Resisting Abstraction: Robert Delaunay and Vision in the Face of Modernism

Resisting Abstraction: Robert Delaunay and Vision in the Face of Modernism

by Gordon Hughes

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Resisting Abstraction: Robert Delaunay and Vision in the Face of Modernism by Gordon Hughes

Robert Delaunay was one of the leading artists working in Paris in the early decades of the twentieth century, and his paintings have been admired ever since as among the earliest purely abstract works.

With Resisting Abstraction, the first English-language study of Delaunay in more than thirty years, Gordon Hughes mounts a powerful argument that Delaunay was not only one of the earliest artists to tackle abstraction, but the only artist to present his abstraction as a response to new scientific theories of vision. The colorful, optically driven canvases that Delaunay produced, Hughes shows, set him apart from the more ethereal abstraction of contemporaries like Kandinsky, Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, and František Kupka. In fact, Delaunay emphatically rejected the spiritual motivations and idealism of that group, rooting his work instead in contemporary science and optics. Thus he set the stage not only for the modern artists who would follow, but for the critics who celebrated them as well.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226159232
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/25/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 184
File size: 41 MB
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About the Author

Gordon Hughes is the Mellon Assistant Professor of Art History at Rice University, the editor of Nothing But the Clouds Unchanged: Artists in World War One, and coeditor of October Files: Richard Serra.

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Resisting Abstraction

Robert Delaunay and Vision in the Face of Modernism

By Gordon Hughes

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-15923-2


BREAK (Windows)

Delaunay contra Cubism

The year 1912 was a watershed for Robert Delaunay. On March 13 his first major exhibition in Paris closed to favorable reviews after two weeks at the Galerie Barbazanges. Comprising forty-six works, the exhibition spanned his career to date, featuring his early, self-taught impressionist works (figure 1.1), his 1905–1906 neoimpressionist period (figure 1.2), a single painting from his 1909–1910 Saint-Sévrin series (Saint-Sévrin No. 1) (figure 1.3), a large number of Parisian cityscapes produced between 1909 and 1911 (figure 1.4), and the series of cubist Eiffel Tower paintings from 1909–1911 (figure 1.5). The poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who was to live briefly with Delaunay and his wife, Sonia, from November to mid-December of 1912, praised these works in his review of the exhibition, trumpeting Delaunay as "an artist who has a monumental vision of the world.... Robert Delaunay has already come to occupy an important place among the artists of his generation." Two weeks later, Apollinaire singled out La ville de Paris (figure 1.6) in his review of the Salon des Indépendants. "Decidedly, the picture by Robert Delaunay is the most important of this salon," he effused. "La ville de Paris is more than an artistic manifestation.... He sums up, without any pomp, the entire effort of modern painting." The critic Roger Allard agreed, deeming the "colored symphony" of La ville de Paris "the most remarkable" contribution on display.

Flagged by Apollinaire and other influential critics as a new force on the Parisian artistic landscape, Delaunay was also making steady strides elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Germany. He participated in the first Blaue Reiter exhibition in Munich (figures 1.7–1.9), where he sold four of the five works on view, including the first La ville, now lost, to the painter Alexei von Jawlensky. More important than sales, however, was the enthusiasm for Delaunay's painting that abounded among members of the Blaue Reiter, leading to active correspondence between Delaunay and Wassily Kandinsky, August Macke, and Franz Marc. Delaunay's Blaue Reiter connections also resulted in Erwin Ritter von Busse's article "Robert Delaunay's Methods of Composition," which appeared in the 1912 Blaue Reiter Almanac, alongside Roger Allard's essay "The Signs of Renewal in Painting," which praised Delaunay as a painter "who has conquered the arabesques of the picture plane and who shows the rhythm of great, indefinite depths." Delaunay went on to exhibit that February in the second Blaue Reiter exhibition in Munich and in the Valet de carreau exhibition in Moscow. At Kandinsky's urging he also participated in the inaugural Der Sturm exhibition in Berlin, which opened March 12, 1913, and through Hans Arp, at the Moderner Bund zweite Ausstellung in Zurich that July. As Delaunay's reputation spread, Paul Klee was among the many painters outside of France to feel his influence. Klee visited him at his Paris studio in 1912, and his German translation of Delaunay's 1912 essay "La lumière" ("Light") appeared in the January 1913 issue of Der Sturm as "Über das licht."

By the beginning of 1913 Delaunay was firmly ensconced within the upper ranks of the international avant-garde. In January he and Apollinaire traveled to Berlin to participate in the twelfth Der Sturm exhibition, Ständige Ausstellungen der Zeitschrift der Sturm, zwölfte Ausstellung, which ran from January 27 to February 20. Alongside works by Ardengo Soffici and Julie Baum, Delaunay exhibited twenty-one works in total (nineteen listed in the catalog plus two late additions), offering the first glimpse of his postcubist production to a German audience, including a dozen or so of the Window series and a sketch for the first The Cardiff Team. Nine days before the official opening, Apollinaire gave a lecture titled "Die neue Malerei" ("Modern Painting"), in which he championed Delaunay and Picasso as representing the two "most important" new tendencies in modernist painting. A month later, Herwarth Walden published Apollinaire's lecture in the same issue of Der Sturm as Paul Bommersheim's "Der Uberwindung der Perspektive und Robert Delaunay" ("The Overcoming of Perspective and Robert Delaunay"). Walden also helped Delaunay publish a catalog of the complete Window series, prefaced by Apollinaire's poem "Les fenêtres."

Despite his burgeoning reputation in Europe, the organizers of the 1913 Armory Show in New York rejected Delaunay's La ville de Paris, claiming the painting's imposing size (an impressive 267 by 406 centimeters) would overwhelm the other works in the exhibition. Incensed, Delaunay tried unsuccessfully to remove his other contributions in protest. The organizers of Budapest, müvészház: Nemzetközi postimpresszionista kiallitas, a postimpressionist exhibition in Budapest arranged in collaboration with Walden, had no such qualms, exhibiting the canvas later that March along with eighteen other paintings by Delaunay. From Budapest it was on to Florence, where, from the end of May to the end of June, he exhibited three paintings in at the Società delle belle arti. In August 1913 he participated in another major exhibition of modernist work at the gallery Hans Goltz in Munich, the same month that his drawing Eiffel Tower was featured on the cover of Der Sturm.

For all of Delaunay's mounting influence and tireless exhibiting in the years 1912–1913, his legacy would have amounted to little more than an art-historical footnote were it not for his great breakthrough, his 1912 Window series (figures 1.10–1.25). Begun in La Madeleine in the Chevreuse Valley, where the Delaunays were vacationing for the summer, the twenty-two-painting series marks the moment of Delaunay's artistic maturity following his break with cubism. The Windows, he writes, "truly began my life as an artist." It was this series of remarkable paintings—unabashed, flaunting even, in their use of color—that ended Delaunay's otherwise relatively unremarkable apprenticeship within cubism. Evidence to all who saw them that Delaunay had broken ranks, the Window series quickly established his reputation as "l'hérésiarque du cubisme"—"the heretic of Cubism."

To reference Delaunay's self-proclaimed heresy or to characterize him as "breaking ranks" is not, I should make clear, to ascribe an overall aesthetic or conceptual coherence to the cubism that Delaunay came to oppose. As most scholars now recognize, the cubism of Picasso and Braque is wholly distinct from the so-called Salon cubism of Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Henri Le Fauconnier, André Lhote, and others. Differences likewise abound within the critical reception of cubism. Yet despite the many internal tensions and contradictions in the characterization of cubism, both Delaunay and others understood his break in opposition to a very specific group of cubist painters. For despite their various formal and intellectual differences, the Salon cubists strategically represented themselves as a more or less cohesive movement, downplaying disparity in favor of a unifying common ground. Indeed, prior to his break with cubism, Delaunay himself played a central role in the decision that he, Gleizes, Metzinger, and Le Fauconnier made to display their work as a group, in what would come to be the first public, collective manifestation of cubism, salle 41 at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants (hence "Salon cubism"). As Gleizes notes in his memoirs, it was important for these cubists painters to present a united front: "Metzinger, Le Fauconnier, Delaunay, and I decided to send work to the next Salon des Indépendants.... But we must be grouped, that was the opinion of all." Salon cubist Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes similarly recalls how Gleizes and Jean Metzinger aimed "to establish a kind of legislation of the cubist movement."

The first published suggestion that Delauany had broken with the Salon cubists appeared in the March 23, 1912, issue of L'assiette au beurre, in James Burkley's review of that year's Salon des Indépendants. Commenting on entry number 868, Delaunay's La ville de Paris, Burkley wrote that "Delaunay, commonly labeled a Cubist, has wished to isolate himself and declare that he has nothing in common with Metzinger or Le Fauconnier." The most influential and enduring statement of rupture, however, took place in the context of the Section d'or exhibition at the Galerie la Boétie gallery on October 11, 1912 (the very day, coincidentally, that Klee visited Delaunay's studio). It was here that Apollinaire gave his famous talk "Le cubisme écartelé" ("The Quartering of Cubism"), in which he described four recent and divergent tendencies in cubism: "scientific cubism," "physical cubism," "Orphic cubism," and "intuitive cubism." Of these, only Orphic cubism would not lapse into almost immediate obscurity. Indeed, "Orphic cubism" quickly transformed into "Orphism," the -ism proclaiming its status as a full and independent movement. In his talk, woven a year later into the fabric of The Cubist Painters, Apollinaire argued that Orphic cubism, roughly characterized by a tendency toward abstraction, represents a "pure art" consisting of "elements not borrowed from visual reality." Orphic cubism, Apollinaire argued with typical poetic flare, appeared in the light—and only the light—of Picasso's painting but was most clearly represented in the work of Delaunay, "with Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp also making great strides."

By early 1913 "Orphisme," touted as the latest artistic nouveauté in the popular and critical press, began to appear as synonymous either with Delaunay or, at the very least, with the clear understanding of his leadership. But signs of fatigue and skepticism soon began to appear. The critic Max Goth, for example, considered the movement little more than ill-conceived, frustratingly vague hype. "Orphism," he writes wearily, italicizing the word for effect, "and now we speak of Orphism. Or rather, we do not speak of it. All that we've tried to say has only clouded the question." The same day Goth's article appeared, two separate caricatures of Orphism also showed up in the popular press—one in Le rire (figure 1.26), the other in Le journal amusant (figure 1.27). Demonstrating just how far Orphism had trickled into the public imagination, both caricatures lampoon paintings sufficiently recognizable as "Orphic" to a general reader.

Delaunay himself first publicly distanced his work from cubism in an open letter to Gil Blas on October 28, 1912. Responding to Olivier-Hourcade's claim, published in Paris-Journal eight days earlier, that "four painters [Metzinger, Gleizes, Le Fauconnier, and Léger] who, with Delaunay ... created —and truly are—cubism," Delaunay retorted: "I don't support the opinion, inaccurately put forward by Mr. Hourcade, that proclaims me the creator of cubism with four colleagues and friends.... Only some friends, artists, and critics know the direction that my art has taken.... It is necessary to set the record straight." In this very public disavowal of cubism—a disavowal that had already been picked up on by critics—what was it exactly that Delaunay was disassociating himself from? In part, Delaunay's break with cubism marked a refusal to have his increasingly evident individualism suppressed through Salon cubism's aspirations to unity. More to the point, however, it was the conceptual means by which the Salon cubists sought to establish this unity that Delaunay rejected. For cubism, in the majority of its myriad forms, revolved around a central unifying premise: that vision, conventionally understood, could no longer serve as a viable basis for pictorial realism. For the Salon cubists, visual sensation was wholly unreliable and riven with all manner of false information. The mind, however, knows better: "The painter, when he has to draw a round cup, knows very well that the opening of the cup is a circle," Olivier-Hourcade writes in defense of cubism. "When he draws an ellipse, therefore, he is making a concession to the lies of optics and perspective, he is telling a deliberate lie. Gleizes, on the contrary will try to show things in their sensible truth." In place of an outmoded realism of vision (how we see an object), cubism, for critics such as Olivier-Hourcade—and there were many—proposed a new realism of conception (how we know an object). It was through this realism of conception that cubism defended its paradoxical claim that despite the fact that the painted object bore little or no visual resemblance to its original source (indeed because the painting didn't look like what it represented), it actually bore a greater resemblance to its subject than mere visual appearance was able to convey. By replacing visual with conceptual realism, cubism sought to lay bare the ontological ground of its subject matter, believing that it could peel away the visual skin of the object to expose its core truth. Such conceptual idealism proved seductive to the cubists not only in that it allowed modern painting to maintain its representative function while relinquishing a superannuated model of classical vision but also in that it held out the grandiose promise of an absolute realism, immune to the blights and vagaries of vision.

While Salon cubism and its advocates turned to conception as the basis for a new realism—what Gleizes and Metzinger termed the "profound realism" of the mind, in opposition to the "superficial realism" of the eye, in their 1912 book Du cubisme —Delaunay alone attempted to develop a radically reconceived model of vision for painting. Well aware of recent developments in visual science and its consequences for painting ("Historically," he writes, "there really was a change in understanding in modes of seeing, and thus in pictorial technique"), Delaunay enacts this "change in understanding," beginning with the Windows series. Combining cubism's emphasis on conception with impressionism's emphasis on sensation, Delaunay's Windows reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable, cubism and impressionism, while remaining utterly distinct from each. More radical still, the Window series stages a central claim within modern optical science: that vision, far from being fully formed at birth, develops over time through a gradual process of acquisition. Looking at the Window series, we learn, much as we did once before, how to see.


Take Simultaneous Windows onto the City (1st Part, 2nd Motif, 1st Replica) (figure 1.28), the only work in the series to have a painted frame. At first sight, we see a loosely articulated grid of abstract colors—no clear figure-ground distinction, no evident orientation—within a two-dimensional array of rough, ill-defined chromatic shapes, each bleeding into the other. Over time, however, our vision develops. Looking carefully, we come to see the green, elongated triangle in the center of the canvas as the Eiffel Tower, with its lighter, more obscure supporting columns below. The two small dark-green dashes in the lower part of the painted frame take form as windows on a rectangular building front. Most surprisingly, and with some effort, we come to see a face—our face? the artist's face?—caught in the reflection of the window (figure 1.29). Inconsistent with the other shapes in the painting, the dark-green-on-yellow partial oval shape two-thirds of the way down the right side of the painting suddenly slides into view as a mouth, while the quarter circle beneath it becomes a chin. The jaw and then the neck extend the sloping, fragmented line of the tower just above the corner of the canvas. The inverted teardrop ear lies nestled between the dark-green right side of the tower and the yellow left side of the face.

When we finally notice the conspicuous rectangular form that cuts diagonally from lower left to upper right across the surface of almost all of the paintings in the series, it also asks that we concentrate our vision, that we in one way or another try to make sense of it. Is this another image, mirrored like the face in the reflective surface of the window? Or is this a part of the cityscape outside, something we see as we look through the window? Or is this altogether too literal a view? Perhaps this odd shape has more to do with Delaunay's engagement with "pure painting" and the formal aspects of composition and color than the literal properties of transparency and reflection?

Learning to make sense of the view from this particular window, we combine conceptual knowledge with sensory information: what we know with what we see. Once we know the title—once we know that this is a window—and once we recall Delaunay's prior paintings of the Eiffel Tower and cityscapes, it makes sense that the orthogonal grid would transform into a view of Paris. We also know from experience that transparency can flip into reflection and that, as we look through the window, we may unexpectedly catch a glimpse of ourselves, abstracted in the refracting light, caught in the act of seeing. Delaunay reflects the act of seeing back to us. But more than just reflecting an image of vision—more than just reflecting the image of a face that each successive viewer can learn to see as his or her own—Delaunay reflects the actual structure of seeing.


Excerpted from Resisting Abstraction by Gordon Hughes. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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