in order to benefit painting; it is enough for us to prove that if wisdom is the science of putting everything in its place, then the majority of artists are far from possessing it. Enough decorative plastic art and pictorial decoration, enough confusion and ambiguity!
Let us not argue about the original goal of our art. Formerly the fresco incited the artist to present distinct objects which evoked a simple rhythm, and on which the light bloomed, serving a synchronic vision rendered necessary by the amplitude of the surfaces; today oil painting allows us to express supposedly inexpressible notions of depth, density, and duration, and encourages us to present, according to a complex rhythm, a veritable fusion of objects within a restricted space. As all preoccupation in art arises from the material employed, we ought to regard a preoccupation for decoration, if we find it in a painter, as an anachronistic artifice, useful only to conceal impotence.
Does the difficulty which even a sensible and cultivated public experiences in understanding art result from present conditions? It must be admitted, but it should lead to enjoyment. A man will enjoy today what exasperated him yesterday. The transformation is extremely slow, and the slowness is easily explained: how could comprehension evolve as rapidly as the creative faculties? It follows in their wake.
Dissociating, for convenience, things that we know to be indissolubly united, let us study, by means of form and color, the integration of the plastic consciousness.
To discern a form implies, besides the visual function and the faculty of moving oneself, a certain development of the mind; to the eyes of most people the external world is amorphous.
To discern a form is to verify it by a pre-existing idea, an act that no one, save the man we call an artist, can accomplish without external assistance.
Before a natural spectacle, the child, in order to coordinate his sensations and to subject them to mental control, compares them with his picture-book; culture intervening, the adult refers himself to works of art.
The artist, having discerned a form which presents a certain intensity of analogy with his pre-existing idea, prefers it to other forms, and consequently—for we like to force our preferences on others—he endeavors to enclose the quality of this form (the unmeasurable sum of the affinities perceived between the visible manifestation and the tendency of his mind) in a symbol likely to affect others. When he succeeds he forces the crowd, confronted by his integrated plastic consciousness, to adopt the same relationship he established with nature. But while the painter, eager to create, rejects the natural image as soon as he has made use of it, the crowd long remains the slave of the painted image, and persists in seeing the world only through the adopted sign. That is why any new form seems monstrous, and why the most slavish imitations are admired.
Let the artist deepen his mission more than he broadens it. Let the forms which he discerns and the symbols in which he incorporates their qualities be sufficiently remote from the imagination of the crowd to prevent the truth which they convey from assuming a general character. Trouble results when the work is a kind of unit of measurement indefinitely applicable to several categories, both natural and artistic. We concede nothing to the past: why, then, should we favor the future by facilitating the task of the vulgarizer? Too much lucidity miscarries: let us beware of masterpieces. Propriety demands a certain degree of dimness, and propriety is one of the attributes of art.
Above all, let no one be decoyed by the appearance of objectivity with which many imprudent artists endow their pictures. There are no direct means of evaluating the processes thanks to which the relations between the world and the thought of a man are rendered perceptible to us. The fact commonly invoked, that we find in a painting the familiar characteristics of the sight which motivated it, proves nothing at all. Let us imagine a landscape. The width of the river, the thickness of the foliage, the height of the banks, the dimensions of each object and the relations of these dimensions—these are secure guarantees. Well, if we find these intact upon the canvas, we shall have learned nothing as to the talent or the genius of the painter. The worth of river, foliage, and banks, despite a conscientious faithfulness to scale, is no longer measured by width, thickness, and height, nor the relations between these dimensions. Torn from natural space, they have entered a different kind of space, which does not assimilate the proportion observed. This remains an external matter. It has just as much importance as a catalogue number, or a title at the bottom of a picture-frame. To contest this is to deny the space of painters; it is to deny painting.
The painter has the power of rendering enormous that which we regard as minuscule, and as infinitesimal that which we know to be considerable: he changes quantity into quality.
Only when decades and centuries have come to our aid, when thousands of minds have corroborated one another, only when innumerable plagiarists have enfeebled the noble enigma that a picture is by commenting upon it, then, perhaps, we shall be able to speak, without ridicule, of objective criticism.
To whom shall we impute the misapprehension? To the painters who disregard their rights. When from any spectacle they have separated the features which summarize it, they believe themselves constrained to observe an accuracy which is truly superfluous. Let us remind them that we visit an exhibition to contemplate painting and to enjoy it, not to enlarge our knowledge of geography, anatomy, etc.
Let the picture imitate nothing and let it present nakedly its raison d'être! Then we should indeed be ungrateful were we to deplore the absence of all those things—flowers, or landscape, or faces—whose mere reflection it might have been. Nevertheless, let us admit that the reminiscence of natural forms cannot be absolutely banished; as yet, at all events. An art cannot be raised all at once to the level of a pure effusion.
This is understood by the Cubist painters, who tirelessly study pictorial form and the space which it engenders.
This space we have negligently confused with pure visual space or with Euclidean space.
Euclid, in one of his postulates, speaks of the indeformability of figures in movement, so we need not insist upon this point.
If we wished to tie the painter's space to a particular geometry, we should have to refer it to the non-Euclidean scientists; we should have to study, at some length, certain of Riemann's theorems.
As for visual space, we know that it results from the harmony of the sensations of convergence and accommodation of the eye.
Excerpted from Modern Artists on Art by Robert L. Herbert. Copyright © 2000 Robert L. Herbert. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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