Back to On "Cubism" introduction

Back to On "Cubism" contents

Back to previous section






(a) Gleizes v. Metzinger

Gleizes might also have been thinking of Picasso and Braque. The period when On "Cubism" was published and Gleizes wrote his two articles against Italian influence follows on the period - Summer/Autumn 1912 - when the papier collé was developed. Recent research has tended to suggest that these contain a deeply felt commentary on the politics of the day (war in the Balkans and the arrival in power of Poincaré's militaristic government). (1) But at the time, for those who would not have thought of actually reading the newspaper cuttings pasted on these works, they would have looked like more or less amusing jeux d'esprit. Of the other leading Cubist painters of the time, only Gris took it up, though Metzinger defends it in his Cubist Technique - in terms rather similar to those later used by Kahnweiler, as a further means of conveying information about the object represented. But Gleizes and Delaunay were to inveigh against it with violence. (2)

In a passage we have already quoted from Modern Painting, published in 1917, Gleizes draws a sharp distinction between, on the one hand, Picasso and Braque and, on the other, the French Cubists: 'Lightheartedness [allégresse] and humour in the first, a solemnity reaching the level of the dramatic in the others; an art of analysis on the one hand, an art that is going towards synthesis on the other.' And in Cubism and Tradition he complains about 'this Italian art that was so far removed from our original aspirations, so utterly immersed in Greek antiquity and lightheartedness [gaieté de coeur].' So the reproach he makes here explicitly against Picasso and Braque resembles the reproach he makes against the Italian influence. The impression that he may have the papiers collés in mind is reinforced when, at the end of the article, he says: 'plastic dynamism will emerge from the rhythmic relations of one object to another, or even the different appearances presented by one particular object juxtaposed - and not superposed as some would have us believe ...' The papiers collés were, obviously, superposed. Gleizes would eventually be converted to superposition; this, together with the role played in the process by the papiers collés, is discussed in my For and Against the Twentieth Century (eg pp.71-2).

Cubism and Tradition continues with what looks more like a criticism of Metzinger: 'Finally ... it isn't a matter of inscribing the volume of a body geometrically, which is to say ... by closing the form in a geometrical form such as beginners are taught in the academies, but to establish new plastic connections between the purely objective elements out of which the painting is composed.' Metzinger's café society paintings do indeed look a little like representational fragments enclosed in simple geometrical shapes.

From the start, and indeed throughout their lives, their respective attitudes towards Picasso and Braque mark one of the most salient characteristics distinguishing Gleizes and Metzinger. The Note on Painting begins with a brief but very intelligent and admiring account of Picasso. Apollinaire responded to Metzinger's Nude in the 1910 Salon d'Automn with the famous description, ' a jackdaw dressed in peacock's feathers', (3) the peacock being Picasso. In his major Salon review in L'Intransigeant he is equally negative but does not mention Picasso (though he does imply again that Metzinger is not being himself):

'In a corner, one might say in penance, have been hung the two canvasses of Jean Metzinger, who has set himself the task of trying out all the procedures of contemporary painting. Which is perhaps to lose precious time and disperse himself unprofitably. That can be seen in this contribution which seems to me a step backward for this artist. He should choose his way and keep to it. It is sad to see a cultivated painter waste himself in this way in efforts that are sterile.' (Chroniques d'Art, pp.155-6)

Apollinaire and Metzinger knew each other - a portrait of Apollinaire by Metzinger had been shown in the Salon des Indépendents earlier in the year. I am inclined to read these reviews not as a mark of any personal hostility towards Metzinger but rather as expressions of Apollinaire's instinctive dislike of Cubism as such. Apollinaire liked colour and poetry and had been an enthusiastic supporter of Picasso's 'blue' and 'pink' periods but this is the first occasion on which he mentions Picasso since the time of the Demoiselles d'Avignon. We may imagine that, though he remained in awe of Picasso, he did not like the turn Picasso's painting had taken and was unhappy to see Metzinger following him. But the youth and enthusiasm of the group of 'Salon Cubists' was to prove infectious and, once it became clear that this was where the energy of the age lay, Apollinaire threw his lot in with them, while being all too willing the following year to believe that Cubism was transforming itself into the more colourful and attractive school to which he gave the name 'Orphism'.

The poet Roger Allard, reviewing the 1911 Salon des Indépendants, where Gleizes, Metzinger, Léger, Delaunay and Le Fauconnier appeared as a school and the word 'Cubism', which Apollinaire had already used in the 1910 article in Poésie, entered into the general consciousness, declares:

'I could without injustice omit to mention Picasso and Braque in discussing influences; and I would have done so had not Metzinger, with his delicately literary and highly impressionable nature, confessed not long ago to having looked at the pictures of these artists (who indeed are estimable) with other eyes than those of objective criticism.' (4)

Thus he insists that the new school is resolutely French and quite independent of Picasso and Braque but Picasso and Braque have to be mentioned because Metzinger has mentioned them. He is probably referring to the Note on Painting. In fact, Picasso's influence is still quite evident in Metzinger's contribution to the Salon.

In the essay on Metzinger written in the context of the 1911 Salon d'Automne, Gleizes recognises the importance of the contribution of Picasso and Braque, and that it was anterior to the Cubism of Room 41, but he argues that, all the same, Metzinger had recognised it as being insufficient. I do not think Metzinger ever says this in his own voice. On the contrary he continually uses Picasso as a reference.


(b) Construction v. 'Impressionism of form'

Gleizes' article only refers to the paintings shown by Metzinger in the 1910 Salon d'Automne and 1911 Salon des Indépendants. But, he tells us in the Memoirs, he had seen much of Metzinger over the Summer and during the period when Metzinger was working on Tea-time, which was at the centre of their discussions (this might also, if my earlier argument is right, be the period when Metzinger was taking lessons from Maurice Princet). It is therefore reasonable to assume that, even though he does not mention it, Gleizes had Tea-time in mind when he wrote his article. He says:

'Coming just at the moment of the triumph of Impressionism, when Matisse was beginning to show and to be important, Metzinger must, with his intelligence more than with his painter's sensibility, have seen early on that painting was floundering about in researches that were undermining preconceived notions but which only touched the superstructure; and that the very precious insights of Picasso and Braque did not, in spite of everything, break free from an impressionism of form which was still raised up in opposition to the impressionism of colour.'

Metzinger, then, like Gleizes, wants something solid and principled and does not find it in Picasso and Braque. Theirs is an 'Impressionism of Form.' Which I understand to mean that, although they broke up the visual impression of the object they scattered it about the canvas in what would have appeared to Gleizes to be an arbitrary fashion.

For Gleizes on the other hand the problem is to establish a solidity of structure that will embrace the whole area of the picture surface. Which means as a necessary precondition uniting the main subject of the painting with the background. He does not yet feel free to break up the integrity of the subject, showing it simultaneously from different angles, though he sees that this is what Metzinger is doing:

'In the plastic representation of a face, a portrait, Metzinger is convinced that by recording it on one and the same canvas first frontally then in profile - the two planes put together with a great deal of sensibility, which thus becomes very important - the likeness can, to a quite considerable degree, be improved.'

Gleizes is doubtful about it but willing to be convinced. He finds the 1910 Salon d'Automne nude unconvincing from the point of view that most interests him - that of the esemplastic power ('more a masterly demonstration of the total image than an achievement that was purely pictorial in character.'). But he is more convinced by the contributions to the 1911 Salon des Indépendants, and more convinced again by the Tea-time. I think it is Tea-time he has in mind when he continues his account of the technique of combining different views:

'It is obvious that to do this a measure will be needed which will provide something held in common between the tradition of the masters and the efforts of our own time. In sum, he wants to develop the visual field by multiplying it so that it can be inscribed within the space of the canvas itself, and that is where the cube has a role to play, and that is how Metzinger will make use of this means to re-establish an equilibrium that will have been broken momentarily by this daring kind of inscription.'

This, then, is an advance towards ever greater clarity both in the representation and in the non-representational esemplastic structure. The 'cube' is chosen because it is a 'measure' that corresponds to the nature of the whole - rectangular - space of the canvas. This emphasis on clarity and construction marks, in Gleizes' eyes, an advance away from the influence of Picasso and Braque and their 'Impressionism of form'. Of the strucure of Tea-time, Gleizes says in the Memoirs:

'The construction of his painting turns on the orchestration of these geometrical volumes, which shift their position, develop, interweave following the movements in space of the painter himself. Already we can see, as a consequence of this movement introduced into an art which, we were told, had no relation to movement, a plurality of perspective points. These architectural combinations of cubes supported the image as it appears to the senses, that of a woman whose torso is naked, holding in her left hand a cup while with the other hand she lifts a spoon to her lips. It can be easily understood that Metzinger is trying to master chance, he insists that each of the parts of his work must enter into a logical relationship with all the others. Each should, precisely, justify the other, the composition should be an organism as rigorous as possible and anything that looks accidental should be eliminated, or at least kept under control. None of that prevented either the expression of his temperament or the exercise of his imagination.'

In his review of the Salon written for Les Bandeaux d'Or he suggests that Metzinger's painting could be regarded as dry and intellectual but that this is preferable to 'the flabbiness of the latest pictorial productions, which reveal a complete lack of any ability to affirm anything .' The particular innovation of Metzinger - with or without the help of Maurice Princet - is that the chosen fragments of the represented subject are inscribed in a system of cubes or rectangles which has its own purely plastic logic, strongly moored, it must be stressed, to the overall dimensions of the picture frame. This is not something we find typically in the work of Picasso and Braque. Nor do we find it in Gleizes. His own work of the time (Landscape, Meudon; The Hunt; the portrait of Jacques Nayral) is built up out of clearly defined interlocking areas of colour. There are no lines as such and certainly no parallel lines. He remains faithful to the teaching of Delacroix as transmitted by Signac: 'There are no straight lines in nature' and 'There are lines that are monsters: two parallels'. (5) It is only very gradually that, from 1912 onwards, distinct lines and even parallel lines begin to appear in Gleizes' work. They are used however with much less obvious regularity - they could not be described as a system of interlocking cubes. There is also a greater use of curved lines - Metzinger's curved lines tend to belong to the representation more than to the structure.

Much later on, Gleizes' disciple Anne Dangar, summed up the end served by this construction with the phrase: 'Every line, every colour, every shape, comes from somewhere and goes somewhere.' (6) Even in this period, before Gleizes could have put it into so many words, this is what distinguishes Gleizes' work, and often that of the other Salon Cubists, from Picasso and Braque. It is easier to enter into the play of lines and colours. The plastic elements or signs in Picasso and Braque are so powerful that we are invited to, we want to, do the same but when we attempt it we are rebuffed. Nothing leads anywhere, nothing is willing to sacrifice its own individuality, so it is not surprising that the literature on them remains so relentlessly analytical. It notices details - a chimney corner here, a piece of lettering there, there a moustache, there a newspaper cutting about the Balkans war.


(c) Picasso and Braque as they feature in On "Cubism"

Picasso and Braque appear in the illustrations to On "Cubism" - one illustration each as opposed to five each for Gleizes, Metzinger and Léger. This has seemed to admirers of Picasso and Braque to be a little unbalanced but it may not have been Gleizes' or Metzinger's fault. Kahnweiler's policy was to exercise tight control over the public presentation of the artists he supported. Picasso perhaps and Braque certainly could not have appeared in the book at all without his consent. When we consider his hostility to the Salon Cubists (which, he claims in My Galleries and my Painters, dates back at least to the 1911 Indépendants) it is surprising that he gave it. He may well have calculated that they had to be present but not sufficiently to lend credibility to the book. Otherwise we might interpret the manner in which they appear as reflecting Gleizes' view that, like Cézanne and Derain, who also appear (and Derain too would have required the consent of Kahnweiler) they were important precursors but not practitioners of the sort of painting he was defending.

They also, I believe, appear in the text. David Cottington sees a reference to them in the remark about painters who are overly hermetic:

'Just as much as synchronistic [synchroniques] and primary images, we disapprove the facile images of a whimsical occultism; if we condemn (7) the exclusive use of commonplace signs it is not at all because we want to replace them with cabbalistic signs.'

He may be right but Metzinger knew Picasso and Braque well enough to know that they were not much interested in occultism or in the Kabbalah, unlike the circles of the Nabis or Josephin Péladan's Rosicrucians. I think Kupka, whom I shall be discussing shortly, may be a more likely candidate. The references I see are, by contrast, rather flattering:

'There are others who move with complete freedom in the highest planes. These latter - it is not our business to name them - are like the great Mystics: the restraints to which they subject themselves are only an outer covering to the intensity of their passion [fervour].'


'The artist who refuses all concessions, who does not explain himself or say [raconte] anything, accumulates a force within himself whose radiance gives light to everything that surrounds him.'

These come in the last section, the most 'Nietzschean', stressing the theme of the Superman's indifference to, and power over, the crowd. I see this section as belonging almost entirely to Metzinger rather than to Gleizes. Gleizes certainly would not have written in these terms about Picasso and Braque but it is difficult to know who else - clearly more than one and distinct from the common run of Cubist painters - could be meant, unless they are referring immodestly to themselves. Assuming I am right, the 'restraints to which they subject themselves' would be the modest subject matter - the Still Life - and the absence of colour. The refusal to explain themselves would be admired by Metzinger but not by Gleizes, who was later (in Art in the General Evolution) to complain about Picasso wrapping himself up in veils of mystery and who exclaims in the article on Metzinger: 'But my God, isn't it all the same necessary to explain what people cannot understand; and irony and jokes, are they not the arguments most in favour among idiots?' It would be amusing to speculate that both Cottington and myself are right and that the passage about 'cabbalistic signs' was written by Gleizes and the one about the great mystics by Metzinger.



(1) See in particular (and most impressively) Patricia Leighten: Re-ordering the Universe - Picasso and Anarchism, 1897-1914, Princeton University Press, 1989. Back

(2) Delaunay in e.g. letter to Nicholas Maximovich Minsky, c1912, reproduced in From Cubism to Abstract, p.123; Gleizes in Art in the General Evolution, extract given in the Gleizes on Picasso and Braque anthology in the Texts by Gleizes section of the present website. Back

(3) In the autumn 1910 edition of Poésie, a small French journal founded by a poet, Touny-Léris. Not, as incorrectly stated in my For and Against the Twentieth century, the Italian Futurist journal, Poesia. The text is given in Apollinaire: Chroniques d'Art, pp.158-9. Back

(4) Fry: Cubism, p.64. Back

(5) From Eugene Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism, pp.50-51. Back

(6) I have it from my own teacher, Genevieve Dalban who I think picked it up from a course of lessons Anne Dangar gave in 1949). Back

(7) Cubism in the Shadow of War, p.159. Back