Back to On "Cubism" introduction

Back to On "Cubism" contents

Back to previous section


(I apologise that the rather creaky old web development application I use doesn't stretch to the Czech system of accents)



(a) Injustice of the Cubists

So far as I know, neither Gleizes nor Metzinger in any of their writings ever mention the name of Frantisek Kupka. Yet it is impossible that they were not aware of what he was doing and unlikely that Gleizes at least did not find it interesting. The 'Puteaux Cubists' met in a garden that was shared by the studios of Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Kupka. Kupka had known Villon since the beginning of the century when they were neighbours in Montmartre. (1) Like Villon and Gris he contributed drawings to the anarchist and satirical press. It was with Villon and his brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon that he moved to Puteaux,at the time living its last days as a village to the West of Paris. (2) He knew Alexandre Mercereau, shared his interest in psychical research and contributed with him to the journal La Vie mystérieuse specialising in occult matters and published by Eugène Figuière, publisher of On "Cubism". Since he was still in Puteaux after the war, he must have been Gleizes' neighbour when Villon gave him the use of Raymond Duchamp-Villon's studio. This was the moment when Gleizes first plunged into straightforwardly non-representational painting. Together with Gleizes Kupka contributed articles to La Vie des Lettres et des Arts and, like Gleizes and Villon, he exhibited in the Galerie Povolozky.

Christopher Green says that 'there is much evidence that Kupka did not see himself as one of the Puteaux group, refused to connect his work in any way with Cubism, and kept himself apart.' (3) But there is also some evidence that he felt understandably aggrieved at the manner in which he was systematically ignored by the Cubists. In a letter he wrote to Theo van Doesburg, 23rd March 1926 he says:

'And in contrast to the attitude of the Cubists, who have all followed me while relegating me for long years to a position far from the known world, you have had the goodness and honesty to do me the justice I have never demanded but always hoped for ...'

and again to Doesburg, in June:

'For years I have had to endure a chain of silence stretched about me with cruel injustice. Through your intervention it could be broken completely.' (4)


(b) On "Cubism" and non-representational art

I have already suggested that when Gleizes and Metzinger evoke the danger of 'a whimsical occultism' and 'cabbalistic signs' they may have been thinking of Kupka. And it seems highly likely that Kupka is present in the famous remark about 'pure effusion':

'Let the painting imitate nothing, and let it present the reasons for its existence in all their nakedness! it would be inappropriate on our part if we were to complain about the absence of all those things - flowers, countryside, face - of which it could never have been anything more than a reflection. But we have to admit that the reminiscence of natural forms cannot be absolutely prohibited, at least not yet. It isn't all in one go that an art can be lifted up to the level of a pure effusion.'

And it can hardly be coincidence that Kupka's vertical planes, made up entirely of straight lines, and the Newton's Discs, made up entirely of circular curves, were more or less contemporary with the publication of On "Cubism" which says:

'The science of drawing can be summed up thus: it consists in the institution of relations between straight lines and curves, and a painting which contained only straight lines or curves would not express existence.'

It is easy to see why Gleizes and Metzinger would not have liked Kupka and why they could indeed have seen him as proof that their own reservations with regard to abstraction were valid.

Kupka's paintings are, I would argue, 'symbolic' in a very pure sense of the word. The symbol (symbolos) is what brings things together, as opposed to the devil (diabolos), who separates them. An icon of a saint is not - far from it - an artist's impression of what a saint might have looked like. It is a connection drawn between ourselves and the saint, a door that opens the way to a direct personal meeting with the saint. A 'symbol' stands in the place of the thing it represents (and here 'representation' is much more than a mere copying of appearances).

Kupka's vertical lines are symbols, in this sense of the word, of verticality. They are not pictures of something that is vertical, nor do they simply convey the idea of verticality - they give us, if we are willing to let them, a real experience of verticality. An experience of this sort (of verticality, of circularity, of the arabesque, of chaos) can be very powerful, but it is, necessarily, simple and static. It does not allow of the 'dynamic process which we take it upon ourselves to control' wanted by the Cubists; it does not satisfy their 'commitment to variety'.


(c) Non-representational art and complexity

There is in Cubism a need for complexity, a rejection of the simple, single image. It is through this complexity that the painting engages with our 'whole personality' - 'It is our whole personality which, contracting or expanding, will transform the plane surface of the painting.' It is this variety and complexity they would miss in Kupka and we can see how they could conclude that it is impossible, or at least difficult, to realise it using purely plastic means without any representation. Indeed, if we follow the transition from Cubism to abstract art this is what we often see - the non-representational work seems, even in purely plastic terms, simplistic in relation to the representational work that precedes it.

Indeed, often we can say that 'non-objective' painting has very little in the way of plastic qualities and has not at all escaped the logic of painting as the representation of a subject. In Andrei Nakov's great study, Abstract/Concrete - Russian and Polish Non-objective Art we can see how non-representation can itself become a subject; and Gleizes' last book, Painting and on Man become Painter, written in 1948, is a warning against this tendency of non-representation to become an end in itself, pursued for metaphysical reasons, insisting that it is the esemplastic quality that counts and is the real end of the modern research, not whether the painting is representational or not.

When Gleizes defends the need for a representational subject in his 'Opinion' published by Monjoie! at the end of 1913, it is for reasons that are entirely plastic and in themselves non-representational :

'We are agreed that anecdote counts for nothing in a painted work. It is a pretext, so be it, but a pretext which we should not reject. Through a certain coefficient of imitation we will verify the legitimacy of the things we have discovered, the picture will not be reduced to the merely pleasurable arabesque of an oriental carpet, and we will obtain an infinite variety which would otherwise be impossible.' (5)

Though much later (in a notebook dating apparently from around 1945) Gleizes would write: 'The day our non-figurative paintings ... would really deserve to be compared with these oriental carpets ... the whole of the West will have found once again the way of its regeneration.'



(1) Pierre Brulé in Debray and Lucbert (ed): La Section d'Or, p.186, says Kupka moved into Montmartre in 1896: 'In 1900, he takes a studio in 57, rue Caulaincourt where Jacques Villon has his already'. Back

(2) 'Six years later', Brulé op.cit.. Back

(3) Green: Cubism and Abstract Art, p.172. Back

(4) Arnauld Pierre: 'Of White and Black' in Frank Kupka: In White and Black, Artists Bookworks/Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 1998, pp.43-4. Back

(5) Antliff and Leighten: Cubism Reader somehow seem to have missed this text. Back


To next part: MARCEL DUCHAMP