TWO PHILOSOPHER-PAINTERS ALBERT GLEIZES AND KASIMIR MALEVICH
NOTE: Most of the research for this article, including the research into Malevich, was done on the basis of material available in the French language. Where Malevich is quoted, I have simply translated from the French versions. I have not investigated what is available in English, though I understand that it is extensive.
I do not know of any direct, personal link between Gleizes and Malevich, but it is possible that such a 1ink exists. Gleizes had relations with Russia through Alexandre Mercereau, his friend from the Abbaye de Créteil period. Mercereau showed Gleizes' Cubist paintings in exhibitions held in Russia before the war, notably those called the 'Knave of Diamonds', which also included paintings by Malevich. A friend of Mercereau's, Maximilien Voloshin, translated Gleizes' and Metzinger's Du "Cubisme" into Russian in 1913. A friend and collaborator of Malevich's, the composer, Mikhail Matyushin, wrote an important article on Du "Cubisme", also in 1913. Gleizes was a keen supporter of the Russian Revolution, and wrote for Clarté, a pacifist journal which opposed the war that was being waged by the western powers against the fledgling Bolshevik state. He was friends with Paul VaillantCouturier and Raymond Lefebvre at the time when they were active in founding the French Communist Party. One of his articles - Modern Art and the New Society - was pubished in the Moniteur de l'Académie Socialiste in Moscow. In addition, Jacques Povolozky, who published Gleizes' Cubism and how it should be understood, and Form and History, specialised in Russian literature, though his list tended to be rather antiBolshevik in character.
Malevich came from a peasant background. His father worked in a beetroot factory and, in an autobiographical sketch, Malevich speaks lyrically of the colours of the beetroot harvests he remembers from his childhood. His earliest notable paintings are colourful impressions of rural life. He belonged, with Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, to a group of painters who aimed at achieving a peasant simplicity in their work. But he was quickly converted first to Cubism, then to Futurism, brought to Russia by the turbulent visit of Filippo Marinetti. Around 1914/1915, he underwent another, more personal, conversion, in which he utterly rejected all representation of the external world, making his pictures out of elementary (though not mathematically precise) geometrical forms. He called this new painting 'Suprematism', apparently to affirm a victory for the creative spirit of Man over all the appearances of nature (a key moment in his development towards non-representational painting was his work on the sets for a spectacle, with music by Matyushin, entitled Victory over the Sun).
When the Revolution broke out, Malevich saw in it a confirmation of the direction his painting had taken, believing that all the old order of human life was about to be done away and that everything had to start again from 'zero'. However, it seems that in 1918/19, he underwent another psychological shock and, though he taught and wrote a great deal at the beginning of the 1920s, he painted very little. He was well known at the time, but the principle current of the Russian avant garde took another direction, largely identified with his great rival, Vladimir Tatlin, who had also passed from Cubism to a non-representational art. This other tendency, which insisted that art find its forms through an application to purely utilitarian needs, is called 'Constructivism', and, in conjunction with the parallel movements of the Bauhaus in Germany and de Stijl in the Netherlands, Constructivism has had much more impact on the world than Malevich's Suprematism. We may say that the architectural and industrial styles that are to be found now everywhere in the world, largely originate in the Russian Constructivism of the 1920s.
After a number of 'architectonic' experiments in three dimensions, Malevich, who had been opposed to Constructivism from the start, returned to painting in his last days, though to a representational( painting, still insisting that he remained faithful to his 'Suprematist' principles.
Gleizes says that the parallel needs of different artists in different countries shows the existence of a common 'state of mind', characteristic of the age. So, whatever unites or separates the painters has an interest for us. What is it that links Malevich's development to that of Gleizes, and what is it that separates them?
DU "CUBISME" AND ITS DISTORTION IN RUSSIA: THE FOURTH DIMENSION
We must begin with Du "Cubisme". Malevich certainly read it at the moment when he himself wished to be a Cubist. So, there was a moment when it was the manifesto of his own painting. But he read it in a particular context - very much influenced by the interpretation given by his friend, Matyushin. In Du "Cubisme", Gleizes and Metzinger speak of the new 'nonEuclidean' theories of geometry. They say that their painting is not based on any geometrical theory, but that, if there is a theory that corresponds to what they are doing, it is nonEuclidean geometry. This passage may represent a compromise between the two artists. Metzinger was very interested in these theories, and he certainly used them as a basis for a theory of painting (1). Gleizes, too, was interested. He discusses them in Art and Science and Form and History. He says that the need felt by scientists to find a theory for the understanding of space other than that of Euclid corresponds to the state of mind of those painters who wish to understand space other than by the classical method of perspective. But he insists that the painters' research is independent of the scientists' research - that the painter must follow the needs of his own work and not borrow ideas developed following the needs of other disciplines.
But Matyushin relates Gleizes' and Metzinger's books to the ideas that were widespread in Russia at the time of the philosopher, P.D.Ouspensky, and above all to his Tertium Organum, published in 1911 (before the association with Grigoriy Gurdjieff for which Ouspensky is now best known). Tertium Organum is an attempt to establish a 'new model of the Universe' (to borrow the title of another of Ouspensky's books) on the basis of the new geometries and above all of their efforts to envisage a 'fourth dimension'. Ouspensky says that the world as we know it in three dimensions is only an illusory reflection of a reality which can only be seized in the fourth dimension which we can imagine by means of what he calls 'intuition' - a faculty that can be developed through exercises in geometry and hard spiritual disciplines such as yoga. In Matyushin's interpretation, the new systems of art, most notably Cubism, are attempts to envisage the world in a four dimensional way.
This idea of the fourth dimension certainly played an important rôle in the early days of modern art. The question is explored by an American historian, Linda Henderson, in her book: The Fourth Dimension and NonEuclidean geometry in Modern Art. This useful book is the source of much of what I have just said on the reception of Du "Cubisme" in Russia (and she gives a translation of Matyushin's essay). But Henderson is wrong to enrol Gleizes among the champions of the new geometries. In an article published in 1917, he says:
'The first researches were, however, neither an alchemy nor a system. They were just the normal evolution of an art that was mobile like life itself. Already at the beginning of 1912, Jean Metzinger and myself tried in our book, Du "Cubisme", to clarify our directions. We claimed on the painter's behalf the right to be intelligent and cultivated without, for all that, envisaging in any way a need to be clever for the sake of being clever; and we spoke of the sterility into which art would be led by dangerous experiments in the squaring of the circle or the absolute mathematics of a Henri Poincaré. We feared the dogmas and hermetic ideas, destructive acts disguised as new constructions, before they appeared as we knew they would. Rejecting nothing, we sketched out a traditional curve in French painting from Courbet to ourselves as the latest arrivals, persuaded that the new order cannot be created independently of the permanent order' (2).
(Poincaré was an important French mathematician who was also interested in the non-Euclidean geometries.)
After reading this passage of Gleizes it is amusing to read the following, taken from a recent article on the relations between Malevich and Ouspensky: 'A procedure that again refers back to the teaching of Henri Poincaré in his La Science et l'Hypothèse on the need to develope the sense of 'motor space' in order to understand what a four dimensional extension could be, as described by Gleizes and Metzinger in Du "Cubisme"' (3). The source of the misunderstanding is Henderson's book, which goes to great lengths to relate Gleizes' thinking to that of Poincaré and the new geometers. (I discuss this question further in my article Cubism and the Higher Geometries (Cubism 5), in which I also argue that Poincaré's idea of 'motor space' has been misunderstood).
The influence of Ouspensky on Malevich is disputed in academic circles (4), but we may still be more or less certain that Malevich understood Du "Cubisme" as an attempt to go beyond the normal threedimensional vision to pass into a four dimensional vision, which was far from being the intention of Gleizes, whatever may have been the case with Metzinger. Malevich is sympathetic to the idea that the end of painting is to reveal a reality which may be discovered through abstract intellectual studies independent of painting. We will see that in his case the separation of intelligence from the world of appearances becomes a separation between his intelligence and his human sensibility - a separation that did much harm to his painting as it has done much harm to the whole life of our century.
In a preface to the 1914 edition of Tertium Organum, Ouspensky dissociated himself from the 'Futurists', saying that their understanding of the fourth dimension was very superficial. He is probably referring to the interpretation of Du "Cubisme" given by Matyushin.
MALEVICH'S ATTITUDE TO THE ART OF THE PAST
Malevich explains why he abandoned the representation of appearances conveyed by the senses in two pamphlets published in 1915: From Cubism to Suprematism and From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism (5). Already we can see certain similarities and divergences between his thinking and that of Gleizes. Like Gleizes, Malevich believes that the needs felt by the painters indicate that Man is entering into a radically new age - that painting is related to the great currents of human life; and, also like Gleizes, he insists that the appearances of the external world no longer correspond to the needs of painting - that the painter should not copy what is outside himself.
But there are also divergences, which become more important than the similarities. Malevich sees the evolution of painting of as a continuous process, and he sees Suprematism as a complete break with the past, even if it has been prepared by the Pointillists, by Cézanne, by the Cubists and the Futurists. For Malevich, the end of all the art of the past was to imitate nature: 'The savage was the first to pose the principle of naturalism; by inscribing on his drawings a point and five little lines he made an attempt to portray his like'. But, he believes, the efforts of the savage to copy nature were largely incompetent: 'The savage saw neither his external image nor his internal state'. So, the whole research of the art of the past was no more than an effort to advance towards the developed art of the Renaissance:
'The savage's first attempt at primitive representation was the beginning of the art of assemblage, or repetition.
'Assemblage, because the real man had not yet been found, with all his refinements of lines, of sentiments, of psychology and anatomy' (6).
At the same time, in this vision, the art of the Renaissance is nothing more than the art of the savage developed to perfection. It is only with Suprematism. that 'the savage is overcome like the ape' (7).
So, Suprematism is absolutely without precedent, and it is destined to transform the world so that nothing will remain of the old civilisation:
'My philosophy: the destruction of the old towns, the old villages, every fifty years, the expulsion of nature from the domains of art, the suppression of love and sincerity in art, but on no account to injure the living fountainhead of Man - War' (8).
It may be unfair of me to quote here a text that is so obviously a rather childish imitation of the polemics of the Italian Futurists under the direction of Marinetti. But, leaving aside the reference to war, I do not find that Malevich greatly changed this perspective in his later writings, and it is also a fairly accurate prophecy of the actual course which our century has taken.
In any case, it is unthinkable that Gleizes would have written such a text at any moment in his career - even during the period of his friendship with the Futurists. Gleizes developed his cyclical vision of history during the 1920s, when he insisted that Cubism was only a return to principles known before the Renaissance, to ages characterised by Malevich as 'primitive' or 'savage'. But even in 1913, in his Tradition et Cubisme, Gleizes indicated the importance of Romanesque art and, in the text already quoted (a text which is all the more remarkable for appearing in a Dada journal) he says, in 1917, that 'the new order cannot be created independently of the permanent order.'
MALEVICH'S ATTITUDE TO NATURE
Why does Malevich object so strongly to the past and to copying the external appearances of the natural world? He isn't necessarily opposed to nature itself. He sees it as being itself a work of art, and he reproaches the naturalist painters for engaging in plagiarism:
'Nature is a picture and we can admire it. We are the living heart of nature. We are the most precious construction of this enormous living picture.
'We are its living brain that exalts life.
'To repeat it is a theft, and he who repeats is a thief' (9).
And later, in 1919, he says:
'The whole world is constructed with the participation of the aesthetic act of the picture: plumage; each little leaf, is cut out in an ornamental, ordered way; and the whole branch is a composition. The flower is traced with the precision of the compass and illuminated. We are carried away by it and by nature and by the whole starry sky ...
'Aesthetics exists in the world, and that is why we find ourselves in harmony with it ...
'Nature ... has linked together fields, mountains, rivers and seas and, thanks to the human form, she has pulverised the link between the animals and insects and thus she has established a gradation of forms on her creative surface. It is just such a creative surface that appears before the artistcreator: his canvas, the place where his intuition constructs the world; and he too manages the forces that pass, the energies that are coloured pictorially in forms, in lines, in varied planes; he too makes forms, the elements detached from what they signify [les éléments isolés de leurs signes] and arrives at the unity of contradiction on his pictorial surface. So the creation of contrasts of forms will form a unique harmony in the body of the construction, without which creativity is unthinkable' (10).
At this point, Malevich seems to be very close to Gleizes and to the great phrase of St Thomas Aquinas that the artist must imitate nature not in her effects but in her way of working. But there is a serpent in this Eden - a serpent which as always knows to play on the arrogance of man.
Malevich does not want to separate man from nature. He sees man as part of nature and he believes that nature acts through man. So, the needs that he feels within himself must be the work of nature within him. If man feels the need to go forward into a new technological world, it must be nature that is pushing him in this direction. It is evolution. And, according to Malevich, evolution now requires that we go beyond 'the green animal world' to go into 'a new world, an organism of today, of iron':
'We cannot overcome nature because man is nature. And then 1 do not wish to overcome, but I want a new expansion, and the fact that I want that is the negation of all that has gone before, and, as art is one of the parts of the general assemblage of the culture of the instruments of nature, it too must renounce the past, as it will never otherwise manage to follow the growth of its creative. consequences. Art must grow at the same time as the branch of the organism since its business is to beautify this branch, to give it form, to join with whatever is necessary to reach its distillation ...
'When nature, through the succession of her perfections, arrived at the organism of man as perfect instrument, she began through him to create a new world, an organism of today, of iron, which bears a great resemblance to the world of meat and bones. We may compare the aeroplane to a bird which is multiplied in many varieties of birds and dragonflies of iron; trains resemble the serpent, and divide into species, just as serpents do ...
'Even as he reaches the perfect art of the construction of the world, the present day metamorphoses of the world picture, man aspires further to reach unity through the transfiguration of the world, and, in transfiguring the animal world, he deprives it of its rationale. The movement of the new animal world takes place in his head, as sole creative centre. And the new animals of the contemporary world run about and do what I, my nature, want. So that I come to a great economy of the forces of energy that were wasted in an uneconomic fashion in the green and animal world; 1 aim at centralisation so that I can govern the world in all its details and, myself, 1 go towards a transfiguration, for in me many things from the animal world still remain. In transfiguring the world, 1 advance to my own transfiguration and perhaps on the last day of my reconstruction I will pass into a new form, abandoning the image I have at present in the green animal world that is fading away. Everything will be directed towards the unity of the brain of humanity as perfect instrument for the culture of humanity' (11).
We have fallen into Hell - but a Hell which still closely resembles the Hell in which all of us are living in our age. The 'green animal world' fades away. Only the human brain and its inventions - 'the new animals of the contemporary world' which 'run about and do what I, my nature, want' are left. And all the 'waste' of the 'green animal world' is replaced by a great economy of the forces of energy in a world where 'all its details' are managed by a single world government. It is this idea of 'economy' that is now Malevich's key idea, as much in his painting as in his political vision and in his vision of human nature. But what is the origin of this idea which we find here in 1919 but not in the writings of 1916? To follow it, we must make a little digression into the history of Bolshevism.
'ECONOMY' IN THE THEORY OF SCIENCE
The idea of economy is a key idea of the Austrian theorist of scientist, Ernst Mach. In his book, Mechanics: a Historical and Critical Examination of its development, Mach develops the argument that the tendency of science is to distance us from the real experience of nature. In a chapter entitled 'Science as Economy of Thought', he says:
'All science aims to replace and economise on experience with the aid of the copy and the representation of facts in thought. This copy is in fact more manageable than the actual experience and can, in many ways, be substituted for it ...
'When we make in thought the copy of a phenomenon, this is never done after the global fact, but rather after that of those aspects that seem to us to be important ... Our copies are always abstractions and, here again, we can recognise this same tendency to economy ...
'Sensations are not "symbols of things". On the contrary, the "thing" is a mental symbol for a complex of sensations of a relative stability. It is not things (objects, bodies.), but relations of colours, tones, pressures spaces, durations (all that we normally call sensations) that are the real elements of the world.
'In nature, there are neither causes nor effects. Nature is present only once. The repetitions of similar cases in which A is always linked to B, that is to say, identical consequences to identical circumstances, which is precisely the essential characteristic of the cause and effect relation, only exist in the abstraction we use to copy facts in thought
'All science, then, has in my view the aim to replace experience' (12).
I may remark in passing that in the same text Mach expresses a lively admiration for George Riemann, who is mentioned in Du "Cubisme" as one of the pioneers of nonEuclidean geometry.
Let us see for a moment what this argument means. Classical science saw the world as made up of solid objects and began to study these objects, using the postulates of Euclid which presuppose a world in three dimensions, sufficiently static to give us the time to study it at our leisure. But, after making a host of observations, the scientists of the nineteenth century realised that the world was much less stable and solid than they had thought; that the traditional model of Euclid only corresponds to a superficial understanding of the world whose basic elements are not the objects with which we live, nor even atoms which we can imagine to be little crumbs of solid matter. Nature begins to seem to be irrational and unknowable. The new geometries try to establish a new model to capture it; those of a mystical turn of mind see their chance to reassert the need to arrive at a sort of universal transcendent substratum where nature is identified with God.
If I understand him aright, Mach accepts that nature is essentially unknowable, that its mobility cannot be grasped by thought. But he affirms that we can all the same abstract from it laws and principles which we can use in another world, much more manageable by thought - the world of our own fabrication - mechanics.
'ECONOMY' AS A BOLSHEVIK HERESY
1 do not know to what extent Mach drew the cc)conclusion from this that the messy and uneconomic, worId of nature Nature could with advantage be replaced by an entirely mechanical world, but this is the conclusion that was drawn by a Bolshevik philosopher, A.A.Bogdanov who, with his brotherinlaw, Anatoly Lunacharsky, had plenty of influence with the Russian Marxists of the age (13). Lenin's most important philosophical work, Materialism and EmpirioCriticism, was directed against the ideas of Bogdanov and Lunacharsky. It is not easy to find Bogdanov's writings, nor the relevant writings of Lunacharsky; but the French publishing house which has published Malevich's texts - L'Age d'Homme - has also published a novel by Bogdanov, The Red Star, which gives a Utopian vision of life on Mars - a world in which mechanics has completely triumphed over nature insofar as nature exists outside man, but in which, at the same time, it is not man considered as a responsible individual who acts, but 'nature' which acts through him:
'Each worker is a creator, but in each worker it is humanity and nature which creates ...
'Peace reigns among people it is true, but not with nature; and there can never be peace with nature. It is such an enemy that even in its defeat it is still a threat' (14).
Bogdanov and Lunacharsky were nicknamed 'the Godbuilders' and were accused of wanting to make of Communism a new religion in which man takes the place of God and builds a world according to his own needs. In a book published in 1908, Lunacharsky says that he follows the Bolsheviks because they have a religious enthusiasm, while the Mensheviks are limited by their desire to be 'scientific', therefore limited to actions allowed by their analysis of the objective world. Man can remake the world entirely in his own image. This is the 'subjectivism' which Lenin criticised even though, according to the objective, scientific analysis made by nearly all the Marxists of the age, the Bolshevik revolution was neither possible nor desirable.
Bogdanov based his arguments on Mach's idea that science is an abstraction which we make from nature in order to realise our human needs; so, the science developed by the needs of the proletariat will be completely different from the science developed by the needs of the bourgeoisie. And the proletariat has an interest in the maximum development of mechanics, therefore of the principle of 'economy' as described by Mach - 'economy' which in his thinking seems to replace the economy as understood by Marx as the motivating force behind human history.
In Bogdanov's thinking (if it can be grasped through the accounts given by his enemies), the thinking. of orthodox(lox Marxists such as Georgi Plekhanov or, at least in his formal theory if not in his practice,Lenin, corresponds to classical science, which imagines that its view of the world corresponds to reality and does not realise that visible reality is only an unstable, floating succession of sensations whose ultimate reality is beyond our grasp. It is not without significance that, in his Art and Social Life, Plekhanov, most classical of Marxists, attacks Gleizes' and Metzinger's Du "Cubisme", reproaching it with mysticism (15); and that a large part of his work is also directed against Bogdanov and Lunacharsky.
Although the group, Proletcult, which Bogdanov formed, was eventually suppressed by the Soviet government, Lenin made Lunacharsky his first Commissar of Public Education and Culture. It was through Lunacharsky's patronage that the avant garde artists were able to play such important rôle in the early days of the Revolution.
MALEVICH AND HIS PATH TOWARDS GOD
We can see the Godbuilder in what Malevich had to say about the 'transfiguration' of man. And, in an extraordinary text from 1920, God Has Not Been Deposed, Malevich says that the end of science is exactly the same as the end of religion. The end of religion is to escape from the natural and physical world to go toward the perfection of God, Who does everything without working. But the end of science, too, is to free us from the weight of our bodies so that we can do everything without working:
'If we take account of the development of technology [la technique] which is destined to free the body from physical work, taking all the work on itself, what will be left for the body to do? It will be free. I do not think that at that point it will assume the rôle of someone who does nothing but consume; it must have other needs: the new physical life will be spiritual. Otherwise, after having freed the body from what is physical, it will show that it has reestablished Paradise in which man will be in the position of Adam. That will indicate the same heaven towards which the Church - religion - is preparing to lead its parishioners, with only this difference: that the first will lead its parishioners without bodies, it will lead only the soul; while the second will leave its parish in their bodies. But if we take account of the Second Coming of Christ to judge sinners, we see that all those who are dead will again be clothed in bodies and will then enter into heaven in this form, so that in the two systems, that of religion and that of industry, there are the same perfections God is one and the Good is one, and if there exist between them mutual recriminations and prejudices, they are incomprehensible to me' (16).
Mach said that man, by means of the economy of scientific thought, distances himself from nature, which is only vibration 'colours, tones, pressures, spaces, durations' - known by means of sensations. Malevich takes this economy of scientific thought which, through mechanics, proposes to free us from the weight of our bodies and of work, for a royal way leading us to God, Who is Eternal Rest
'Industries and factories only exist because, disguised in nature, there
exists an unknown perfection, and they hope to assume it into the oneness of their machine technology. I regard this as the basis for the materialist consciousness, and not the need to obtain material goods, starting with the needs of nutrition.'
Admittedly, he believes that this project of technology (and of religion, and of art) to realise the absolute rest of God is doomed to failure; we will never arrive, we will always be disappointed. But Malevich still gives the direction of his thought and of his aspirations:
'To what state of being, then, does man aspire? He aspires to rest, which is to say, to inaction, and every mechanical perfection speaks of this rest ...
'Man, who has reached perfection, at once disappears into rest, which is to say, into the absolute ...
'God is rest, rest is perfection; everything is achieved, the building of the worlds completed, the movement established in eternity ...
'But man cannot bear rest, he is afraid of eternal rest, because it means non-being, and, when the eternal rest comes near, when he is approaching God, man gives himself up to all the forces of his madness and cries: "No, I want to be", which is to say "I do not want to be God!"' (17).
'The seventh day was rest for God, while for man, it is only the belvedere from which he sees his own errors, and that is the difference between them' (18).
So, all his forces are directed towards a Rest/Perfection/Absolute, without qualities, circumstances, sensations, thought, completely abstract. This 'perfection' is, at the same time, the reality of nature, of man, and of God. It is possible that Ouspensky's mysticism can still be felt. However, he does not believe that he can reach this perfection and, at the moment of reaching it, he, will in any cse want to fall back into his chaos which is how he explains the story of Eden.
The Christian philosopher, Nicholas Berdyaev, a student friend of Lunacharsky's, has written impassioned protests against this idea of God as Absolute Perfection, so without qualities and incapable of action. But, without entering into this dispute, it is sufficient here to notice the purely intellectual nature of the 'perfection' envisaged by Malevich. His eyes and his hands count for nothing in his argument. They are only necessities imposed by our imperfection. We have seen that he is able to appreciate a beautiful landscape with his eyes; but he has quite renounced this pleasure to enter into a reality which is purely psychical - whether it is the 'intuition' of 1915, or the 'economy' of 1919, or what in 1920 he calls 'excitation'. As for his hands, they have disappeared completely. We may sum up his thought by saying that the most commanding and glorious (the most 'divine') aspiration of man is to be able to get rid of his hands. We have to admit that, if his Suprematist paintings have a certain charm, it is uniquely intellectual. one cannot sense any interest in the craft of painting.
But, it could be said, Gleizes too wanted in his painting to go towards God and towards the Absolute. Where, then, is the difference between them?
GLEIZES AND THE REALITY OF SENSATIONS
Let us go back to Du "Cubisme" as an element of common ground between the two painters. I do not think that at this time Gleizes would have disagreed with what I have quoted above from Mach on the subject of 'sensations'. A large part of the argument of Du "Cubisme" is that it is only through sensations that we have any knowledge of the world. But the sensation of the world that is offered by classical figurative painting is very limited. It is, first of all, limited to only one point of view. It is the sensation of a motionless man who sees only what is in front of him, from a single point in space in a frozen moment of time. But the real man is mobile. He belongs both to space and to time. He sees the world from a multitude of angles which, moreover, are not separate 'angles', but form a continuity of sensations changing in mobility; and the phenomena of nature which this man sees are also in perpetual and continuous change. Classical perspective, like the formulations of classical geometry, are only 'conventions' (to use Poincaré's term) to render the phenomenoni of nature more susceptible to thought. But these conventions distance us from the truth of our sensations and therefore from the truth of our own human nature. As Mach says, they are only abstractions, and we can say that painting in classical perspective is a truly abstract art. What makes the new geometries interesting is their attempt to escape from the fixity of Euclid's models to achieve a better representation of the mobile reality of our living experience. That is why Gleizes, while still insisting that they cannot provide the basis for the new painting, says that they complement the researches of the painters.
Mach says that 'it is not things (objects, bodies) but rather colours, tones, pressures, spaces, durations (all that we normally call sensations) that are the real elements of the world.' Here, Mach, Malevich, and Gleizes are all in agreement. But Mach and Malevich wish to escape from this world of sensations towards 'the economy of thought.' Both of them wish to abstract from the world of sensations what is needed to enter into a purely intellectual world, which Malevich regards as a purely spiritual world. Malevich wants mechanics - based on the intellectual abstraction of elements of the natural world - to replace the natural world so that we may be freed from the necessities imposed by our bodies and from the 'uneconomic' chaos of our sensations ('colours, tones, pressures, spaces, durations').
Malevich certainly knew the charm of 'colours, tones' etc. He speaks of it movingly and he expressed it well in his early paintings. But his conversion to non-representational painting is, as he says, 'the negation of what has gone before' i.e. of all that he has written on the charm of nature). He wants 'a new expansion', and he insists that it is nature itself that is pushing him to want to go beyond 'the green animal world'. Nature pushes him towards 'perfection', which is the 'absolute' of God, and its greatest perfection up to the present time is the human brain, and it is now uniquely in the human brain, and in the industrial production that man has conceived, that nature is continuing to evolve towards the perfection which is absolute rest - the rest of God on the seventh day, in which there is no longer any need even to think.
But it is precisely the 'colours, tones, pressures, spaces, durations (all that we normally call sensations)' that interest Gleizes. If Gleizes and Metzinger say in Du "Cubisme" that we can only know our sensations, it is not because they wish to abandon them, but, on the contrary, to understand them more deeply as the primary material for their own work. Instead of reproaching nature with being nothing other than sensation, they are amazed and delighted that human nature is capable of such sensations. And, as painters, they are concerned with the quality of the sensations experienced by means of their eyes. The reproach they make against classical painting is precisely that the sensations it offers are poor by comparison with the wealth and variety of the sensations offered by that nature that it claims to copy; and the reason for this is that the space of the picture in two dimensions does not correspond to the space)ace of nature in three dimensions and in constant movement.
We must understand and learn to handle the real space of painting in two dimensions, not to escape from nature, but to act in harmony with nature, and with our own nature which belongs to it. By thinking in this way, Gleizes and Metzinger show that they are successors to Cézanne, who insists that everything must be learnt from nature - nature after the 'global fact', as Mach would say, not after the copy which we make in our thought to abstract from it those effects that seem to us to be important. And this 'global fact' pleases us because it corresponds to the whole wealth of our ocular ability - not uniquely to thought (Metzinger used the expression 'total image', which Gleizes often quotes when talking about this period in his development). So, the 'colours, tones, pressures, spaces, durations' which we find in our living experience must be recovered in their totality in the painting, following the particular needs of a space in two dimensions.
FORM AND FIGURE
Of course there is no question of Gleizes and Metzinger wishing to deny the importance of intelligence. on the contrary, this is the approach that they criticise in their predecessors, above all the Impressionists and the Fauves, for whom painting is only sensation. Cubism reveals the existence of a great longing for construction and therefore for intelligence. But it is the intelligence working with, not against, the sensations. For Gleizes, Mach's problem, which is also the problem of Bogdanov and Malevich, is a problem of the classical vision. The classical vision believed in the reality of the outside world, stable, solid and independent of the observer. It has been horrified to find that the world is in reality mobile, floating, unstable, and that it appears differently according to the positions adopted by the observer (this is the essence; of' the theory of relativity). So the classical vision renounces the(, world](1 of sensations to turn to the(, more manageable world of the machine.
Gleizes is not at all horrified to see that he can on]y know his sensations in constant mobility. He does not believe that Reality is lost. Far from wishing 'to abstract from the global fact those aspects that seem to us to be important', it is the global fact that interests him, in its two different natures - in space (therefore susceptible to classical observation) and in time (which escapes classical observation, but whose 'form' can be grasped by the intelligence).
It is this consciousness of the difference between space and time that provides the basis for the distinction that is fundamental to Gleizes between the figure and the form. It was only shortly before Malevich's death in1935 that Gleizes adequately understood this distinction but it can already be seen in earlier paintings and it marks a decisive difference between the two painters.
Malevich constantly speaks of the need to realise 'new forms'. And he treats his squares and other simple geometrical elements as if they were 'forms'. And he wants these forms to stay separate, saying that each form has its own 'life':
'The square is a young prince, full of life ...
'Each form is free and individual.
'Each form is a world' (19).
But it is obvious that life cannot exist without movement, and that the life of the picture is to be found in the internal movement of the picture. But there is no internal movement in Malevich's squares. In themselves, they are utterly static, therefore classical. In Gleizes' terminology, they are 'figures'. To enter into movement, they must renounce the liberty and individuality that Malevich claims for them. And it is this ordered, constructed movement, the work of intelligence and its own mobile nature, that gives the form: 'Everything must be resolved in the mystery of form, which is the mystery of movement, which is the mystery of life', as Gleizes would say (20).
GLEIZES AND MECHANICS
But I have advanced too far in my argument. We must go back to 'sensations', to the changeability of our living experience and to the two directions proposed to us by nature and by mechanics.
Gleizes too had at first been enthusiastic about the new possibilities brought to man through the development of the machine. He went to New York full of enthusiasm for this city of the future. Even at the time of Painting and its Laws, published in 1924, he says that it is the 'life' of the machines that has brought us back to appreciating the value of rhythmic movement and, just like Malevich, he relates the development of the new painting to the development, of the new technologies.
But already in New York Gleizes felt the inhumanity of the city of the future and, in the mid20s, he began to talk about the need to return to rural life and traditional craftsmanship. He opened Moly Sabata with this in mind in 1927, an initiative that put him in direct opposition to all the important currents of the non-representational art of the time. He did it because he felt that this mechanical life, built on the basis of intellectual abstractions, only appealed to a very reduced aspect of human nature - that work at the craft level is much more in harmony with the needs of man (therefore much more intelligent) and the totality of 'colours, tones, pressures, spaces, durations (all that we normally call sensations)'.
Why are the new houses being built in the countryside so out of harmony
with the natural world that surrounds them? Because they are built according to the abstract, geometrical, cerebral criteria of industrial production and not according to the nature of man in a particular place - the global fact - in which he finds himself. It is the same for nearly all aspects of our daily life, dominated by machines. On the basis of abstract intellectual criteria, plastic is in every way superior to pottery. Nonetheless, the person who works with plastic has no possibility of development, growth, ordered movement, life in his work. Plastic is marked with a poverty of soul which is communicated irresistibly to the person who buys it. The problem which Gleizes addressed is very simple and very relevant to our everyday life. it is that we have lost the intelligence of our work through denying the value and truth of our sensations. We have followed the path indicated by Malevich. Having lost confidence in the truth and value of our sensations, we no longer believe in our human nature and in what it teaches us. We are launched into an inhuman world.
THE ADVANCE INTO NON-FIGURATIVE ART
Certainly at this point in our story, Malevich still seems to believe in man, but it is a purely cerebral man who has decided that he is no longer interested in the irrational, or non-classical (which is, in the last analysis, what is meant by the word 'uneconomic') world. This man wants to pass into a new world more in harmony with his 'spirituality' - a spirituality which Malevich identifies with non-corporeality. In a moment we will see what becomes of this man who seems so sure of himself, this brain which is the perfection of nature. But now I want to talk about the advance of both painters into non-figuration. I hope that I have expressed myself clearly. It is obvious that, despite many similarities in their terminology, their reasons for wanting non-figuration are very different. The one wants to realise the fulness of his 'sensations' as a 'global fact' by entering into mobility; the other wants to escape the sensations of the world to realise an economy of thought following the needs of his own 'intuition',
Already in Du "Cubisme", Gleizes and Metzinger saw that painting could do without the figurative aspect that was so difficult to reconcile with the picture space. They say:
'Let us remind them that we visit an exhibition to contemplate painting, not to enlarge our knowledge of geography, anatomy etc ...
'Let the picture imitate nothing; let it nakedly present its motive, and we should indeed be ungrateful were we to deplore the absence of all those things - flowers or landscapes or faces - of which it could never have been anything other than a reflection'.
But they hesitate to take this step:
'Nevertheless, let us admit that the reminiscence of natural forms cannot be absolutely banished; as yet, at all events. An art cannot be raised all at once to the level of a pure effusion.
'This is understood by the Cubist painters, who tirelessly study pictorial
form and the space which it engenders' (21).
(Gleizes was later to understand that it is pictorial space that engenders form, not form that engenders pictorial space.)
Metzinger never entered into non-figuration, and he opposed Gleizes' first efforts in this direction. Gleizes comes close to non-figuration in some of his paintings of 1914, but he himself has indicated a New York Composition of 1915 as his first fully non-representational painting.
1915 was also the year of Malevich's first fully developed 'Suprematist' work. But Gleizes' Composition derives in a natural and logical fashion from the paintings that come before it, while Malevich's canvasses mark an abrupt change; and while Malevich throws himself into his new style with enthusiasm, Gleizes seems to draw back. The last pictures he did before his return to Paris in 1919 - the paintings of the Bermudas - are landscapes, very carefully constructed but unambiguously representational.
It is only in the 1920s that Gleizes commits himself fully to non-figuration, and then it is a question of a rigorous, restrained, almost painful research. He himself insists in his writing at the time that his work is too intellectual, too geometrical. It is only in the 1930s that he realises what we might call a 'pure effusion', and can sing with the freedom that can only be won through the mastery of the painter's means. At that moment, he feels that painting can enter into eternity' - the unity of form, given by a simple grey circle. If we want we can relate Gleizes' 'eternity' to Malevich's 'absolute', 'perfection' or 'rest' ('the movement established in eternity'): but what a difference there is between them! The simple grey-light circle is the culmination of a whole ordered development of 'colours,tones, pressures spaces, durations' which Gleizes divided into the two essentially different natures of space (static) and time (mobile). it is only through the mutual interplay of space and time, of translations and rotations, in their fulness of colour, magnitudes, durations, cadences, that we come to the circle as an end that can embody our whole sensibility, which is addressed to man in the fulness of his means, and not uniquely to his intellectuality.
Since Malevich's 'absolute' is purely intellectual, it is certainly easier to achieve than Gleizes' 'eternity'. At the beginning of his career as a Suprematist, Malevich made three large pictures showing respectively a black, a white and a red square. Once he had done that he had achieved a perfect 'economy' and he had no possibility of further development. All his other pictures, which show a variety of squares, circles and lines, are only steps backward towards the uneconomic world of varied sensations. He quickly fell into a state of impotence as a painter, and it is hardly surprising that his last works should,d consist of more or less conventional portraits.
THE DEAD-END OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
We can see the dead-end in which Malevich finished in one of his last texts - Light and Colour, a record of lectures he gave in 1925/6 (22). This consists largely of an often very perceptive critique of other avant garde artists, including his old friend Mikhail Matyushin, who thought to 'reveal' the reality of light and colour in a scientific way, through studying colours in isolation and the physical structure of the eye. One of these artists, the Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko, exhibited three canvasses in 1921, one completely red, another yellow, and the third blue. He claimed: 'for the first time in art, the three primary colours are declared' (23).
In God Has Not Been Deposed, Malevich insisted that there is a metaphysical dimension to technological development. He sees it as an attempt to advance towards the rest of God. Light and Colour, too, addresses the metaphysical dimension of science and of the efforts of the painters to reveal the absolute reality of colour. In God Has Not Been Deposed, he said that man could never achieve that absolute rest of God (even though he has no other great metaphysical aim). In Light and Colour, he insists that the scientific ambition to achieve absolute knowledge is also doomed to failure. The scientists' desire. to find the key to nature 'is strange, because we do not know, in the first place, if nature has a key, or if values exist ... All culture looks to me like a master craftsman who sets himself to making a key for a lock he does not know.'
Electric light has been invented to reveal to us things that are not revealed by the sunlight. What Malevich calls 'the Light of knowledge', likewise, reveals to us things that are not revealed by sunlight - so that knowledge, which distances us from nature, is still on a higher plane than living experience:
'The light of knowledge is the lamp of superior quality which gives absolute clarity; it is only with this lamp that man can banish the shadows of the world, disperse them as the sole enemy who has hidden all real values, leaving for man only impressions, suppositions, giving him not the world as authenticity, but the world as representation.'
However, Malevich says, Suprematism goes much farther, and reveals that nothing can be revealed:
'From its absolute philosophy it follows that there are no things either in myself or outside myself; that the world as representation does not represent things, neither can my will create them. So there is nothing that could be known and out of which we could know the means of knowledge' (24).
We cannot reveal colour in its absolute reality because we can never isolate it from circumstances and accidents. So we are forced back into relativism:
'All the levels of pictorial understanding come back to one single question: to reveal the phenomena which can be found inside and outside myself in their spatial, creative pictorial representation; close in space the harmonisation of the world insofar as it can be known that has gathered in me. Every human construction is the product of a conventionally established knowledge.' (25).
When Malevich tries to show what practice can result from this, he becomes vague. He tells us that we now have to pass into the fourth dimension, which he identifies with time. But he understands time not in terms of ocular movement (which is what might relate it to painting) but as history - the succession of events. He remarks that, in passing from life in the country to life in the town, a variety of colours gives way to an absence of colour, but that in the towns, new 'metallic' colours are beginning to appear. And he says that:
'The Russian Revolution of the colour red is seen to be more vivid than that of western socialism ... the international is already a new palette of colours which must make up a single, uncoloured body, emerging from all the diversities to advance towards unity and equality' (26).
He leaves us with the impression that once the artist has understood such developments he is obliged to follow them, because that is the direction in which he is pushed by time (the conventionally established knowledge).
In La Forme et l'Histoire, Gleizes too argues that time is the only meaning that can be attached to the concept of the Fourth Dimension, but he warns against it. The identification of time with the fourth dimension can only be a metaphor, and it is a misleading metaphor, insofar as it confuses the natures of space and time. This is what the new geometries do when they attempt to devise a four-dimensional geometry that will enable them to 'see' time, spatially. In Art et Science, Gleizes likens these efforts of the geometers to the painting of Van Gogh, who distorts the static figure (without fracturing it, as the Cubists, following the same line of development, eventually had to do) in order to launch it into the mobility which he senses but cannot realise.
With Van Gogh, of course, there, is no question of an attempt to escape the reality of sensation, but this, as we have seen from Mach, is the end proposed by the scientists, and endorsed, however reluctantly, by Malevich. The mystical fourth dimension. of Ouspensky; too, is an attempt to escape the real acuity of sensations. Both attitudes betray a certain lack of gratitude for the glories of the created world as it can be known, felt and tasted within the human sensibility. Malevich's, conflation of a particular kind of world-denying mysticism with the ideals of industrial production is quite perceptive.
Malevich's insistence that absolute reality cannot be known has suggested to certain writers - notably the French philosopher, Emanuel Martineau (27) - a comparison with the theological tradition of the via negativa, according to which we can make no positive affirmation about the nature of God - only negations are possible. We can only say what God is not. But the Absolute of the theologians of the via negativa is still always 'God': it is always positive in itself, even if it is the negation of everything else. If it is a way of denial, it is still a way, a direction towards an end.
Gleizes too tells us that the circle, inscribed in the mobile nature of the eye, which he relates to eternity, cannot be absolute:
'But this is still only an approximation, it must be stressed; however it might appear, and however it might be enough in practical terms to serve our ends, a circumference closed on itself, where the Alpha and the Omega meet again precisely is impossible for us. The meeting of the Alpha and the Omega, seen in absolute terms, never occurs, so that we can only pretend to spirals, to spiralling, curves more or less close to each other, relative in opposition to the absolute of movement which at this point is no longer dependent on the differentiation of space and time'.
Malevich seems to be crushed by his inability to touch the absolute. But not so Gleizes:
'We can only pretend to spirals! What joy for the painter! For if we could effectively realise the circumference, we would no longer have any reason to quit the beatitude of its "Nirvana". And this perfection to which every painter inflamed with the passion of his work will tend is approached through the continual and repeated experiments which only the innumerableand varied paths of the spiral will permit. Circumference and spirals, under the direction of the eye in rotation, are, then, the main lines of this movement. It is up to us to make them 'vibrate' following our sensibility and our knowledge of the rule that conditions them naturally, that is to say, optically' (28).
If Gleizes proposes an absolute which we can never attain, it is still an absolute which we may wish to attain; and our struggle towards this absolute is rich and nourishing. The 'absolute' which Malevich offers us through mechanics and the 'light of knowledge' is rather a nightmare. He says:
'In the world there are only two actions - agglomeration and pulverisation and two prisms for action, direct and inverse, which run through an unchangeable substance of "something" which resembles light and which has one reality on one side of the prism and another on the other side.
'And this last indicates that the "something" is without colour, since only circumstances have colour. Because it is outside colour, it is also outside space and time.'
His work finishes in blackness:
'In this black our spectacle ends. That is when the actor of the world comes close in after having hidden his many faces because he has no face that is truly authentic' (29).
(The image is suggestive of Edgar Allen Poe's great poem, The Conqueror Worm:
The play is the tragedy, Man,
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm).
The difference is not, as one might imagine, that Gleizes offers us a lovely dream and Malevich is more realistic, more down-to-earth. Gleizes' teaching is not based on any intellectual abstraction but on the living experience of the eye - not the eye as it is known by the scientific analysis proposed by Matyushin and his friends, but by the very act of seeing and painting - the 'global fact' of the eye, the reality that is nearest to us. Gleizes does not believe, to take Malevich's words, that 'the visible flower under the light of the rays of the Sun has no reality; its reality lies in the Institute of Biological research' (30). Gleizes believes in the reality of man and in the totality of his experience, but for Malevich:
'Man, from the point of view of my reasoning, is only an assembled technical apparatus that has arisen out of contacts with a host of circumstances' (31).
It is no accident that Malevich became fashionable among European academics in the 1970s - the period when, after the bright illusions of the 60s, sociology and philosophy joined forces (especially in France) to deny the reality of man as 'subject' - a being capable of action. In the work of a Michel Foucault, 'man ... is only an assembled technical apparatus that has arisen out of contacts with a host of circumstances' The Marxist intellectuals, under the direction of the philosopher, Louis Althusser, took the same road - a road which has prepared the 1980s, when our 'intellectuals' - guardians of our culture and its values - are impotent before the barbarism of commerce and its discotheque 'culture'.
What makes Malevich still so very interesting is that he seems in a few years to have covered a large part of the intellectual life of his century - from a simple enthusiasm for the 'transfiguration' which science and mechanics were to realise in man, to a state of mind in which nothing has any meaning and the painter has no choice but to reflect 'the conventionally established knowledge' of the society in which he lives, whether he happens to like it or not. I am not insensitive to the fact that Malevich writes with humour and irony. He sees the direction in which things are going with great clarity, and it is by no means certain that he approves of it. He often seems to regard of with distaste, to long for the colourful beetroot harvests of his youth. But he feels himself under a moral obligation to follow this course despite any reservations he might feel. Such reservations are a mere 'subjective' reflex, of. no objective value to him. In this respect, he resembles the state of mind of some of Dostoyevsky's characters, notably Shigalyov in The Possessed, who knows 1hat he is working for a machine-like police state, who regards it with horror, but who continues to work for it because he believes it to be inevitable, to correspond to the reality of the age. He has no confidence in himself - his real nature, his real needs, his real capacities - a reality that in fact transcends his merely intellectual understanding of the reality of the age.
I leave the last words to Gleizes, who, in Art et Science (1931/2) seems to understand very well the dilemma into which Malevich and many of his contemporaries fell:
'The scientist has not yet SEEN HIMSELF in front of this material void, constantly growing, we could say. Expecting everything from the external world, the observer has not yet returned into himself; before the NOTHING of his sensations, he cannot yet hear in his head or in his heart, Intelligence tell him that EVERYTHING is in her; he does not see in his hands agents that are quite ready to restore the scenery that has vanished in smoke; his responsibility is still dormant and his imagination inert' (32).
Ampuis, Autumn 1990
English translation, Brecon, Spring 1991
(1) I have discussed this in Jean Metzinger: Cubism as Realism in Cubism, No 8, Spring 1985.
(2) Albert Gleizes: La Peinture Moderne, in 391, No.5, New York, June 1917.
(3) Jean Clair: Malévitch, Ouspenski et l'espace néoplatonicien in J.Cl.Marcadé et al: Malévitch, 1878-1978, Lausanne d'Age d'Homme, 1979.
(4) Notably by Emmanuel Martineau and Dora Vallier in Malévitch, 1878-1978, pp. 117 and 192.
(5) Both published in Kasimir Malvitch: Ecrits, tome 1, Lausanne (Age
(6) 'Du Cubisme et du futurisme au suprématisme', Ecrits, tome 1, p.51.
(7) Ibid., p.67.
(8) 'Lettre à Alexandre Benois, mai 1916' in Kasimir Malévitch: Ecrits, tome 2, Lausanne (Age d'ilomme), 1977, p.46.
(9) 'Du Cubisme et du futurisme au suprématisme', Ecrits, tome 1, p.55.
(10) 'De Cézanne au suprématisme', Ecrits, tome 1., pp.7981.
(11) ibid., pp.834.
(12) Ernst Mach: La mécanique, exposé historique et critique de son
développement, Paris 1987, pp.449-455.
(13) J.CL.Marcadé: Préface to Malévitch: Ecrits, tome 1, pp.234.
(14) A.A.Bogdanov: L'Etoile Rouge, Lausanne d'Age d'homme), 1985, pp.43 and 92.
(15) Georges Plekhanov: L'art et la vie sociale, Paris (Editions Sociales), 1975, pp.645.
(16) Malévitch: Ecrits, tome 1, p.163.
(17) ibid., pp.1712.
(18) Ibid., p.179.
(19) 'Du Cubisme et du futurisme au suprématisme', Ecrits, tome 1, p.67
(20) 'Art et science' in Albert Gleizes: Art et religion, Art et science, Art et production, Chambéry (Editions Présence) 1970, p.100.
(21) Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger: Du "Cubisme", Aubard (Editions Présence), 1980, pp.489.
(22) Kasimir Malévitch: Ecrits, tome 4, Lausanne (Age d'homme), 1981.
(23) Camilla Gray: The Russian Experiment in Art, 1862-1922, London (Thames and Hudson), 1971, p.249.
(24) Malévitch: Ecrits, tome 4, pp.74-6.
(25) ibid., p.89.
(26) ibid., p.94.
(27) Emmanuel Martineau: Préface to Malévitch: Ecrits, tome 2.
(28) Albert Gleizes: L'homme devenu peintre, 1948, unpublished.
(29) Malévitch: Ecrits, tome 4, pp.99-100.
(30) ibid., p.74.
(31) Ibid., p.98.
(32) Gleizes: Art et religion, Art et science, Art et production, p.114.