SOME LOOSE ENDS
Long as this essay has been, there are still many important questions that have not been addressed. There is, for example, the role of Jacques Villon, one of the most sympathetic, sensitive artists in the circle, who had his own interest in the relation between painting and mathematics - a genuine close interest in the Golden Section which seems quite unrelated to the arguments of Lenz and Sérusier, though Villon, through the Société Normande de la Peinture Moderne, was associated with Sérusier's pupil, Roger de la Fresnaye. His main source is usually said to have been Péladan's translation of the Treatise on Painting, extracted from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, (1) which is quoted in On "Cubism" and later, at a time when Gleizes was particularly associated with Villon, in Painting and Its Laws.
What Villon derives from this is very different from the return to early Renaissance values later championed, also with reference to Leonardo's notebooks, by Severini. The use of what he pretends (it is difficult to believe him) is an entirely impersonal mathematically based structure without any intervention by the artist's sensibility, establishes in his work a strange, disturbing quality - much more genuinely disturbing than anything that could be found in the Surrealists and so effective that it must be assumed to have been intended. Far from pleasing and soothing the senses as the use of rhythmic numbers was supposed to do in the theories of Henry or of Lenz, Villon's use of the Golden Section grates on them. To that extent he resembles his brother Marcel who often seems to be deliberately pursuing what Henry would have called non-rhythmic or 'inhibitory' relations. But the effect in Villon is much more interesting, a real challenge to conventional habits of perception, heavy (especially in his engravings) with a sense of tragedy and foreboding, far removed from the impersonal mathematics of the theory.
His theory puts him on the side of the purely plastic, essentially non-representational side of the argument; but no-one conferred greater intensity on the subject, often a subject presented straightforwardly, without radical reorganisation, except in those works where he explores the possibilities of successive movement - the soldiers marching, the horse running. Indeed, despite this interest in successive movement, shared with Marcel, his work is usually static in its tendency. The eye confronted with one of Villon's etchings is immobilised, more thoroughly than it ever is when confronted with conventional Renaissance perspective, and this seems to be a necessary consequence of his use, again following Leonardo, of pyramids as an element of construction. As a lifelong friend of Gleizes, the theorist of ocular mobility, Villon clearly knows what he is doing. In respect of this static intensity if in nothing else he resembles his neighbour and, one assumes, friend, Kupka and it is very strange to think of them working side by side, totally dedicated, uncompromising, solitary and, apparently, quite independently one from the other.
Then there is the very different role of Fernand Léger. Léger appears prominently in the illustrations to On "Cubism" with five paintings. They include an Abundance which looks like a parody of Le Fauconnier. The lady appears to be gorging herself on the fruit (the impression that she is smoking and winking is not confirmed when the drawing is examined closely). There is also a Houses and Smoke which includes a perfectly clear - though, as Antliff would say, hitherto unremarked - church steeple: clear proof that Léger was really a reactionary Catholic traditionalist who would have been all too willing to associate with a modernised Bergsonian Action Française. The following year, in October, (2) Léger signed a contact with Kahnweiler and withdrew from the Salons.
Léger's lecture The Origins of Painting and its Representational Value, (3) given in May 1913, has much in common with On "Cubism", especially with the 'plastic' side of the argument which I have identified with Gleizes. Like On "Cubism" he insists that the new painting is 'realist' but, more clearly than On "Cubism", he insists that its realism lies in its recognition of the real means at the disposal of the painter: 'pictorial realism is the simutaneous ordering of the three great plastic components: lines, forms and colours.' (p.4) Like On "Cubism" he distinguishes between the visual (he calls it 'visual; On "Cubism" calls it 'retinal') and the conceptual: 'I think it is at this precise moment that the two great pictorial concepts, visual realism and realism of conception, meet - the first completing its ascent, which includes all traditional painting down to the Impressionists and the second, realism of conception, beginning with them.' (p.5) Like Metzinger in Cubist Technique, he sees Cubism as a continuation of Neo-Impressionism: 'the divisionism of form and line [dessin]' (p.7); and, like On "Cubism" he understands it as a matter of relations - 'the relationships among volumes, lines and colours' (ibid) - not of an individual image. He lays more stress than On "Cubism" on the saccadic, fragmented nature of the painting, influenced by modern means of communication, and this would lead, in his talk the following year (1914) on Contemporary Achievements in Painting to a championing of violent contrasts, rather like that which is condemned in On "Cubism". Even here, however, he echoes On "Cubism" in his criticism of the Neo-Impressionist optical mix which will only add up to grey (p.17). He has almost nothing to say in either of the two essays on Metzinger's distinctive interest - Cubism as a new means of presenting information about a subject. Here Gleizes, Léger, Le Fauconnier and Delaunay all seem to be ranged against Metzinger, who finds himself in the company of Picasso and Braque, at least as interpreted by Kahnweiler.
Another topic I have barely touched upon is the relation, if any, with the Futurists. On "Cubism", as a manifesto of Cubism, might be presented as a response to the Futurists but, apart from the passing reference to those who confuse plastic dynamism with the noise of the streets, it does not refer to them and it has nothing of their aggressive, polemical spirit. One might almost feel its sober, measured, sometimes lightly mocking style is itself intended as a reproach to the Futurists. I had long assumed that Gleizes had the Futurists in mind when he attacked Italian art in Cubism and Tradition; but the art he is attacking is so radically and obviously different from that of the Futurists that this seems unlikely.
On the whole it does not seem that either Gleizes or Metzinger saw Futurism as much of a threat. Gleizes claims in his Memoirs that he liked them (4) and in Painting and on Man become Painter (which, since it was his last book, appears as something of a testament) he expresses a warm sympathy for Boccioni, presenting him as the first to pose seriously the problem of movement in painting (p,79). One feels, by contrast, that Metzinger was quite indifferent. Only Delaunay really rose to the bait, entering into a very interesting if heated exchange over the origins and meaning of the term, 'simultaneism'. (5) Léger is content to remark that Italian Futurism is a proof that French Cubism has universal value (had Gleizes said it he would doubtless have been accused of racism) (6).
THE SALON DE LA SECTION D'OR
Then, though this list of possible further issues to be raised is far from complete, there is the relation between On "Cubism" and the Salon de la Section d'Or, now much better known through the exhibition organised by Cécile Debray and Françoise Lucbert (Chateauroux and Montpellier, 2000-01) and its excellent catalogue. It could indeed be argued that the very general nature of the argument in On "Cubism" - the fact that it has little to say that is distinctive to Cubism - was intended to reflect the wider, more eclectic nature of the group brought together in the Section d'Or. (7) It becomes in this light the manifesto of those painters who have rejected Neo-Impressionism and Fauvism, who refuse the imitation of external appearances and also the exclusive use of primary colours.
In this context, Gleizes' insistence on the two schools of Cubism - himself, Metzinger, Le Fauconnier, Delaunay and Léger on the one hand; Picasso and Braque on the other - may appear almost as misleading as Kahnweiler's insistence on the exclusiveness of Picasso, Braque and Gris. What appears instead is a widespread movement, succeeding and distinct from Fauvism, with less emphasis on colour and more on the explict use of straight lines to establish a construction that would embrace the whole picture surface and be less dependent on single point perspective. It is not to be confused with a 'Cézannean' painting, a tendency which belongs much more to the Fauves.
Whether the other painters would have recognised themselves in it or not, On "Cubism" constitutes a superb summary of the concerns held in common by this wider group. It works precisely because of the width of the divergence that separates the two authors - Metzinger with his emphasis on the new means of representing a subject, Gleizes with his emphasis on the inter-relations of colour and form. Neither can express his own idea fully. The 'Nietzschean' artist-as-superman argument works precisely against dogmatic definitions and in favour of a variety of responses to the new freedoms - freedom from imitation, from single point perspective and from the need to use only primary colours.
In their own individual writings, Gleizes, Le Fauconnier and Léger all maintain a fairly high level of generalisation. The two painters with the most definite ideas on a precise technique are Metzinger and Delaunay - two old friends though now their ideas are very far apart. Gleizes' principle concern in his review of the 1911 Salon d'Automne is to draw a sharp distinguishing line separating the new painting from the Fauves, and in Cubism and Tradition, it is to give it a particular moral character, one of sobriety and grandeur.
Translations of Du "Cubisme" were published in England and Russia in 1913. In both cases, but especially in Russia, the circumstances were rather interesting and I hope in the not too distant future to be able to discuss them in a separate article.
PURE PLASTICISM AND THE 'BIG' SUBJECT
One of the main arguments of this essay is that the interpretation of writers such as Cooper, Richardson, Golding and Fry - usually used to support Picasso and Braque as 'essential' or 'true'' Cubists in opposition to the Salon Cubists - is in fact derived from Metzinger via Kahnweiler; and that Metzinger is a much more important figure than has generally been acknowledged - though to argue the case fully would require a close study of developments in Paris during the war. It is amazing that the simple strength and beauty of his landscapes and portraits of 1912 - 1914 have not been recognised. Metzinger's idea, however - the total image made up of a rearrangement of different characteristics of the subject represented - was not in the event as full of possibilities as might have been expected at the time. The reduction of the object to a collection of 'ideas' tended towards the conceptual, non-plastic approach exemplified in an extreme form by Duchamp. The real strength of Cubism - even of Metzinger's Cubism, but also of that of Picasso and Braque - had nothing to do with the representation of the subject. It lay entirely in the organisation of the picture. And of the original group, the painter who took this furthest - this is the theme of my For and Against the Twentieth century - was Albert Gleizes.
In saying this, I am of course aware that Gleizes' work of the period - more than that of Metzinger - was characterised precisely by ambitious subjects - the hunt, the harvest, the city, and, later, the 'enormous Broadway' in New York, which he takes as symbolic of the need to express the whole vast drama, the collection of unprecedented sensations, of modern life. In a letter to Barzun, apparently referring to Metzinger's formula as outlined in Cubist Technique, he says:
'How, for instance, give the equivalent of the enormous Broadway, fantastic river with a thousand currents, going against each other, getting tangled up with each other, raising its [word missing], by applying in our painter's expression some little principles that are just about good enough to describe a very simple object, inkwell, box etc. All at once the truth blinds us with its light, rises in revolt and smashes the charms ...' (8)
Metzinger and, later, the Kahnweiler school, defended the modest subject matter of the Still Life as more suited to the Cubist method of analysis. During the war, by a strange chance, the painters who were most hostile to Picasso and Braque - Gleizes, Delaunay, Léger - were scattered, while those who knew Picasso personally and were impressed with him - Metzinger, Gris and Severini - remained in Paris. Their typical subject, which they used to great effect in what was in many respects the high point in the collective history of Cubism, was the Still Life.
But in fact there is no real contradiction between emphasis on the 'big' subject and emphasis on purely plastic relations. The big subject is precisely a subject that is rich in plastic possibilities. It would be a long time before Gleizes was able to develop a non-representational painting as rich and complex as the Harvest Threshing. Here the interest of the painting is all to do with 'the institution of relations between straight lines and curves' or the 'thousand surprises of fire and of shadow' proposed in On "Cubism". The subject matter is entirely, as Gleizes himself says, and as Le Fauconnier says, 'a pretext'. The great pencil transcription done - to scale - by the potter Geneviève Dalban barely touches the figuration; it reveals the greatness of the construction. The 'duration' that has been so much talked about is entirely a matter of the length of time that can be spent looking at it, as one thing leads to another, in and out and round about, in an endless visual dance. It is a mark of the failure of the Cubist revolution - its hi-jacking by the champions of the subject - that nearly one hundred years later there are writers on art who can see in such a picture only peasants, a church tower, a rustic meal, mountains, clouds ...
(1) e.g. in Dora Vallier: 'To place Jacques Villon' in Cassou et al: Jacques Villon, p.16. Back
(2) Léger: Functions of Painting, French edition, p.331. Back
(3) This is the title given in the Thames and Hudson English translation edited by Edward Fry. The original French however is Les Origines de la peinture contemporain et sa valeur représentative (my enphasis). Page references are to the English edition of Functions of Painting. Back
(4) 'This attitude [the violence of Severini's support for the Futurists], which I did not share, nonetheless rendered him extremely sympathetic to me, as indeed, were all his friends, among them, in the first place, Boccioni.' - Memoirs-Return to France. p.7. Marinetti had been one of the associates of the Abbaye. See e.g. Fabre: Albert Gleizes and the Abbaye de Créteil, p.132. Back
(5) See e.g. Pascal Rousseau: 'Biographie' in Rousseau et al: Robert Delaunay. Items for 7th Feb, 1912, 1st April 1913, October 1913, December 1913, 5th March, 1914. Back
(6) Origins of Painting, p.7. Back
(7) Though we learn from the catalogue (p.237) that 'nearly all the artists of the Section d'Or 'had already been brought together the previous year (Nov-Dec, 1911) by the Société Normande. Back
(8) In various writings I have guessed that the letter, which I knew from an undated typescript was written in 1916 but Pascal Rousseau (L'Age des synthèses, p.171) has found it in the Barzun archive giving the date as 24/8/1917. Back