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Albert Gleizes in 1934 Translator's Introduction
In Painting and Its Laws, written in 1922 and published in 1923, Gleizes outlined his two principles of 'translation' and 'rotation', corresponding to the two activities in which the eye can engage when looking at a painting. 'Translation' is to do with balance, proportion, harmony, the qualities we associate with classical painting. In 'rotation', this balance and harmony is disturbed and the eye engages in a second activity, that of turning round and within the painting in an organised manner. In the historical essay which takes up the major part of the book, Gleizes argued that the principle of perspective which had governed painting since the Renaissance tended to suppress this second activity of the eye, but that it had been understood and enjoyed in the earlier, so-called 'primitive' work of the Celts and of western Christianity prior to the thirteenth century, In developing the science of representing the external appearances of things, painters had lost the science of what he called 'rhythm' in painting. Whether or not the painters were themselves aware of the fact, the disturbances which had marked the course of painting over the previous half century or so, overthrowing the conventions of representational perspective, were attempts to recover this rhythmic principle which, Gleizes argued, had been known not just in Western Christendom, but in all the great religious civilisations of the world. The development of representational painting, even if it had a religious subject matter, corresponded to the development of an essentially materialist attitude to the world, more concerned with observing the external appearances of natural phenomena than with living the inner life of the soul.
Painting and Its Laws uses the term 'movements' of translation and rotation, and indeed the idea of movement is implicit in the words themselves. They are borrowed from Physics. 'Translation' signifies a movement of an object in relation to other objects in space, 'rotation' a movement of an object in relation to itself. The earth revolving round the sun is moving in translation; the earth revolving on its own axis is moving in rotation. The terms are used by Aristotle and they occur frequently in Einstein's Relativity. At the time when Gleizes was writing Painting and Its Laws, he was friendly with the physicist Paul Langevin who was one of the leading French exponents of Einstein's ideas. But Gleizes insists that he is not applying ideas derived from contemporary science to painting. Insofar as there are parallels between the work of the scientists and that of the painters it is because they share a common state of mind; in their separate fields, they are both grappling with the same problems. The scientists, dissatisfied with classical mechanics, and the painters, dissatisfied with classical perspective, are both groping towards a new (or towards the recovery of an old) religious consciousness. [The argument is particularly developed in his essay Art et Science in Albert Gleizes: Art et Religion, Art et Science, Art et Production, Chambéry (Eds Présence) 1970 - Translator's note]
But if translation was a movement of objects in relation to other objects, and rotation a movement of an object in relation to itself, what was the 'object' or what were the 'objects' in question? For Gleizes, there was only one object with which the painter had to deal: not the whole multitude of 'subjects' he might choose to paint - people, trees, pots and pans, historical events or whatever - but the painting itself or, rather, from the start, prior to the realisation of the painting, the area that was destined to be covered with paint. The characteristics of this space were already given as the necessary starting point of the painter's act. It was a plane surface with particular proportions, normally a rectangle with the single proportion of length and breadth. Everything in the painting had to derive logically from that simple fact if it was to work as a living organism, if everything in it was to be inter-related in a coherent and rational manner. The movements of translation and of rotation were movements of planes bearing an intelligible relationship to the overall plane surface of the painting itself.
Later, as we shall see in the present essay, Gleizes was to feel that he had been mistaken in describing 'translation' as a movement, and indeed in using a language that suggested that the movement was in the painting rather than in the consciouness and in the operations of the eye of the beholder. What he had called translation, he argued, corresponded to the nature of the eye when it is immobilised and at rest. That such an eye might make a series of observations one after the other was not sufficient to put it into movement. The eye watching the series of 'moving pictures' in a film is itself entirely immobile and passive, much as a man sitting in a high speed train is himself entirely immobile and passive. But painting could awaken another property of the eye. The eye was not condemned always to record the movement of things other than itself. It had its own movement. But this capacity of the eye was atrophied for want of use. It was indeed quite useless for the practical purposes of a society which demanded of the eye only a host of observations, as precise as possible. But the eye exercising itself, rejoicing in its own movement, was an aid to contemplation, to the inner activity of the soul, hence the 'rhythmic' nature of the art of all the great religious ages.
We have seen Gleizes insist that, if the painting was to be experienced as a single organism inter-related in all its parts, then it had to derive from the overall proportions of the surface to be covered in paint. In practice this meant that, assuming the overall surface to be a rectangle, the 'translation', appealing to the eye at rest, was a simple repetition of those proportions, parallel to the sides of the painting, while the 'rotation' was evoked by tilting the planes, to the right or to the left, in such a way that the eye would, so to speak, imagine that the plane itself was turning, and follow the movement round. Initially, Gleizes and his close associates, the Irish painters Evie Hone and Mainie Jellett, experimented with odd shapes, but they seem to have quickly concluded that the vertical and horizontal of a rectangle were fundamental to asserting the stability, the static quality, of the painting and would have to be asserted even if the overall surface was not itself rectangular.
Gleizes and his pupils made very rapid progress using these means throughout the 1920s, from the early paintings, which are stiff and awkward, to the paintings of the mid-1920s, which are much more supple and varied. There were still, however, fundamental problems that were worrying Gleizes. One was the difficulty of incorporating the curve and the circle into a painting that was derived from an overall rectilinear base; the other was that the theory as outlined in Painting and Its Laws was helpful with regard to questions of formal construction but provided no guidance to the use of colour. In reflecting on both these problems, Gleizes in the late 1920s was much preoccupied with the example set by Robert Delaunay in his Circular Form paintings done in 1913-14.
The problem was to find in what way the two properties of the eye - the static observation and the mobile activity - could be evoked through colour. Gleizes felt that the striking colour harmonies of the great French colourists - Gauguin, Matisse, Bonnard - were still essentially static in nature. They could be seen and appreciated together, all at once. A means had to be found by which one colour could give way to another - the eye would move from one to the other as across stepping stones, and thus a direction could be established. These chains of colour, one after the other, Gleizes called 'cadences'. They followed the direction given by the colour circle, itself derived from the rainbow. If we start with a red, for example, the eye can easily follow a movement in one of two directions, towards orange (red + yellow) or towards violet (red+ blue). Following the movement towards orange, we come to yellow, then to green (yellow + blue), then blue, then violet (blue + red), coming back to red. For Gleizes, this circularity was no accident. It corresponded to the necessary circularity of the movement evoked in the painting (the movement would stop if ever it should pass outside the limits of the picture frame. It had to continually turn back on itself). In the early 1930s, Gleizes was almost wholly concentrating on the research into cadences to the extent that the rectilinear structures of the 1920s had almost disappeared.
This is the stage that Gleizes had reached by the beginning of 1934. The rest of this pamphlet takes up the story in his own words. The extracts given (from Gleizes' Souvenirs, 1934-39) coplement those given in our separate pamphlet, Key Words, which deal with the same problems from a more exclusively theological point of view.
Albert Gleizes in 1934
1934 is the year that I consider to have been the most important in my life.
After I had puzzled, stumbled, had glimpses of the truth, attempted in my books several times to clarify the results of my researches; after several years in which I had gone intellectually beyond my possibilities as a painter, which is to say that my means dragged behind my aspirations; in two stages, one following quickly after the other, I was able to reach the resolution in which, once and for all, the state of mind and the means of realising its incarnation were united, and so I was able to bring Cubism to its logical conclusion - the return of painting to the order of tradition.
At that time, it was my book, Form and History, which gave the fullest idea of what this state of mind might be. For me, form was no longer to be seen as a partial, immobilised figure, but rather as a development, in movement, complete, divided into periods, cadences and, consequently, essentially circular, since all periodicity implies a return.
In this mobile development, the figure - static and measurable - gave way to a series of furrows, curvilinear, spiralling, made up of numbers - hence the non-figurative character of my painting. But I did not confine my activities to painting, which has never for me been anything more than an experimental mode, never an end in itself. So I tried hard to see what conclusions could be drawn from the application in a particular field of a principle that was general. And soon, all the different human activities - practical, intellectual and religious - began to appear to me to be changed. Instead of seeing them through the frozen perspective of rationalism - stopped, stupefied, in the indefinable instant, shorter or longer, which is all that rationalism allows - I saw them drawn into a movement which tore them away from the figure to project them into form, which, capable as it is of being seen and of being thought, brings them into an ever closer unity with the flow of life itself, beyond concept and beyond any sensory perception.
MOBILE, TEMPORAL MEMORY
I tried in the course of this work to develop a criticism of the position that calls itself 'rationalist', and to show how, and by what devious means, it is now being disturbed in all fields of human activity by people who are still, however, unable to renounce it altogether - to such an extent do heresies, once they have become fixed habits of mind, turn into superstitions.
I wasn't mistaken as to the ground on which I had placed myself. More and more I felt that this ground where I was had been occupied before me and that, in other times, men had seen it as the very centre of their knowledge of the world, of their state of consciousness.
The ground I had assumed was that of mobile, temporal memory, as opposed to that lower level which is spatial, accessible to the senses. It was not the level of time in the sense in which Bergson understood it, of duration. That seemed to me to be no more than a subterfuge, a means of pretending to go beyond the instant simply by prolonging it, by failing to recognise that it is elastic and can therefore be shortened or lengthened without essentially changing its nature.
The ground on which I had placed myself was, rather, that of traditional time, of change which continues ceaselessly, whatever our sensual impressions may say, however much they may deceive us - a time punctuated by memories of the past and big with aspirations, with longings that go towards a future at once indefinite and, nonetheless, absolute ...
Intellectually I saw before me. I went beyond myself.
But at the practical level I was dragging behind, prisoner as I was of my bodily self. My means as a painter - I could hardly conceal the fact - did not correspond to what I wanted. Space held me in its grip and, if I made several little efforts to free myself, I felt only too well that there were chains holding me back. I organised my compositions in a circular arrangement. I made harmonies of colour interpenetrate, one following the other in series of succession that were authorised by the order of the prism. I developed the means of putting several elements together, still independent of each other but inter-related. Despite all my efforts, despite my patience - there are pictures I worked and re-worked for over ten years - I was not satisfied. There was something I could not see that prevented me from succeeding in my project.
UNDERSTANDING AND REALISATION
This inability to synchronise realisation and intellectual understanding should give us food for thought. There is more than one lesson to be drawn from it.
First, it should bring us to this certainty - that these two modalities are the irreplaceable poles that are necessary to the acquisition of knowledge. If, by misfortune, we only have at our disposal for this end one of these modes of activity, then we are heading towards a failure that is certain, despite our illusions and despite certain seductive appearances. If we cultivate only a manual activity without completing it intellectually, we are heading towards the incompleteness of the man, and the consequences of this for the work of the craftsman will appear very quickly. But if we only cultivate an intellectual activity, without completing it through a work that is manual, we are again heading towards the incompleteness of the man which again will very quickly reveal its consequences in our intellectual work. It is only by constant reference backwards and forwards between these two different modes of activity, that the experience given by manual work, and the theories developed by the intellect can become fruitful for man and enable him to achieve the prize, which is to say, consciousness of himself.
Thomas Aquinas reminds us, somewhere in the Summa, that there are two ways by which knowledge can be reached - through the teaching of masters and through the teaching of practical experience.
The first is good - so long as we have good masters. The other is better, and is that that was chosen by Jesus Christ.
What would Saint Thomas have had to say now, these days when the only masters available are University lecturers, and culture has become uniquely a matter of examination results!
But St Thomas' process of understanding through practical experience must not be confused with the sort of elementary empiricism that is incapable of drawing conclusions from its experience. Experience must be accompanied by an intellectual process capable of drawing consequences that go beyond it, pushing it forward. At least during that period of time that it always takes before we are able to arrive at any valuable conclusion.
Boethius in the fifth century after Jesus Christ said that theory must go further than practice. Which shows well that realisations and intellectual understanding must necessarily support, enlighten, enrich each other through their own individual contributions. But these two vehicles of knowledge are not always precisely synchronised. At one moment it is experience that goes beyond the intellectual theory, at another it is the intellectual theory that takes the lead.
Around 1920, in my case, my practice was ahead of my intellectual understanding. I sorted things out sufficiently to produce an acceptable result. But, with regard to the theory, which is to say, the clear understanding of my act, I had not got very far. I have already said what it was that forced me to take consciousness of what I was doing - those young painters who came along, asking me to teach them. I had necessarily to understand what I was doing myself before I could explain it to others. Out of the practice I had to produce the theory. It was a particularly hard pregnancy, wonderfully exciting but exhausting. By the end of it, I knew clearly what I was doing - I was able to follow the stages of my own esemplastic act. Consequently, it became possible to pass this act in its principle on to others. At the same time, my intellectual understanding had caught up with my experience.
The lack of synchronisation between them had ceased. At least for the moment.
Between 1922 and 1934 I tried to get as much as I could out of my 'new plastic mechanism', which may be summed up in the phrase - 'movements of translation and rotation combined together'.
At first I only used colour in relations that were harmonious, one beside the other, without any attempt at a movement of succession between them. There was a particular moment - in 1923 - when I tried to make this sort of esemplastic organisation more complex. Up until then I had only used it very simply, in a single element. But now I tried to group several elements together, leaving them individually autonomous but interlinked, one with the other.
The first of these efforts were distributed about the canvas rather at random and I was very dissatisfied with them. I quickly understood that if I was to succeed, I would have to accept a discipline. I adopted a principle of compartmentalisation, with the relations and proportions organised in harmony with the initial ratio of length and breadth given by the overall area to be painted. It was thus that I made a series of paintings, some very big in size, which I called, as appropriate - Painting with two, three, four, seven elements. Most of these works were based only on geometrical themes. Some of them, however, by several indications more or less emphasised, evoked through suggestion a figure, or groups of figures,
And it was during one of those moments of relaxation [Relaxation from the long philosophical conversations with Louis Hoyack which are reported in our pamphlet Key Words, which can also be consulted on this website - Translator's note]. that I saw clearly, spontaneously, the quidproquo in which I had been struggling for years and which was the reason for my dissatisfaction with the technical means I was using. My compositions remained broken up into fragments and, in spite of certain intuitions which had led me to surround my central theme with a curvature made up of different colours, I was well aware that the unity I longed for had not been realised.
Why? It was in vain that I divided tones, modulated and multiplied nuances, the result was not what I had hoped. I could not understand why. Suddenly, while I was looking at the canvasses still sitting on their easels, my mind still occupied with the points we had just clarified with regard to the key words, a ray of light passed through me. It ricocheted against the canvasses as they were scattered in front of my eyes.
Now I understood, at least in part.
Translation and rotation were certainly the principles which I had evoked to realise my 'painting-objects'. But I had only touched on ROTATION. I wasn't able to see it, so I wasn't able to set it going. For a long time already I had, quite rightly, been aiming at a mobile expression, setting it up in opposition to the classical, immobile expression. This latter had been the necessary consequence of the painted work's having been subordinated to space, in a spirit of subjectivism. In the beginning, this subjectivism had been of a general order, restrained by the system of construction round the principle of perspective limited to a single point of view. But from one age to the next it had become more and more particular until it had ended up in the individualism of the present day, which so many people believe, so presumptuously, is the very reason of the work of art.
I was right, and the rightness of my reasoning was confirmed by the invaluable conquests that had been achieved by those pioneers who, before me, had been able to arrive at some objective notions of translation and rotation - Jean Metzinger and Juan Gris - and also some archetypical examples of the use of colour in the order of the chromatic circle considered formally, as an esemplastic phenomenon in its own right - Robert Delaunay.
I was right when, in 1922, I tried to formulate the principle of translation and rotation - formal principles whose rule corresponds necessarily to our biological nature, answering to the organ in question not just in its passive mode (as is the case with perspective in its relation to sight) but awakening all the creative forces, enabling the seed to develop until it reaches its flowering. But what was now clear to me was that, even though I had certainly been aiming at rotation, which would have realised a true plastic mobility, drawing the eye along in its movement, all I had done so far had been to indicate two opposed phases of this movement. I was still confined to immobility.
Despite the modulations I had used, following the suggestions given by the colours in the rainbow, the movement did not emerge in a clear, unquestionable manner. There was something fundamental that was missing, and I was now able to have a glimpse of what it was. It was movement itself, in which the modulated interweaving of the colours would be able to come to a conclusion.
This movement is the rhythm of the painting, expressed by a linear arabesque that reveals its form. It is this form which was charged with the task of unifying all the organic fragments which, by themselves, were no more than the promise of unity.
THE GREY CIRCLES
At last I had understood. 'How', I said to myself, 'did I dare ask Hoyack to clarify the meaning of the words he used? I pride myself on not acting with regard to them like an intellectual without hands, on always trying to see as an object what I have in my mind, and here I have the proof that for years I have been just as incapable as him or any other intellectual of realising concretely what I have as an idea. I spoke about rotation without being able to do it and its only now that I have come to see it.'
So I armed myself with, in the one hand, a paintbrush and, in the other, a cloth soaked in turpentine so that I could quickly correct and wipe out my errors. I made a mixture of white and black, giving me a grey of a certain intensity which corresponded to the general tonality of the canvas that lay before me. And, using this tone by itself, I placed on top of the coloured composition, an arabesque, the simplest I could, which, in a single line, expressed all the intentions that had been implicit in the comings and goings I had evoked in the painting. I stepped back. This time I had realised the rotation I had been talking about for so long, of which I had had an accurate intuition, which I wanted to show but which I could never reach. The result was undeniable.
The composition which had, until then, been inert, waiting, was shaken up and the colours called out to each other and replied.
The unity was affirmed. It was easy to understand how. The overall construction [dessin] was emphasised through the combinations of grey curved lines. These grey lines - I insist, a grey obtained through a mixture of black and white and, consequently, not at all coloured - were like luminous resonators on which the colours sang in their complementaries rendered softer and more gentle. As the order of my colours, more or less modulated, had, once they parted from the central colour harmony, respected the order of the chromatic circle, one can understand that the effect of this grey resonator was to waken the eye to the contrast of the complementary. On a red, the grey line assumed a green coloration and everywhere the grey line passed the same phenomenon took place.
In the way I had arranged my colours, a red, or a collection of reds, could be found on one side of the canvas, a green, or a combination of greens, on the other. Between them, from top to bottom,the intermediary chromatic successions were divided. So that, on the colours grouped round red, the resonator sang green, and on the colours grouped round green, the resonator sang red. And everywhere the contrast evoked, in opposition to the colour, a subtle nuance which overthrew the too great dominance of the old intensities and created a collaboration between them that was a true symphony. Thus unity was restored on a basis of plurality and movement.
THE ERRORS OF 1922
You can imagine the joy I felt at having finally brought this rotation to its natural conclusion, realising it, physically. Looking at the matter closely without any more allowing myself to be deceived by appearances, what I had so far called rotation had only been a displacement of the plane in the direction of rotation. I had not reached the rotating movement I so desperately wanted. In the presentation of what, in 1922, I had called the 'new mechanism', I had proposed the only two principles that can in fact correspond to the creation of the object - translation and rotation. But I had made two important mistakes. The first: I gave the name of 'movement' to what were no more than changes in the magnitude of the plane. That was incorrect. If the plane is changed only in its magnitude, with the new figures remaining parallel to the plane that contains them, then there is no need for movement in the eye. The eye remains centred on itself and so only registers relations of quantity between extensions in space [Gleizes is here referring to the phrase he uses in Painting and its Laws - 'movements of translation' Translator's note].
The second error was even more serious; it had been a stumbling block to me for years. I thought I had resolved the difficulties that had been posed by the principle of rotation when I made the plane of the canvas turn around its axis, to the right and to the left, registering these two modifications of its position. It is true that, instead of seeing it as a simple inclination in either direction, I imagined that, through the intermediary of the eye, my plane had turned completely on its axis, a true rotation, of which, unfortunately, all I had done was to have noted the two extreme positions.
That was where the error lay. I was obliged to bow before the Euclidean postulate of the indeformability of figures in movement. I had wanted to realise a plane in movement and I had had to make do with two states of rest in a pivotal movement that was not rotation. I was still immobile. And that is why nothing I had been able to do afterwards to force this immobility to give way to immobility ever managed to reach the end that I was aiming for. The more or less pronounced curvature that enveloped the central theme, the comings and goings of the colouring and the modulations which had evolved, following the rule of the chromatic circle, out of the basic harmony given by this theme ( or by these themes, when I was working with more than one element) - these certainly brought about some improvement. But in no way did they provide the solution.
It was in reducing the directions indicated by the - in themselves - fragmented parts of the composition to a series of concentric circular waves - in affirming this simple circular direction with supple lines of a grey (black and white) tonality that marked the course of the rhythm - it was thus that I finally managed to draw the eye out of its state of torpor. It had now been excited sufficiently to enable it to begin to move and to set out upon the rhythmic paths that had been opened up to it.
That was what it was, this rotation, this succession in time. After I had been talking about it for years without being able to express it, in this month of March 1934, after the dialectical battles I had had with my friend Hoyack with a view to conferring upon words their visual reality, I had at last managed to visualise the word 'rotation' ...
[Gleizes showed these paintings at an exhibition organised in June under the auspices of the group Abstraction-Création which had been formed to bring the non-figurative painters together in opposition to the Surrealists and to those painters who had been caught up in the return to Classicism. The exhibition, he tells us 'would certainly have attracted attention if it had been mentioned in the artistic press. But our artists' co-operative, independent of all the networks inspired by commercial interest, aroused no sympathy in the world of the galleries and even a joural such as Beaux-Arts was careful not to mention any of our activities ... We were surrounded by a conspiracy of silence ...' ]
When I saw them all brought together, I was struck by the incompatibility there was between the painting as such - the coloured translations and rotations - and the rhythmic rotation of the grey curved lines which, as I've already said, established the movement by drawing the eye along after it. This gap, this incompatibility between the two orders, was wrong; it was a serious flaw I could not fail to see, though, and I admit the fact, I hadn't noticed it in the studio.
Where did it come from? I assigned to it several reasons. First of all, a fault in the tonality of the grey arabesque. Perhaps also in the fact that these canvasses had been painted before I knew about this rhythmic resolution and they weren't able to assume it; hence this contrast that was too violent for the painting? Or perhaps there were other reasons that I hadn't yet seen? At any rate, once I had my paintings back in Bld Lannes, I studied them and tried to put the problem right. I carefully worked at the values of the rhythmic arabesques, which I wanted to present in a single tone, without any modulation. But it was impossible to find a tone of grey which was able everywhere to sustain contact with the painting. Finally, with very great reluctance, I had to resort to modulating the rhythmic arabesques so as to resolve, evenly cross the whole surface of the canvas, this conflict between the grey rhythm and the coloured values. I had the feeling that I was cheating and that I was making use of a subterfuge to obtain an aesthetic effect, when what I wanted was something more than that, when I wanted to work in accordance with the order of life, which is all simplicity. Nonetheless, through the use of modulated tones of grey, the incompatibility between the two orders disappeared and the movement remained, less violent, more subtle. I understood that there was something that I did not uderstand. And it was with this feeling that I left Paris to return to Cavalaire.
THE THREE STAGES
I set to work once again at Cavalaire. And this was the decisive step. It didn't take me long to see how I had sinned. The rhythmic arabesque was in itself certainly a critically important acquisition. But, in the paintings I had taken up again some months previously with the intention of revealing their rhythmic movement, this arabesque had introduced a troublesome element which was caused by a poor understanding of space (the relations between the measures, the proportions, the theme) and time (the cadences).
I had composed these pictures following the plastic mechanism of translations and rotations as I had sketched them out in Painting and Its Laws. True to the limited extent of its usefulness but incomplete and giving rise to the error I have already indicated with regard to the nature of rotation. Without realising it, of course, I had fallen into the error of 'space-time' in which it is impossible to distinguish one of these two successive natures from the other. Trying by purely empirical means to get myself out of a situation which I felt was equivocal but which,rationally, I was unable to understand, I had adopted the successive order of the colours of the chromatic circle, as well as the succession of modulations that can be obtained through the use of intermediate tones. My intentions were good, but the structures of the painting prevented it from working entirely as it ought. I had not yet realised the inadequacy of the space-time. So, when I placed the rhythmic resolution on these compositions, my grey arabesques, expressing the luminous intensity, spoke, with regard to the movement, of a real grey and thus their separation from the rest was affirmed with violence. They had not been prepared by a logical process of ascension, and so they stood out in opposition to the world of the colours about them, which was reluctant to receive them.
Yet again, I realised, it had taken me several months before my intellectual understanding and technical ability could be brought together.
'Die to space to be reborn in time, and die to time to be reborn in Eternity' I had said. But I was still not able to give to this formula - perfectly correct in itself - the objective reality I so desperately longed to give it.
At the time when I had been so unpleasantly struck by the incompatibility there was between the coloured composition and the rhythmic lines, I had not yet grasped the reason for it. I had to chase after it for a while through a series of dead ends.
But now I saw clearly what needed to be done. I needed to obey, to submit, to put things in order. To begin by situating the spatial theme, the relation established between the figures, measured and coloured. That having been done, to develop it and project it into the enveloping paths and by-paths of time, to surround it with a network of cadences, on which the coloration of the theme could resound, in which they would be taken up, would respond to each other, would complement each other. Finally - the logical end to all these meanderings - to cause the static figures that had been put into movement in the cadences to die to their dual nature and rise again in the unity of light, of which the grey curve, formal, rhythmic, fully realised, omnipresent, bounded and infinite, open and closed, immobile and mobile, provided at once the resonance and the intensity.
The order had been observed, respected, followed; the problem of the incompatibility had been resolved because each nature was now recognised as autonomous and situated in a hierarchical relationship to the others. Now the objective reality, with its three successive levels, had been realised, and the painting was no longer dependent on a subject, but on principles and laws founded on the very nature of colour and of light.
Working in this way, drawing the distinction between these three natures, I had produced a composition that was analogous to the great compositions of the Middle Ages such as the Christ in Majesty and the Virgin and Child in Glory of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, sacred works of the twelfth century.
And that was for me a lesson in modesty.
MAJESTY AND GLORY
So my researches, supported by the researches of my Cubist comrades, sometimes more, sometimes less conscious of what they were trying to do, had led me, not to the invention of some novelty which would itself be swept away in its turn, but to the recovery of a traditional means of esemplastic expression whose secrets had been lost when a state of subjectivism had been imposed on Western Christianity as it allowed its mind to be dominated by sensation. A Christ in Majesty! A Virgin in Glory! Majesty and Glory have a formal meaning of which the archaeologist seems to have hardly the slightest notion, no more than those who elaborate ideas on theology or philosophy.
The question of how, from our low, corporeal nature, it is possible to rise up to the form that is supreme, seems to escape them totally. They have no suspicion of it.
They are words, symbols of something that cannot be defined, nothing more.
But if they can recover their value as imagos of the Word, they will belong to the order of those incantatory signs which, as soon as they are pronounced, evoke the object, from which they cannot be separated.
Fiat lux and there was light. Nothing new under the sun.
'Man is a child born at midnight; when he sees the sun rise, he thinks it is for the first time' says the Chinese proverb. For the moment, let us give the proverb the lie and say that it is not the first time that the laws of the object have been recognised.
The references I have just given, which may be found at Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe, at Montoire, and everywhere else where works of this 'height' were elaborated, whether in Christendom or elsewhere, give us the most conclusive proofs.
We should, then, be modest when talking about our own discoveries. If they are worth anything then we can be sure that they can be found again in the past, corresponding to states of mind that are analogous to those that provoked them among ourselves. And let us be happy that we have been able to play a part in the process of their recovery, now that, once again, a propitious moment has arrived.
A MEANS OF ACTION THAT CAN BE TAUGHT
In two stages, during this year 1934, I had arrived at the full statement of what, in Painting and Its Laws in 1922 I had called 'the new plastic mechanism', which, at that time, was limited to translations and to a first indication of rotation. The incoherence I had remarked in my Abstraction-Création exhibition - this was the same incoherence which I had not noticed but which had, nonetheless, been there for twelve years, between my state of mind and the means by which I had tried to realise it, or, alternatively, between the technical means I had at my disposal and my state of mind, which had not been able to catch up with them.
I was now fully conscious of the fact. The two steps which had just followed each other, with some months interval between them, had been sufficient to resolve the contradictions and now my state of mind and my technical means had, once again, come together.
The translations and the first indication of rotation were situated in space; to them belonged, whether or not there was any figuration, the themes proposed by the colour harmonies, static in their nature, which, thanks to the conditions imposed by the overall environment of the painting, were at once of the nature of the object and of the nature of the subject, since the responsibility for the choices made must always be borne by the painter, however those choices may have been motivated or reasoned out.
Around this central theme, a network of concentric waves had developed, as if it had struck a medium which resonated with it, propagating it into the cadenced movement of time. All the elements which had gone into the making of the theme found themselves, in a manner of speaking, represented or put into counterpoint about it in a round, circular movement, going in one direction.
Finally, there was the formal resolution of all these complexities The single direction of all the different undulating currents had led them towards that ocean of light which is the pure rhythm for which they longed. Here the colours, whose passionate self assertion had been softened and disciplined by time, die, to rise again in light. The grey of the curve, in which the whole process of the opening out of the theme is enfolded like a seed that has reached the full extent of its capacity of development, gives to the whole an intensity that is an image of light.
The first step had caused me to recognise the authority of the rhythmic construction [dessin] which, up until then, had escaped me.
The second step obliged me to recognise the exact position of each of these clearly distinguished, autonomous natures which, put into action, resound each on the other, whether ascending or descending - that of the stopped measures; that of the cadences in movement and that, finally, of eternity, which the circumference, which is at once immobile and mobile, can indicate to the eye that is able to be aware of it in the unity of these two natures and in their duality.
To my mind, these clarifications, which enable the methodical realisation of an objective, traditional esemplastic means of expression - in opposition to the transcription onto a plane surface of a subjective phenomenon of vision such as is desired by the classical notion of painting - have brought about the logical resolution of the movement that was launched by Cubism. A long period of puzzlement, of empirical searching and of individualist fancies, which had to arrive at an order if it was to be resolved into a means of action that could be taught. However, I will never fail to insist that, beyond the quite excellent intentions that moved a certain number of painters who belonged to one particular generation, the first who conceived the basic elements of a conclusive method were, unquestionably, on the one hand, Jean Metzinger and Juan Gris, who arrived at a partial clarification of the conditions of translation and, on the other, Robert Delaunay, who played (and he was not without serious reasons of his own for doing it) with the colours in succession and simultaneous contrasts of the chromatic circle - once well appreciated by Gauguin and by Paul Sérusier, though, unlike Delaunay, they never dared to use it as a pure esemplastic phenomenon with a force of its own.
As for me, I pursued my own researches without paying very much attention to what they were doing.
At certain moments, I joined up with them again. I took advantage of the occasion to pay them the homage they deserved. And I continued to push ever further forward in the adventure, more and more convinced that the quest would not be in vain. Sometimes helped by intellectual reflection, sometimes by my practical experience as a painter. As I advanced ever more deeply into it, Cubism began to assume for me a meaning that was new and entirely unexpected. For, from being a particular way of painting, it appeared as the hidden hope of all painting, destined to restore to it its principles and laws.
Subjective classicism had thrown duration down, reducing it to the suspension of the moment, hence to spectacles or to things based on sensation, confined to space. By returning to painting the cadences of time, the process by which Cubism had finally found its fulfilment in tradition had raised duration up again, into Eternity, Unity, Light.
To speak more accurately, duration had given way to Omnipresence, since to speak of duration, even if we understand it as being perpetual, is to remain still in time. Eternity is omnipresent - which is very different. In it, the snapshot (space) and the instant (time) are coupled together in a mysterious act of conception ...
A Letter to Anne Dangar
Dear Miss Dangar
I didn't reply to your letter as soon as I would have liked, simply because I was fully immersed in executing the paintings I told you about, and that was eating me up, literally. I wanted to keep you informed about the results of these efforts and to speak to you a little about what I have learned from the trials I have been going through. It is now finished. I have four quite important canvases which I consider to be the most complete that I have ever done. Complete in the sense of the ordered application of those principles of which I have for some time now been more or less conscious. That, finally, is the problem. You manage to unravel the mystery in an intellectual way and, with your hands, you cannot give it its reality; you haven't the means. And you know that, in the last analysis, you know nothing.
But that is the moment when, knowing that you know nothing, you know that you have to know, whatever the cost. Last April, you saw me realising, one fine day, that what I had been talking about for the previous twelve years, what I had proclaimed in my books, I did not do. And I did not do it because I did not know how to do it. I immediately had to set about filling this gap. On the canvasses I had available, which I felt to be incomplete, which didn't satisfy me, I attempted the impossible - to endow them with their resolution, the integration of the curves, the game of light.
You know the result. But perhaps you do not know that, despite the joy that I expressed, I still wasn't satisfied. In fact, this resolution had not been built into these canvasses when they were first conceived because, at that time, I had been unable to envisage it concretely. They behaved themselves very well and did not react too violently when I imposed it upon them; they did what they could and I am grateful to them. But ... but ... it was insufficient and my pleasure quickly gave way to criticism. The final circles were too much outside the translation and the rotation, or, rather, by reason of the very rigour of the newly arrived circles, these last were shown to be imperfect, confused, disordered, they appeared as a false start.
THE THREE STAGES
If the decisive circles were to be logical and truly appear as a resolution, apotheosis, the translation and rotation would have to prepare their Appearance methodically, clearly, which is to say, in order. The three stages of the construction of the monument had to appear in the totality of the work, successively. Successively, you understand? That is to say that the first stage with the foundations should be in its own place, the second as well, and the third, as the roof, should appear as a natural conclusion. In other words, space, immobile, accessible to the senses - translation - should be the base; time - cadence, rotation - should put the first into movement; and, to finish, this cadence should become rhythm, form, light. So, the figures, dominated by straight lines; then the periodic displacements of straight lines and curves; finally, unity, the circles:
1) Organisation of combinations of colours following all the games of the fancy.
2) These combinations organise themselves into cadences of colour, transformed according to the order of the chromatic circle.
3) The chromatic circles come together according to their natural tendency into grey - an intensity given by a mixture of black and white, the equivalent in painting of the intensity of light.
When these stages appear in their regular interlinking, their natural order, then there is really unity. The circular light arrives as something that is destined and not any more as something that is superfluous, as in those canvasses you saw, which are mainly interesting for what they are trying to do and for the intuition they express, but which are badly ordered. Now the light is something expected, satisfying, conclusive.
And then the problem appears in its totality, in its true nature, exactly as it is. It comes down to this: to organise the passage from the square to the circle through the multiplication of the sides of the square in rotation. It is obvious: that is the beginning and end of painting. There are the isolated colours, which are the square. Put into movement, they come together, they multiply their angles so that, for example, a blue that is square (that is to say, seen by itself, in isolation), if it is put in movement becomes a green which, continuing the movement, becomes a yellow which itself becomes an orange ... etc. And the circle, that is THE LIGHT towards which this regular dance leads the way.
FEAR OF THE FIGURATIVE IMAGE
So we can understand that our rejection of the image accessible to the senses is only a means, suited to the needs of a passing moment, to learn, without being inhibited by an oppressive habit, what we did not know, what we have lost, of a great tradition whose reality is, once again, being felt. So the image had to be abandoned in the expression it had assumed at the time of the Renaissance which, in the end, becomes photography. It had to be abandoned in what, essentially, defined it in its Renaissance expression - the dependence on raw sensation, on a sight that is purely mechanical. But once the true process is recognised and known, what importance does our terror of the figurative image finally have? How did we understand this image? On what was the way in which we understood it, which caused us to fly from it, based?
The rejection of the figurative image loses its importance once we understand that what we are fleeing is the image as it was formulated at the time of the Renaissance, that image that, as I have just said, is the heavily mechanical expression of a sight without intelligence. After we had been using this image for centuries, it was inevitable that the photographer would appear, who is true to its nature and who, for anyone who thinks about the matter, proves definitively that the Renaissance image is deprived of a soul, deprived of any real humanity. It is simply a function of the eye and nothing more. It is impossible to mechanise, to photograph, a 'spiritual vision', even when it has assumed an overall shape that evokes echoes in the memory.
Examples can be found at the level of nature as it is accessible to the senses, round the senses - the design of an image from the twelfth century, from the eleventh century, from Greece in the archaic period, from ancient Egypt ... why? Because the image is mnemonic, which is to say, physiological, which is to say that it comes not from the senses but from the memory. Do you understand? An evocation of that sort is of the order of the cadence, it prepares the cadence, it touches upon it, it satisfies the senses and leads them on to the second stage. The schematic square becomes less severely intellectual without ceasing to be present and without ceasing to be the principle of this part of the whole. The image confers on the square and on all the geometrical combinations a greater degree of liveliness. It thus helps to awaken number, still more stripped as it is, in its cadences, of any gross sensual character. Thou shalt not make unto thyself any images may, then, be understood: 'You shall not remain at the level of the nature of the senses; you shall not be enslaved to the senses in their merely mechanical operation.'
God, in painting, is expressed by the circle. That is his form-unity. Man is an image of God in light - curve - through the intermediary of the memory, time, expressed in cadences. Cadences and form-light-unity, that is the new basis for the painting. This new basis is prepared by what is below, but necessary - the level of sensation, the state of immobility. So this level must be as complete as possible without weighing the whole thing down. The overall construction of the Renaissance image is confined to the level of the senses and it is therefore heavy, despite all the talent that has been expended upon it. It stops everything at itself. The overall construction of the image of the eleventh and twelfth centuries and, better still, earlier, is, by comparison, light; sacrificing itself for the benefit of the cadences, the level immediately above it.
SPACE, TIME, ETERNITY
So, now that we are in possession of the means (and I firmly believe that we are) we must pitilessly reject the image of the Renaissance that is addressed exclusively to the senses, but, at the same time, we should not fear, should the occasion present itself, an image determined by geometry, by the square, the right angle, because it, in its nature, corresponds to the higher stages. The Renaissance image, I repeat, bears no, or too little, relation to them; the new image will give more meaning and variety to the space.
I will talk all this over with you again when I see you, and clarify what has been left incomplete in these sentences, thrown out at random, just as I think of them. You will see that the figurative, the representation of an external appearance, is something quite other than what I understand by the reintroduction of a construction that suggests an image drawn from the memory. For the moment, the most important thing is that you know where I am. And where I am is at the placing in their correct order of the three factors - space, time, eternity - senses, memory, duration [SIC] ... You can refer back to the beginning of this letter. These three states, natures relatively independent and differentiated one from the other, must be brought into a relationship that will finish up in unity.
[Illustrations to this and other essays will appear when I acquire a greater mastery of website design - P.Brooke]
The image-memory can only be in the state (1) - translation, and modified by the state (2), at its lowest, beginning its movement. After that, there is no more image but only movement towards light, towards unity.
Now, dear Miss Dangar, that I have put myself right with my conscience with respect to you, I will reply to the practical questions you have posed in your letters ...
[There follows a largely anecdotic account of problems relating to Moly Sabata]
Best wishes to Lucie and to all those whom you have around you.