Nov 30, 2011





State of the Modern Art World

The Essence of Cubism and its Evolution in Time


Introduction

This essay is composed with two main objectives. The first section is meant to give a brief history of the origins of Cubism and how it was perceived at the time by the artists directly involved in the movement, by art critics, dealers, collectors and the general public. It is a critique of some of those arguments that attempted to describe Modernism (with Cubism at its center) as a regressive phenomenon—from which emerges an awareness-raising message: the aspiration is to show that the Cubist movement represented not only a progression in the history of art, but a major turning point, a fundamental transition phase between representational and nonrepresentational art (between figuration and abstraction). The lessons of Seurat, Cézanne and primitive art are explored, followed by a brief exposé on individual and collective opinions (both positive and negative) with regards to the new movement. 

The second half is an attempt to explain some of the aspects concerning the inspirations and intentions that lurked behind Cubism; its evolution as a function of time, not limited to its origins. The works of artists such as Metzinger, Gleizes, R. Delaunay, and the outsiders, Mondrian, Picabia, M. Duchamp and others are analyzed in a novel exposition, with their individual works pitted side by side, not so much within thematic but within a sequential or chronological structure. Ultimately the emphasis will be on stances and meanings rather than on stylistic distinctions between conflicting ideas. Highlighted is the sketching of the situation in terms of methodological oppositions as they were perceived at the time by those committed, like Gleizes and Metzinger, to the new geometry. And then, just as importantly, is explored the methodological and conceptual alternatives (or styles) that competed for attention. In this way the evolutionary progression of each individual artist—and the movement as a whole—becomes clearly manifest. 

Throughout can be observed an in-depth analysis of the connection between art and science prior to Cubism, during the period of Cubism and thereafter. The crucial years, 1911-1914, are looked at in detail. To aid the viewer (students, laymen, or professionals) in visualizing the changes that transpired, a series of 'before and after' sequences have been produced (representing the works of divers artists including Mondrian, Delaunay, Picabia and Duchamp).


Since the second half of the 19th century art had taken a turn toward abstraction, to the extent that it had developed in Western culture. Behind this outlook was the key notion of nature and how it would be defined. In the fully formed artwork the individual artist’s aesthetic priorities or preferences, according to which nature was transformed and re-created, seemed to be guided by scientific, geometric, philosophical or even religious concerns. Simply put, the history of 20th century art may be different, to some extent, than what is often projected by art historians, and certainly different from what was perceived by the general public.

There is a move away from conventional art history, only to show that there are other ways of understanding the events that transpired leading to Cubism. The implication here is that art is more closely related to science than previously suspected. As a result, evolution of 20th century art may be better understood.  

There is a necessary analogy between progress in modern art and progress in the sciences (e.g., mathematics, geometry, physics and cosmology), in the most general sense, an analogy visible not so much in the subject-matter: visible on a theoretical, purely synthetic or conceptual level. 

The placing of Cubism and its relations (or parallel) to general relativity within the realm of discussion is a means by which to develop a deeper understanding—based on observations from a wide range of epochs—stemming from pre-modern art to the emerging framework of contemporary art. It is an artful and sometimes chaotic look at how such various components as science, popular culture, politics, sociology, anthropology, religion, atheism and the business of glamour overlap to construct the public persona of a current world-view. 

The intention is to extract the concepts from the mold in which they had been compressed, and to place the emphasis on inspiration and intention—articulated in a chronological approach in which meaning is explored through structural and logical analysis. The scope of dissension and debate, that is, the area of opposing stances are also explored. Particular figures are given special attention because of their comparative importance in those debates: most noticeably, Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, the two principle theorists of the Cubist movement. Other leading protagonists hardly appear at all, not because of their lack of importance in the formation of Cubism or abstraction, or in the theoretical underpinnings of such, but because of their potential lack of influence in the more recent era of contemporary artyet to be fully developed. 

The history of modern art is nonlinear and fluid, mobile and complex. By no means should what follows be a conceived as all-encompassing. The guiding principle in the treatment of theorists here is the need to characterize their inspirations so as to clarify the specific situation in relation to the oppositions that surface throughout the debates of the periods in review. For this reason the focus is not so much on biographical subject matter but on the works themselves, how they would evolve and how they could be evaluated in terms of theoretical practices and new developments on both artistic and scientific fronts.



Cubism and its Antagonists

From its inception and thereafter, Cubism had been considered by divers individuals (e.g., members of the general public, artists, critics, collectors, politicians and emerging dictators) as scandalous, shocking, regressive and degenerate. These were artist’s deemed counter-current; wether they were those who theorized, those who innovated, or those that would return to those innovations years later, extract from them, and then advance. Of course, this was not always considered an advance.

The following decries the use of the words "regression" or "degeneracy" as criterions for evaluating Cubism. It is cautionary rather than proscriptive about such words being used warily as a device for assessing the changes in art that took place from 1907 to the end of World War I. Of course, such words would be employed through World War II, and indeed still today.

Describing the aesthetic aspects of Cubism as a "regression" seemed at first glance an easy visual support, but it was in fact so grievously misleading as to be characterized as educationally unsettling, a failure-prone opinion rather than a justifiable and reliable aid to understanding art history. Although is seemed plausible, the concept was vague and misleading, a non-fundamental description of Cubism that bordered on absurdity, a realm of shear nonsense. Such a misdirected focus acquiesced to the type of hyperbole one might expect from a art-disadvantaged writer, rather than from an internationally distinguished artist or author.

It is shown that, quite the opposite, the movement was progressive and innovative. One of the purposes of this manuscript is purely to demonstrate how such far-reaching conclusions can be obtained through the accurate interpretation of observational evidence (the artwork produced) and the most straightforward analysis of itwith or without knowledge of its theoretical underpinnings.
   

In an attempt to demonstrate the untenable nature of the hypothesis, claim or opinion that Cubism represented a regression, and to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that such a statements were misguided, we've confront head-on the foundations on which the claim had been built. It is shown the idea had been exposed as problematic since the outset of Cubism and continued to be problematic throughout the 1930’s, particularly in Berlin.

Two conflicting options have been considered: One within which Cubism is treated as a progressive, evolutionary and revolutionary stratagem, a major turning point in the history of art that represented a liberation never before observed, one that would open the way toward boundless creativity, one that would redefine art and what it meant to be an artist; a process to date still underway in emerging contemporary art.

In the other case, the evolutionary progression of the visual arts is neutralized as the customary hiatus between experiment and theory disappear as the final leg of the journey takes us to the ‘core’ of the hypothesis: the END. It is shown that only the highly dubious cogency of the opinion that Cubism represented a regression in the history of art remains within reach.



With hindsight it is relatively easy to support the claim that Cubism was indeed a significant and purposeful move outside (beyond) the range of all other movements in the history of art.

But it is of particular interest to note exactly what was thought of Cubism at the time it was being developed. Guillaume Apollinaire wrote the third manifesto on Cubism; the first treatise on Cubism, recall, was written by Metzinger and Gleizes, 1912.


Jean Metzinger, 1911-12, Femme au Cheval - Woman with a horse (The Rider), oil on canvas, 162 x 130 cm, 
Statens Museum for Kunst, National Gallery of Denmark,
Formerly in the collection of Niels Bohr


Here is a series of works that show Cubism as an intermediary evolutionary progression (or series of stages) between works qualified as 'figurative' and works qualified as 'abstract' (or 'representational' and 'nonrepresentational').





Progression from figurative to abstract
(Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/urzzz/2842964376/in/pool-themomaproject)


Classicism vs. Cubism

For centuries (millennium even), up until the advent of Cubism, the history of art was highlighted by a relatively slow progression firmly rooted in the representation of life as observed (with minor periodical deviations toward 'abstraction' in the decorative arts). The history of art has not always been a linear progression, with turning points and bifurcations along the way, much as the branches of a tree, where diversity would generally increase with time. The Renaissance epoch, for example, represented a major transition phase that would alter and influence generations to come. The 19th century too witnessed changes that would mark the beginnings of a new transformation, one that would culminate as an abstract lattice-style eruption, with the advent of Impressionism. No longer clean and simple, or pictorially easy to understand, it showed that art had not stood totally still (or drifted backwards), but moved forward, in a kind of adaptation process, translated into fresh excitement; the era of modern art was born. Though Impressionism represented a departure from tradition, modernism wouldn't reach maturity until several decades later with the advent of Cubismarguably the greatest departure from classicism in the history of art that preceded it.

The opposing view that Cubism as a movement advocated a restitution of tradition, or worse, a regression, is not altogether new or clear. It seems to reflect the notion that the visual arts had attained a kind of summit (perhaps at the Renaissance) and had degenerated steadily to a state whereby total destruction and decadence was the final outcome.

If we were to draw parallels with sociology, science, technology and the other arts, we would indubitably be left with the catastrophic vision of the world compatible with the downfall of civilization (almost). Certainly, the two World Wars that followed the the inception of Cubism helped not dispel that vision. But the fact that such a collapse did not occur, and the fact that a large sector of the Western world fought against such insipid nonsense, and prevailed, is a good indication that such an attitude was unacceptable. And indeed, it was not accepted.

For sure, Cubism as a movement (to limit ourselves to the topic of this debate) could be seen in a variety of different ways, only one of which would emerge as representing the true nature of such a movement. It was the anti-academic and progressive. The goal of the avant-garde artist had been to explore, search, discover, and create something new. That goal could only be attained at the expense of tradition. Indeed the avant-garde artist’s impetus was to negate tradition; at least as far as art should be concerned.

That impetus would eventually become something of a tradition itself. There surfaced a common order of relationships, that which the Cubist movement had constructed and to which its enthusiasts had attached themselves. It too, like any other tradition, would have to be toppled. And so the progression would not stop at Cubism. Once the door opened, all that was left would be to walk through it (something easier said than done). There were no more limits. The avant-gardes would consistently be those treated in the manner that traditionalists treat as radicals. And radical some were. 

By eliminating everything technically superfluous the Cubists had attained a common ground where a general, synthetic culture was realized, a culture that allowed the personality of each individual artist the freedom to development according to his or her potential.

What can be extorted from our investigation so far, in rudimentary generalized form, is that those who state the old dogma that Cubism was a regression, or degenerate art-form (that is to say, when Cubism, or modernism, is worse than misinterpreted) face-up to the facts. The works, while founded on Primitive Art and Post-impressionism, are just an instant in the brief and unavoidable evolution of human consciousness, imagination and creativity.

Cubism had indeed opened new avenues, freeways even, that pointed in many directions, one of which was the direction of a new epoch, a contemporary one, in which artists would have to survive without the dogmatic support of the conventional 'isms.' From its innovative starting point, Cubism had shown the perspective of classicism to be superfluous all along, and that a direct dialogue with nature, i.e., copying it, need not be essential for artistic development and human progress.

With science, technology and progress in general had emerged a growing accent on the power of the mind to create for itself a growing spirit of abstraction. Yes, in science too. Invention and innovation in the arts between 1907 and 1913 was the most significant sign of the times and one of its most telling outward manifestations was the quite calm of figurative, or representational art (with few exceptions). Even the art critics had shifted their attention towards Cubism, though not always favorably.

A profound shift in standpoint and a sweeping transformation of ideas seemed at this time irresistible. Just as the realizations of non-Euclidean geometry eventually enlightened mankind, so, too did the realizations of Cubism guide to further insight and inspiration. Certainly there was a willingness to consider modifying or reinterpreting theory and observation in ways that would describe something beyond a mere fleeting sensation, a vision beyond a simple phenomenon of the eye.

Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes in fact wrote with reference to non-Euclidean geometry in their 1912 manifesto, Du "Cubisme". It was argued that Cubism itself was not based on any geometrical theory, but that non-Euclidean geometry corresponded better than classical geometry to what the Cubsists were doing. The essential was in the understanding of space other than by the classical method of perspective; an understanding that would include and integrate the fourth dimension with 3-space. (See for further discussion, Linda Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and NonEuclidean geometry in Modern Art.)

Often it is that art is characterized as a progressive continuation of an unbroken tradition, an evolutionary chain always linked to earlier manifestations of ideas and principles. The 1907 breakthrough not only sent painters and sculptors back to the drawing board, but poets, musicians and art critics, whose primary concerns joined them to the new movement and its offshoots (e.g., Orphism, Futurism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Bauhaus, de Stijl). Traditional values of preceding decades and centuries had no place in the spectrum of things, neither overtly or covertly. Artists now had their heads pointing in one direction: towards the future.

If the classicism of the Renaissance was to inspire or parallel music, with its sonatas, preludes and overtures, the break from the past and rejection of common practice of Modernism, with its desire or belief in progress (both in science and society alike), was to inspire or parallel modern music: with its free dissonance and experimentations. In addition to the experimental and innovative techniques of Charles Ives, the work of Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo, painter, composer, and 1913 author of The Art of Noises (L'Arte dei Rumori) comes to mind. The manifesto stated that the industrial revolution had given modern men a greater capacity to appreciate more complex sounds. A 1917 performance (Gran Concerto Futuristico) by Russolo and a his assembled 'noise orchestra' generated disapproval and violence from the audience; something predicted by Russolo prior to the show. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luigi_Russolo)

Cubism too likely inspired or paralleled a distinct French style of jazz that emerged in 1934, with dissonant chord progressions, abandoned scales, off-beat rhythmic meters and improvisational qualities.


It had been interesting and useful to examine the similarities and dissimilarities between the works produced during the crucial years (roughly 1907 to 1919). Most of the infighting and disagreements were founded on theoretical details. Much revolved around trying to understand differences by removing the polarized filter of Picasso and Braque. Regardless, Cubism had become a cultural hothouse, where painters and sculptors from different arrondissement's, banlieu's (and countries) fertilized one another’s art.

Inspirations had already yielded several different but related methods designed to release the multi-layered content of geometric experience (or mobile perspective). Looking back at the sequence of written explanations to account for the new art, one sees the emphasis shifting from one side to the other of the question—from regarding the Cubism as a process, even a system, to permitting it to be a state of mind—an inspired attitude that would develop a new firm symbolic structure in the course of creating influences of incessantly radiating significance. 

Despite their similarities the works produced by divers artists were neither homogeneous nor isotropic. Only if this venture were essentially a linear one, committed to an idyllic evolutionary analysis of Cubism in terms of a movement, could they be shortcoming. Indeed, the progression of each individual artist was unique. Even when at times their paths would cross, they would not necessarily fall under one another's influence. Despite the similarities and differences that arose sporadically, there was undoubtedly amongst them all a growing awareness, a 'collective consciousness,' a group unity that would attain a maxima circa 1912.

Across the entire spectrum of diversity was a passion for structure and mobility. True progress in the coalescing of dynamics and geometry was now visible.


The aim here is to highlight the balance between progressive innovation and a classical tradition that forbade the dependence on Euclidean geometry and axioms that had become the mark of current understanding. The point emerges: building on the works of our forefathers—and/or removing from them that which is deemed nonessential—does not mean the revitalization of preset standards or imitation, but a continuing progression, an extension of notions that strikes directly at the deepest level, at the very foundations of academicism.

Though the rupture with the past seemed total, there was still within the avant-garde something of the past. Metzinger, for example, writes in a Pan article, two years before the publication of Du "Cubisme" that the greatest challenge to the modern artist is not to 'cancel' tradition, but to accept "it is in us," acquired by living. It was the combination of the past (himself inspired by Ingres and Seurat) with the present, and its progression into the future that most intrigued Metzinger. Observed was the tendency; a "balance between the pursuit of the transient and the mania for the eternal. But the result would be an unstable equilibrium. The domination would no longer be of the external world. The progression was from the specific to the universal, from the special to the general, from the physical to the temporary, towards a complete synthesis of the whole—however unattainable—towards an 'elemental common denominator' (to use the words of Daniel Robbins).

A deeper analysis of the Cubist problem is particularly important at the present time, since we are on the threshold of a new phase of progress in the understanding of art: one that is not at all dissimilar to that which transpired a century ago.




Cézanne and Primitive Art: The Influence and Amalgamation


Paul Cézanne, 1892-95, Les joueurs de carte, 60 x 73 cm, Courtauld Institue of Art London


For many decades prior to the advent of Cubism the idea of form inherent in art since the Renaissance had become questionable. Delacroix, the romanticist, Courbet, the realist, and virtually all the Impressionists had vacated a large portion of tradition in favor of immediate sensation. The mobile expression favored by these artists presented a challenge in contradistinction to the immobile means of expression taught by the Academia. Rather than representing a fixed object occupying a space, these artists preferred dynamic colors and form in constant evolution. It was perhaps not yet known to them at the time that other means would be necessary to topple completely the regime who's classical edifice surrounded them. While slowly hacking away at its foundation had certainly jeopardized the integrity of its central pillars, it would take another generation of artists, not just to bring the house down brick by brick, but to rebuild an entirely new structure, cube by cube.

Paul Cézanne, 1898-1905, Les Grandes Baigneuses, oil on canvas, 210.5 x 250.8 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art


Cézanne had both the courage and a wealth of experience to draw from. The art form he would create was essentially a hybrid structure. On the one hand was present in Cézanne's works the imitative, the immobile, a system left over from the Renaissance. And on the other, the mobile; both living together to form a hybrid. The viewer would have the freedom to chose between the two contradictory codes. His own generation would see in him, naïvely, nothing more than impotence, unaware of his intentions. The following generation, however, would see in the painter of Aix greatness, precisely because of this indecision. Cézanne would be treated simultaneously as a classicist, by the former who chose to see the imitation of nature and perspective, and as a revolutionary by the latter, who saw in him the will to deconstruct, a revolt against imitation and perspective. Timid, yet clearly manifest, was virtually a refusal of the Renaissance perspective system. Those artists at the forefront of the Parisian art scene in 1907 would not fail to notice these tendencies inherent in Cézanne's work, and decided to up the anti.



Paul Cézanne ca 1895, Mont Sainte Victoire, bibemus quarry 65.1 x 81 cm Museum Folkwang


A brief examination of the works produced in Paris by a small circle of artists directly following the September 1907 Cézanne retrospective at the Salon d'Automne reveals the primary influence of Cézanne. Theses artists, some of which would become the founders of Cubism (e.g., Picasso, Braque), and others such as Derain, Vlamink and Dufy, had begun incorporating a new type of geometry (or perspective) along with stylized brushwork inherent within small sections of Cézanne's paintings. It was almost as if the artists chose the most radical sections of Cézanne's work—his explorations of geometric simplification and optical phenomena—and blew them up to fill the entire canvas.

Paul Cézanne, Les Grandes Baigneuses, 1898-1905, oil on canvas, 208 x 249 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art



André Derain, La Danse, c.1906, oil and distemper on canvas, 185 x 229 cm, Courtauld Institute, London, UK



André Derain, 1907, Bathers, oil on canvas, 132.1 x 195 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York



Pablo Picasso, 1907, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Oil on canvas, 243.9 x 233.7 cm, MoMa New York


Picasso, 1907-1908, Three women, autum, oil on canvas, 200 x 178 cm, The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


The advent of Cubism marked a period of radical revolution in the arts, with a rapid spread of artistic innovations and a great diversification of styles and techniques. Russian, Spanish, and American artists influenced one another, while all felt the powerful draw of Paris, the undisputed focus of artistic life.

"Cubism may well have been the most influential movement in the history of art since the Renaissance. Its artists overturned the rules of perspective that had governed painting for at least four centuries, and established new formal and conceptual ways of working, that no artist of the future would be able to disregard. This important and wide-ranging revolution did not come entirely unannounced, as certain experiments had already prepared the ground and provided encouragement. In fact, Michel Puy in 1911 acknowledged Cubism as the culmination of the task of simplification undertaken by Cezanne and continued by Matisse and Derain. Certainly, the lessons learnt from Cezanne were fundamental to all avant-garde artistic statements. He had undertaken the challenge to solidify space, to treat objects as geometrical shapes, to portray near and distant elements at the same-time and on the same plane, to sacrifice richness of colour for the expression of volumes, and to structure the picture in accordance with mental and rational schemes. Pointillism had also contributed to the adoption of simplified and geometric chromatic plans for the construction of paintings. Similarly, the work of the Fauves (especially Vlaminck, Derain, and Matisse) had promoted knowledge of synthetic and expressive African sculpture, paving the way for an anti-naturalistic and non-imitative use of colour. [...]

When Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso was first seen in 1907, it certainly represented a radical break with the canons of traditional portrayal. No longer governed by the laws of a single, central perspective, artists were able to depict the subject from various simultaneous viewpoints. A purely intellectualized vision - a combination of angular solids and geometric planes - could now be conveyed within a two-dimensional canvas, thus dismissing spatial illusionism." (Source: http://www.all-art.org/history580.html)


By 1908-09 Metzinger, and 1910 others, would experiment with the fracturing of form, and soon thereafter with complex multiple views of the same subject.

Louis Vauxcelles, in his review of the 26th Salon des Indépendent (1910), referred to Metzinger, Gleizes, Delaunay, Leger and Le Fauconniers, as "ignorant geometers, reducing the human body, the site, to pallid cubes."

Cézanne had thus sparked the most revolutionary areas of artistic enquiry of the 20th Century, one which was to affect profoundly the development of modern art.

Cézanne was not the only artist that would have a profound influence on 20th century art. Van Gogh and Gauguin too—not very distant from the workings of Cézanne—would inspire the Fauves, such as Matisse, Derain and Friesz. In their different ways, artist's of the likes of Seurat, Cross, Sérusier, Maurice Denis and Odilon Redon were pioneers without knowing it.

Paul Gauguin 1894 Mahana no atua, Day of the Gods, 68.3 x 91.5 cm Art Institute of Chicago






Henri Matisse, 1905-1906, Le bonheur de vivre, The joy of life, 145 x 241 cm, Barnes Foundation


The influences that would inspire the Cubists were indeed divers. The toppling of classicism with its fixed perspective and imitation of nature was a collective adventure, wether conscious or not. And the Cubism that would follow showed this diversity, each artist with his or her own style of Cubism.



Albert Gleizes, 1912, Les Baigneuses, oil on canvas, 105 x 171 cm, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris


Albert Gleizes, undoubtedly the most outspoken theorist of the Cubist epoch—and thereafter, since he would remain a Cubist and write about it, and more, throughout his entire life—wrote of other influences too that would have a profound effect on the evolution of modern art:

"The belief that only what was developed during the Renaissance could have any value has also been threatened by that taste for archaeology which is so pronounced at the present time and through which the work of emancipation begun by the romantic scholars has been continued. At the official level, certain ages of human history were simply declared to be rudimentary, primitive, full of good intentions, but absolutely lacking in any quality that could possibly deserve to be held up as an example. This was not just a result of the opinion that had been imposed with regard to the Renaissance; it was also a result of the idea of continual progress, of historical materialism and of an idea of prehistory which claimed to be able to unravel the secret of our origins. It was really a result of the self-satisfaction we all felt because we had confused civilisation with technology, with the development of machines and the resulting proliferation of an inferior, demoralising product. Even today we still hear people who blame artists for what they call 'archaic' influences while the most frivolous pastiches of the so-called civilised ages are seen as normal. Independent-minded painters saw the matter differently." (Albert Gleizes, from Peter Brooke, Epic, From immobile form to mobile form, The Taste for the Primitive)

Despite influences based on the superficial or external appearances of 'archaic' or 'primitive' art, or precisely because of these influences—laid bare within a contemporary framework—Cubism expressed both the demolition of the old 'cast of mind' and the construction of the new, according to the view of Albert Gleizes. Indeed, the principles of Cubism proposed by Gleizes could not be found in the rules developed in the past, neither in Africa, Greece, nor in those discovered during the Renaissance. Cubism was essentially a "transformation from the old way of looking at things." Though the transformation would never be complete, when considered beyond mere appearance it was broad in its scope at the most general level, it was evolutionary, progressive and revolutionary by its very nature.

(For a more comprehensive discussion see Albert Gleizes, The Epic, From immobile form to mobile form, Serrières 1928, Le Rouge et le Noir, 1929, Reprinted in Albert Gleizes: Puissances du Cubisme, Chambéry (Eds Présence) 1969) (http://www.peterbrooke.org.uk).





Albert Gleizes, 1914-15, Landscape, oil on canvas, 102 x 102 cm, Collection Alain Delon, Switzerland




Neo-Impressionism and the rise of Modernism: A Brief History

Much of what follows in this section can be found in: Robert Herbert, Neo-Impressionism, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1968. For a deeper analysis regarding the influences of Neo-Impressionism on the Cubist epoch, please consult the work of Robert Herbert. 

Neo-Impressionism was a combination of both methodical structure and remarkable vibrations of color, wrote Robert L. Herbert (1968). It was itself a strong anti-impressionsism movement devoted to modern subjects and contemporary life. It had its strongest effect on the Fauves (many of whom would become Cubists), calling upon rational and scientific thought and creating highly abstract visions with the goal of producing the effects of real color-light. Mechanical brushwork that suppressed the personality of the artist was the most conspicuous act of defiance leveled against the Impressionists.

In a letter addressed to Emile Bernard, 1888, Van Gogh wrote, "The imagination is certainly a faculty which we must develop, one which alone can lead us to the creation of a more exalting and consoling nature than the simple brief glance at reality—which in our sight is ever changing, passing like a flash of lightning—can let us perceive." (The complete letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Greenwich, 1959, vol. 3, p. 478)

Both the Neo-Impressionists and the Symbolists would strip away the casual and accidental features of reality, revealing the true 'essence of form.' Wether such a revelation could be backed up by a scientific theory or not, there were still examples that could be codified, and thus scientific discussions could ensue. And ensue they did.

The origin of Neo-Impressionist color theory dates back to 1881, with Seurat's notes on the paintings of Delacroix, and the French translation of Modern Chromatics, by Ogden Rood, who based much of his writings on the work of Helmholtz. The chemist, Michel Chevreul would too have his say, albeit one that was contradictory. With the help of Rood, the Neo-Impressionists had claimed an integral color theory by 1886. 

The problem was that pigments reflect light, they are not a light source. Colors in the spectra of light did not respond in the same way as color pigments painted on canvas. For example when all the colors of the spectra are mixed together the result is white light, whereas the mixing of all pigments will give black. Or similarly, yellow and blue light rays result in white light, but the same colors in pigments make green.

The Neo-Impressionist response was to separate colors in such a way as to avoid mixtures leading to inert tones. Contrasting hues placed side by side—resulting in optical vibration effects—were essential to Neo-Impressionists, contrary to the Impressionists related hues, often placed on top of one another while still wet—leading to a result the Neo's found dull.

"The most elemental question of all" writes Robert Herbert, "has been raised by Meyer Schapiro on several occasions: How can one literally be "scientific" in painting? [...]

The degree to which Neo-Impressionist technique can be called "scientific" lies in the realm of metaphor and style. It was their wish to appear as technicians of art, and it was their instinct to stamp every aspect of their painting and theory with the mark of contemporary science. It is for this reason that those aspects must be examined, for to dismiss them because they are not "true" science would be to overlook the salient quality of Neo-Impressionism. In art, what is true is not scientific fact, but whatever contributes to the formation of the object."

The scientific attitude of the Cubists would soon be confronted with a similar dilemma, but just as the Neo-Impressionists would overcome the difficulties, so too would the Cubists. 

Charles Henry (1859-1926), the mathematician, inventor, esthetician, and intimate friend of the Symbolist writers Félix Fénéton and Gustave Kahn, met Seurat, Signac and Pissarro during the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886. Henry would take the final step in bringing emotional associational theory into the world of artistic sensation: something that would influence greatly the Neo-Impressionists. 

Henry and Seurat were in agreement that the basic elements of art—the line, particle of color, like words—could be treated autonomously, each possessing an abstract value independent of one another, if so chose the artist. "Seurat knows well" wrote Fénéton in 1889, "that the line, independent of its topographical role, possesses an assessable abstract value" in addition, of course, to the particles of color, and the relation of both to the observer's emotion. The underlying theory behind Neo-Impressionsim would have a lasting affect on the works produced in the coming years by the likes of Gleizes, Delaunay and Severini, all to become personal friends of Henry.

Indeed, the impulse toward abstraction was a primary quality of the time. "Neo-Impressionism" wrote Paul Adam, "wants to reproduce the pure phenomenon, the subjective appearance of things. It is a school of abstraction."

By "abstract," wrote Robert Herbert, "writers and painters of the period did not mean "devoid of reference to the real world", as we now use the term. They meant to draw away from nature, in the sense of disdaining imitation in order to concentrate upon the distillation of essential shapes and movements. These distilled forms were superior to nature because they partook of idea, and represented the dominance of the artist over the mere stuff of nature. In embryo, the Symbolists and Neo-Impressionists did establish the philosophical defense of pure abstraction, but nature still formed part of the basic dialogue." 

By 1904, Signac and Cross of the old school, Matisse and Metzinger of the new school, began to favor the abstract qualities of larger brushstrokes and vivid colors. The latter, following the lead of Seurat and Cross, had begun incorporating a new geometry into their works that, together, would free them from the trammels of nature as any artwork executed in Europe to date. The departure from naturalism had only just begun. Derain, Delaunay, Severini, Kupka and Kandinsky, between 1905 and 1910, along with Matisse and Metzinger, helped revivify Neo-Impressionist theory, albeit in a highly altered form.


Metzinger, c.1906, Coucher de Soleil No. 1, oil on canvas, 72.5 x 100 cm, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo


Robert Herbert writes: "Metzinger's Neo-Impressionist period was somewhat longer than that of his close friend Delaunay. At the Indépendants in 1905, his paintings were already regarded as in the Neo-Impressionist tradition by contemporary critics, and he apparently continued to paint in large mosaic strokes until some time in 1908. The height of his Neo-Impressionist work was in 1906 and 1907, when he and Delaunay did portraits of each other (Art market, London, and Museum of Fine Arts Houston) in prominent rectangles of pigment. (In the sky of [Coucher de soleil, 1906-1907, Collection Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller] is the solar disk which Delaunay was later to make into a personal emblem.)"

The vibrating image of the sun in Metzinger's painting, and so too of Delaunay's Paysage au disque (1906-1907), "is an homage to the decomposition of spectral light that lay at the heart of Neo-Impressionist color theory..." (Herbert, 1968)

Jean Metzinger spoke (circa 1907) of his large mosaic-like Divisionist brushstroke technique as parallel to literature two decades earlier, characteristic of the alliance between Symbolist writers and Neo-Impressionist artists: 

"I ask of divided brushwork not the objective rendering of light, but iridescences and certain aspects of color still foreign to painting. I make a kind of chromatic versification and for syllables I use strokes which, variable in quantity, cannot differ in dimension without modifying the rhythm of a pictorial phraseology destined to translate the diverse emotions aroused by nature." (Quoted by Georges Desvallières in La Grande Revue, vol. 124, 1907)

An interpretation of Metzinger's statement is made by Robert Herbert: "What Metzinger meant is that each little tile of pigment has two lives: it exists as a plane whose mere size and direction are fundamental to the rhythm of the painting and, secondly, it also has color which can vary independently of size and placement. This is only a degree beyond the preoccupations of Signac and Cross, but an important one. Writing in 1906, Louis Chassevent recognized the difference (and as Daniel Robbins pointed out in his Gleizes catalogue, used the word "cube" which later would be taken up by Louis Vauxelles to baptize Cubism): "M. Metzinger is a mosaicist like M. Signac but he brings more precision to the cutting of his cubes of color which appear to have been made mechanically [...]". The interesting history of the word "cube" goes back at least to May 1901 when Jean Béral, reviewing Cross's work at the Indépendants in Art et Littérature, commented that he "uses a large and square pointillism, giving the impression of mosaic. One even wonders why the artist has not used cubes of solid matter diversely colored: they would make pretty revetments." (Robert Herbert, Neo-Impressionism, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1968), 221.



Metzinger, followed closely by Delaunay—the two often painting together, 1906-07—would develop a new sub-style that had great significance shortly thereafter within the context of their Cubist works. Mondrian, in Holland, developed a similar mosaic-like Divisionist technique circa 1909. The Futurists later would adapt the style, thanks to Severini's Parisian works (from 1907 onward), into their dynamic paintings and sculpture.

Whereas Cézanne had been influential to the development of Cubism between 1908 and 1911, during its most expressionistic phase, the work of Seurat would once again attract attention from the Cubists and Futurists between 1911 and 1914, when flatter geometric structures were being produced. What the Cubists found attractive, according to Apollinaire, was the manner in which Seurat asserted an absolute "scientific clarity of conception." The Cubists observed in his mathematical harmonies, geometric structuring of motion and form, the primacy of idea over nature (something the Symbolists had recognized). In their eyes, Seurat had "taken a fundamental step toward Cubism by restoring intellect and order to art, after Impressionism had denied them" (to use the words of Herbert). The "Section d'Or" group founded by some of the most prominent Cubists was in effect an homage to Seurat. 



Seurat, 1887-88, Parade de Cirque, oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 59 in. 99.7 x 149.9 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


"Seurat's rise to prominence did not completely obscure other aspects of Neo-Impressionism" (again in the words of Herbert). "Artists of the years 1910-1914, including Mondrian and Kandinsky as well as the Cubists, took support from one of its central principles: that line and color have the ability to communicate certain emotions to the observer, independently of natural form." (Herbert continues) "Neo-Impressionist color theory had an important heir in the person of Robert Delaunay. He had been a Neo-Impressionist in the Fauve period, and knew intimately the writings of Signac and Henry. His famous solar discs of 1912 and 1913 are descended from the Neo-Impressionists' concentration upon the decomposition of spectral light."

"The Neo-Impressionists" according to Maurice Denis, "inaugurated a vision, a technique, and esthetic based on the recent discoveries of physics, on a scientific conception of the world and of life."

Robert Herbert writes, of the changes occurring in the early 20th century: "By about 1904, the resolution of the dilemma was made in favor of the abstract side of the equation. "Harmony means sacrifice", Cross said, and much of early Neo-Impressionism was jettisoned. Although they paid lip service to their established theory, Signac and Cross now painted in enormous strokes which could never pretend to mix in the eye, and which did not even retain nuance of tone. Raw, bold yellows, magentas, reds, blues, and greens sprang forth from their canvases, making them as free of the trammels of nature as any painting then being done in Europe." 

Where the dialectic nature of Cézanne's work had been greatly influential during the highly expressionistic phase of Cubism, between 1908 and 1910, the work of Seurat, with its flatter, more linear structures, would capture the attention of the Cubists.  

"With the advent of monochromatic Cubism in 1910-1911," Herbert continues, "questions of form displaced color in the artists' attention, and for these Seurat was more relevant. Thanks to several exhibitions, his paintings and drawings were easily seen in Paris, and reproductions of his major compositions circulated widely among the Cubists. The Chahut [Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo] was called by André Salmon "one of the great icons of the new devotion", and both it and the Circus [Musée d'Orsay, Paris], according to Apollinaire, "almost belong to Synthetic Cubism". (Robert Herbert, Neo-Impressionism, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1968).



Seurat, 1889-90, Le Chahut, oil on canvas, 66 1/8 x 55 1/2 in., 168 x 141 cm, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo



Seurat, 1891, Le Cirque, oil on canvas, 72.8 x 59.8 in., 185 x 152 cm, Musee d'Orsay, Paris


Within these works by Seurat—of cafés, cabarets and concerts, of which the avant-garde were fond—the Cubists' discovered an underlying mathematical harmony: one that could easily be transformed into mobile, dynamical configurations.  

The idea of moving around an object in order to see it from different view-points is treated in Du "Cubisme" (1912). It was also a central idea of Jean Metzinger's Note sur la Peinture, 1910; something Metzinger referred to as 'total image'. Though at first the idea would shock the public they eventually came to accept it, as they came to accept the 'atomist' representation of the universe as a multitude of dots consisting of primary colors. Just as each color is modified by its relation to adjacent colors within the context of Neo-Impressionist color theory, so too the object is modified by the geometric forms adjacent to it within the context of Cubism. The concept of 'mobile perspective' is essentially an extension of a similar principle stated in Signac's D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionisme, with respect to color. Only now, the idea is extended to deal with questions of form.

Here is a fine example of multiple viewpoints:



Jean Metzinger, 1912, Danseuse au café, oil on canvas, 146 x 114.3 cm, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York



Dissenting opinions

It could be argued (erroneously) that one of the central issue at stake here cannot be resolved since all hinges on opinion: those of individuals such as artists, curators and art historians, or collectives such as the Third Reich. It could be implied (again erroneously) that all opinions are equally valid. It leaves one to wonder how art could be both progressive and regressive, both degenerate and its antonym, simultaneously. Someone has to be wrong.   

Either that or the evolution of art over the millennia and centuries is really just in the eye of the beholder. Art history would simply be a heap of divers opinions, unsupported by the evidence; the works themselves and diverse writings. Each person would be free to observe, evaluate and draw an opinion of their own devise. Art history books would no longer be required in art history class. Neither would teachers. In fact art history class itself would no longer be required for the art student. Everyone and anyone could be a museum curator. 

The root of the problem displayed here is that each individual or group could compromise the pivotal role of art, encouraged to make their own laws and to choose how to display them. Opinion could turn any artwork into an instant museum piece, or a heaping lump of trash. Wanton creations may be best appreciated framed in a home context, instead of as museum pieces.

Obviously, the large gap that separates our differences of opinion can and should only be narrowed by the hard facts—no matter how difficult they are to accept. The weak point of this position is mutual; there are no hard facts. If personal interpretation is to be the sole guide, then a resolution to the problem and uncertainty may well be irreconcilable.      

Contrary to the bleak picture that appears to materialize from this conclusion, my outlook is not pessimistic. There are ways and means by which a resolution may be envisioned. In order to achieve this objective, observation and interpretation of the actual works had to be involved, and in fact, required. There are two ways to reach this objective: one is to look at the evolution of art generally through successive movements and how they followed one from the other. The other is to look at the evolution of works by individual artists.



Albert Gleizes, 1913, Femmes cousant, oil on canvas, 185,5 x 126 cm, Otterlo, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller



Intermission



Piet Mondrian: Cubism and the move towards nonrepresentational

Cubism represented a major transition phase in the history of art, one flanked between representational and nonrepresentational art One of the finest examples of this progressive evolution, with Cubism at its center, is encapsulated in the works of Mondrian.

Here is a series of works by Mondrian that I prepared to show the progression from the more figurative (representational) paintings to the more abstract (nonrepresentational) paintings. Observe the evolution from the early works of 1909 to the later works of the 1930's. Note too Mondrian's Cubist phase top right photo(s), between the representational work and the totally abstract or nonrepresentational phase.


Mondrian, figuration to abstraction, from 1909 to 1930

From left to right, top row:
Mondrian, 1909 circa, The Red Tree, Oil on canvas, 27 3/8" x 39" Gemeentemuseum, the Hague, Netherlands.
Mondrian, 1912, The Grey Tree - De grijze boom, Oil on canvas 78.5 x 107.5 cm Gemeentemuseum, the Hague, Netherlands.
Mondrian, 1912 circa, Apple Tree in Flower - Bloeiende appelboom, Oil on canvas. 78 x 106 cm, Gemeentemuseum, the Hague, Netherlands.
Mondrian, 1912-13, Composition No.X, oil on canvas, 65.5 x 75.7 cm Museum Folkang, Essen.jpg

From left to right, bottom row:
Mondrian, 1913, Composition nuber II, oil on canvas 88 x 115 cm, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo.
Mondrian, 1919 Composition, Light Color Planes with Grey Contours, Oil on canvas 49 x 49 cm Kunstmuseum Basel.
Mondrian, 1921 Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue and Black-Compositie met rood, geel, blaw en swart, Oil on canvas 59.5 x 59.5 cm Gemeentemuseum, the Hague.
Mondrian, 1930, Composition II with Black Lines, Oil on canvas 50 x 51 cm Stedelijk Van Abbe Museum.


To put it mildly, considerable skill and wise interpretation are required to translate the visual language of Cubism into qualitative expressions for specific works, let alone for an entire series of works that extend from pre- to post-Cubism. (Christopher Green's book, [url=http://www.amazon.com/Cubism-Its-Enemies-Movements-1916-1928/dp/0300034687]Cubism and Its Enemies: Modern Movements and Reaction in French Art, 1916-1928[/url], describes some conditions for such evaluations). Nevertheless, the straightforward and thoroughly established conclusion is that the evolutionary progression that extended roughly between 1907 and 1918 represented a substantial advance for modernism (that extended well into the 1920s and 30s for certain artists).  From this, it is equally straightforward that such a change would continue to have a fundamental influence on the contemporary epoch.

One can either be of the opinion that the observed evolution from Red Tree, 1909 (top left) to Composition II with Black Lines, 1930 (bottom right) is a progression or a regression. 

One thing is certain, a great change has transpired in the direction of time. The observed progression with Cubism at its center, is flanked on either side by the representation of a tree, extending to a composition with black lines (something that a priori does not represent anything at all but a construction of the mind). Certainly, the linear and aerial perspective, chiaroscuro, along with a great degree of verisimilitude have been progressively (or digressively) stripped as the evolution transpires. Certainly, too, the mobile perspective (or multiple points of view) of the Cubist epoch slowly vanishes, until it has disappeared entirely.  

The final leg of Mondrian's journey (portrayed above) is perhaps too simple for minds for whom progress can only occur with increasing complexity. But a progress and truly daring innovation it was, if not by its sheer monumentality alone.

With the simple example of Mondrian's work, the opinion of "regression" for categorizing Cubism (or modernism more generally) can be seen to be broken—not just weak. 

The artist was free to explore any avenue he wished, regardless of where it would lead—meaning is engendered by the fusing together of often diverging yet unexpectedly apt associations. The most obvious tangible example is the integration or mixing of two conflicting colors. Perhaps less obvious is the promotion or integration of 'squares' in the shaping of the environment, implying the blurring of the distinctions between the subject matter and its environment, between the object represented and the fabric of space. Though, the content of each work is the same, the possibilities of expression are different for each. The desire to fuse elements basic to each of the works is the simple result of a reductive approach. 

The focus is on local-environment as a realistic first stage for change. The context of the world in which the tree is placed (the foreground, the sky), is also part of the larger context; the natural world. As time moved forward, a new world emerges. Brushstrokes are disguised, blurred; surfaces are denaturalized, each image frozen in changeless perfection as if immortalized. Yet in the progression from one image to another fresh and different balanced relationships are continually achieved, a work in progress whose order is always only a phase in process of change. 

Two major points follow and sharpen the distinction between the structure of each image; one is architectural, static and subdued. The other is equivalent to life and therefore dynamic, energetic. This chilled ensemble is a stage from which the sharp and the unexpected are to be seen in life as lived, in people and in things. Life and its complement remain the focus of attention, the one rivaling the other in this vision of an ideal environment, of an ideal continuity between art and life: the absorption of art’s ‘perfection’ into life. The art of Mondrian signifies the search for the fixed, the mobile, the permanent, the transient, the absolute, the universal.
     
This kind of game-playing with contradictory codes for the representation of life is not isolated to fine art. This would become one of the most ubiquitous devices used in literature, music and theoretical physics. Such a development represents unambiguously an expansion of possibilities, an expansion of scope, which may not seem inconsistent with the processes of the scientific method. Yet, it cannot be accentuated enough that such pictorial codes and expressive eloquence by which artistic concepts can be denoted (as mathematical equations), raises ambiguities that emerge when these conflicting codes are pitched one against the other—locked into an aesthetic game whose rules the artist controls.




Toward the nonrepresentational

Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, in his seminal Das Weg zum Kubismus expressed the opinion that Cubism was an art in tension between a figurative element (e.g., the landscape, the still life, the portrait) and considerations that were nonrepresentational. It was the tension between the two that was fundamental to Cubsim, and of interest to the Cubists. If either the representational or the nonrepresentational elements were to be vacated, there would be no tension.

The perplexing duality that would surface juxtaposed the appearances of a 'synthetic' internal world (one which an individual artist could imagination) and the natural external world of which human beings are inextricably a part.

The nonrepresentational art of Delaunay, Kupka, Malevich, Mondrian, and others, that followed from Cubism, in this sense represented a radical break from its predecessor, but as it were, turned out to be not without a tension of its own—contradicting the thrust of  Kahnweiler's argument. 

Malevich objected strongly to copying the external appearances of the natural world. For him it was something of the past, something to be rejected. It was not that he opposed nature. He saw nature in and of itself as a work of art. He reproached the naturalist painters for engaging in plagiarism, i.e., they simply copied nature. He saw nature as something that could be admired, and humans as part of it, but that reproducing it amounted to a theft.

If humans felt the need to move forward into a new 'technological' world, it must have been nature pushing him in that direction. It was evolution itself. And evolution now, according to Malevich, requires that we go beyond 'the green animal world' and enter 'a new world, an organism of today, of iron'. (To be continued...).

The abstract art of Malevich, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Kupka and of others, was essentially to become a paradigm of the mind. 

The closer one moves towards total abstraction, the greater the divergence from classicism, and the wider the scope of possible interpretations, but nature would always play a role, even if it were nowhere to be seen. After all, man, along with everything he could imagine, formed part of the natural world.

The question then is: How are we to formulate a viable opinion about wether this evolution passing directly through Cubism represents a progression or a regression?



Progression vs. Regression

Certainly there are legitimate grievances, however superficial, against the "progression" contention, as there are good reasons for despondency over the fate of works now hanging in museums across the world, those of which now face serious undermining from observations of works produced by our Middle and Upper Neolithic forefathers. Indeed, purely abstract works had been produced generation after generation extending back to early modern man. It could then be argued that Mondrian, along with Delaunay, Malevich, Kupka and others, had essentially "regressed" to a time before which abstraction was indeed common currency, i.e., they hadn't created anything new. The evolution from a tree to black lines in Mondrian's work was but a blast from the past, i.e., a regression. Nonsense!

Most would undoubtedly find such hectoring tasteless and repulsive. And yet, with tempers heating over the spat between figurative and abstract (representational and nonrepresentational), the evolutionary relationship had a chance to revamp itself, two steady steps forward, one rickety step back. The greatness of Picasso had not been in his ability to create something new, but in his ability draw from the past, essentially copying the images of primitive African art with a taste of Cézanne added to the mix. Okay, it was new, one might again argue, but only because neither the Africans nor Cézanne had achieved the same pictorial language. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was just a caricature, a bra d'honneur, a mockery on the part of the Spaniard meant as a satirical statement addressed to the Bourgoisie at a time when dissent was simply illegal. Nonsense!


Left: Picasso, detail (1907), Right: African mask

"Until Pablo Picasso and other modernists turned racial bias in Western art on its head by embracing the expressive power of tribal imagery, the art of tribal cultures was compared to the art of Western children. This supported the notion that adults of ‘inferior’ races were comparable to children of the White race. Chalmers (1992) observes that this overt racism "is covertly embedded in much of what has been called elitist aesthetic and art education theory." (http://madamepickwickartblog.com/2010/12/picasso-distortion-and-ruthless-attack-on-good-taste/)



Left: Picasso, Bust of a man, 1908, Right: African mask


"In the early 1900s, traditional African sculptures sparked the interest among European artists like Picasso. This influence lead to hybrid art forms that came to be the Cubism [...]. These new styles were comprised of the “highly stylized treatment of the human figure in African sculptures” and post-Impressionist painting styles as depicted in this example of a Picasso portrait (left). When compared to the African Mask (right), the form of the human facial structures have many common features." (http://alana008.wordpress.com/2010/09/20/a-glipse-of-east-african-art/)


Left: Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (1907), Right: Dan Mask

"The Cubists believed that the traditions of Western art had become exhausted and another remedy they applied to revitalize their work was to draw on the expressive energy of art from other cultures, especially African art. However, they were not interested in the true religious or social symbolism of these cultural objects, but valued them superficially for their expressive style. They viewed them as subversive elements that could be used to attack and subsequently refresh the tired tradition of Western art. This inspiration to cross-reference art from different cultures probably came from Paul Gauguin, the French post-impressionist artist, whose paintings and prints were influenced by the native culture of Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands where he spent his final years." (http://www.artyfactory.com/art_appreciation/art_movements/cubism.htm and http://www.zyama.com/)




Left: Detail of Leonardo's Mona Lisa (1503-7), Right: Detail of Picasso's Self-Portrait (1907)

"William Rubin, the celebrated curator at the Museum of Modern Art, visited Picasso several times in the last years of his life and was surprised to discover that the Spanish master had more interest in Leonardo, the creator of the Mona Lisa, than he had realized. This is what he wrote:

"The comparison between Picasso and Leonardo may, at first glance, seem far-fetched or irrelevant. As a young art historian, I myself would probably have rejected any connection between their work as mere coincidence. However, in the course of a series of extended visits with Picasso during the last three years of his life, I found myself surprised by the relative frequency with which the name of Leonardo passed the artist’s lips – a greater frequency than is apparent in the various conversations with Picasso published by his intimates and friends. Alas, of Picasso’s various references to the Renaissance master, the only one which appears verbatim in my notes is his citation of Leonardo’s celebrated remark: “the painter always paints himself." (http://www.everypainterpaintshimself.com/blog/picasso_on_himself/)



One really wonders how, during the twentieth century, the artistic community could have produced the concept of Cubism as a serious contender aimed at replacing the status quo—with a wealth of created postulates barely supporting a ponderous web of contentions, assumptions and dubious interpretations competing with one another to patronize other artists and men of letters. And yet Cubism was only a product of the past, or two products of the past. The vast majority were products of that system—one that suppressed free will and imagination, wreaked destruction rather than promoting creativity. Picasso and his protégés were the children of such desperation. Cubism was just another piece of history repeating. Nonsense!

The laws of classicism, as far as Picasso was concerned, even if laid bare by his predecessors, were there to be broken, and brake them he did. 


The "regression" claim is a difficult position to assume, not just because it is historically incorrect (regardless of personal opinions), or because the consequences inevitably lead to the downfall of modernism as an avant-garde movement. The case too would have to be made that Cubism, like a wild animal, remained in captivity, bounded behind the bars of conventionalism (the richest irony of all). For those avant-gardes, intellectual and free as they were, like the imagery of mobile perspective, carried clear reflections and images of unbounded eternal space, a canvas with no beginning and no end.

There exist educated opinions which are valid, and there exist opinions which are invalid (usually made spontaneously and always unjustifiable). If indeed all opinions were equally valid, then there would be no limit to absurdity. The history of art would be one great metamorphic blob. For example, one could be of the opinion that art of the Renaissance was a "regression" since it represented the pilfering of ancient artistic traditions (Greek and Roman) by a small band of misguided unfaithfuls. And, or, that Renaissance art was degenerate (or a regression) because it broke away from traditional Gothic perspective and iconic subject matter of the 14th and 15th century painted out of the cloister of medieval thought intended to teach the uninformed masses the way toward deliverance. Nonsense!

Likewise, one would be entitled to the opinion that "Cubism was a regression, the result of stripping from art of many of the "advanced" practices (linear and aerial perspective, chiaroscuro--along with a great degree of verisimilitude...)." Just because, that is someone's personal opinion (original or not) doesn't make the claim any less nonsensical. These so-called "advanced practices" of the 16th century—a trivial non-issue to the 20th century avant-garde artist—would be progressively replaced as time advanced by other practices, such as that of the relativistic notion of multiple view-points, dynamic representations of motion, introducing the fourth dimension, the element of time—recalling a similar notion independently developed by Einstein within the framework of general relativity. Beyond a reasonable doubt, these were highly advanced practices at the time, born not out of products of the past (Cézanne had not pushed the envelope so far) but through visions of the future.



1911-1914, The Scandal of Cubism and the Gleizes Response 

Confusion and resentment against the modern stance with Cubism at its core had emerged apparently as a result of the failure to address the crucial issues of inspiration and intention. Indeed, the thrust of the matter had to come directly from the artists involved. And indeed it did, very early on, with the theoretical works of Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, and literary works signed Guillaume Apollinaire. These and other writings, in addition to the analysis of works produced at the time, would form the basis of educated opinions that would eventually find their way into art history textbooks and other publications. Art historians formulate opinions based on the facts (however spars at times they may be), not on faith or belief.

To get a good feel of the atmosphere that prevailed as a result of the events that transpired, it is instructive to read the literature that had been written during the crucial period; between 1909 and 1914; before the status of avant-garde shifted over to the Dadaists and the Surrealists. Certainly, there were divergences with respect to the theoretical underpinnings of Cubism, some of which related to rivalry, competition and jockeying for pole position, with Kahnweiler's group on the one hand, and the Section D'Or on the other. Apollinaire, however, was at the center of it all.



Here are a few selected quotes from Pure Painting, 1913, Guillaume Apollinaire:

"The new artists have been violently attacked for their preoccupation with geometry. Yet geometrical figures are the essence of drawing. Geometry, the science of space, its dimensions and relations, has always determined the norms and rules of painting.

The new painters do not propose, any more than did their predecessors, to be geometers. But it may be said that geometry is to the plastic arts what grammar is to the art of the writer. Today, scientists no longer limit themselves to the three dimensions of Euclid. The painters have been led quite naturally, one might say by intuition, to preoccupy themselves with the new possibilities of spatial measurement which, in the language of the modern studios, are designated by the term: the fourth dimension.
Cubism differs from the old schools of painting in that it aims, not at an art of imitation, but at an art of conception, which tends to rise to the height of creation.

Scientific cubism is one of the pure tendencies. It is the art of painting new structures out of elements borrowed not from the reality of sight, but from the reality of insight. All men have a sense of this interior reality. A man does not have to be cultivated in order to conceive, for example, of a round form.

The geometrical aspect, which made such an impression on those who saw the first canvases of the scientific cubists, came from the fact that the essential reality was rendered with great purity, while visual accidents and anecdotes had been eliminated. The painters who follow this tendency are: Picasso, whose luminous art also belongs to the other pure tendency of cubism, Georges Braque, Albert Gleizes, Marie Laurencin, and Juan Gris.

Physical cubism is the art of painting new structures with elements borrowed, for the most part, from visual reality. This art, however, belongs in the cubist movement because of its constructive discipline. It has a great future as historical painting. Its social role is very clear, but it is not a pure art. It confuses what is properly the subject with images. The painter-physicist who created this trend is Le Fauconnier.

It wants to visualize beauty disengaged from whatever charm man has for man, and until now, no European artist has dared attempt this. The new artists demand an ideal beauty, which will be, not merely the proud expression of the species, but the expression of the universe, to the degree that it has been humanized by light.

The new art clothes its creations with a grandiose and monumental appearance which surpasses anything else conceived by the artists of our time. [...]" (Apollinaire, 1913, Pure Painting) 



To gain access to the full picture, politics aside, a deep analysis of the works produced by artists at the forefront Cubism would be required. Indeed, often the works spoke for themselves. 

The idea, claim, belief, or opinion that Cubism was a regression is both insidious and nonsensical. Insidious because it removes from the artists involved the notion of originality, creativity and imagination (i.e., 'all they had to do was copy and destroy'). The artist serving merely as an ornamenter. Nonsensical, because there is no evidence to support the claim (save for the "degenerate art" show in Berlin back in the 1930's). In fact all the evidence, the works produced and the theoretical underpinning, renders the claim untenable, i.e., the degeneracy opinion is contradicted by observation of the physical objects and the relevant literature.


Albert Gleizes, along with a generation of young painters from all classes and nations, helped revolutionize the bourgeois canons by bringing the artist to the centre of society. For Gleizes the artist realized an essential service to humanity by observing and thinking, rather than serving merely as an ornamenter. Du Cubisme (written with Metzinger) strove to reconcile different goals and methods in painting. During the summer of 1912 passages of their text were read to the circle around the Duchamp brothers, known as the Puteaux group, and it was published before the conclusion in October of the Salon de la Section d’Or, where Gleizes exhibited his monumental Cubist painting The Harvesters (Le Dépiquage des Moissons, reproduced below). Gleizes was of the conviction that artists could explain themselves better than (or as well as) critics. He continued writing and granted interviews during the following years when Du Cubisme was enjoying wide circulation within a continuously expanding circle of artists. (MoMa, Daniel Robbins, http://www.moma.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=2191, Oxford University Press).


Albert Gleizes, 1912, Le Dépiquage des Moissons, oil on canvas, 269 x 353 cm, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

In 1920, Albert Gleizes, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, the Polish artist Leopold Survage and the Russian sculptor Alexander Archipenko, in an attempt to elucidate the principle of the Salon de la Section d'Or of 1912, held an important exhibition in Paris, bringing together a collection of works that revealed the complete process of transformation and renewal which had taken place. Gleizes's organizational efforts were directed at re-establishing a European-wide abstract art movement. Exposed were the obvious proofs of the extent to which the new art had developed and had evolved beyond 'Cubism' itself. Albeit, by this point many of the younger artists had moved beyond Cubism, yet Gleizes contended that only its preliminary phase had been investigated.

Several months later, Albert Gleizes published a book entitled Du Cubisme et les Moyens de le Comprendre, in which Gleizes outlined the general principles upon which "all true painting must be based". This work was known in Germany since it was translated and published by Stürm in Berlin.


By 1920 Gleizes had developed a style (based on his abstract works of 1915) characterized by dynamic intersections of diagonal, horizontal, vertical and circular movements. In 1923 he further clarified his methods (La Peinture et ses lois), deducing the rules of painting from the picture plane, proportions and movement of the eye, along with the universal laws. This theory, subsequently referred to as translation-rotation, ranks with the writings of Malevich and Mondrian as one of the most thorough expositions of the principles of abstract art, which in the case of Gleizes entailed the rejection of both representation and geometric forms. (Daniel Robbins, MoMa, http://www.moma.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=2191, Oxford University Press)

From its beginnings, Gleizes would write, "Cubism has followed the line of evolution that is natural to it, asserting itself from one year to the next, protected by its own internal liveliness against all attempts to take it over, and progressing from the limited sphere of aesthetics to that of life itself, at the widest possible level of generality." The underlying strengths of Cubism, was to be found in "the universal nature of the means it had developed" and consequently, "in the power which it was already capable of wielding over the crowd." (Albert Gleizes, 1928, The Epic, From immobile form to mobile form, Reprinted in Albert Gleizes: Puissances du Cubisme, Chambéry, Eds Présence, 1969)

Much of this would be lost in the confusion imposed by individual opinions. And many individual opinions there were. "Today while everyone continues to abuse Cubist painting," wrote Gleizes in 1928, "declaring it to have been a terrible mistake, they are all, everywhere, agreed in recognising that 'the aesthetic current that has transformed contemporary taste, was born in the context of proper artistic painting, though it really had nothing to do with it. Cubism is, in fact, at the origin of the whole of the modern style. But in the context of pure art, it is an obvious nonsense.'" Gleizes found this quotation at random in a provincial newspaper (Lyon Républicain, 9th February 1928). 

"Some day" Gleizes concludes, "people will begin to realise that Cubism is more than just a matter of appearances, and then they will take the trouble to ask what are its principles. They will no longer be content with the final result as it appears in front of their eyes. When that happens, the foundations of a new esemplastic consciousness will have been laid. But I can only speculate on how the reconstruction of the world will then be undertaken.

Until that time, Cubism will continue its development. If, one after the other, the men who had the distinction of launching it are overcome by weariness, after battles which never seem to be decisive, there will always be younger elements ready to take their place. Already there are those who are bringing to it new strength and an equally fervent conviction. 

[...] They were always realized on the basis of that idea of form whose existence the scholars of the romantic period suspected. That is why these were also the ages of the epic, the great song that draws the whole community along in its wake. The other periods of human history - those that resemble the period that followed our Renaissance - begin as soon as the world has come to the end of its period of growth, and is no longer capable of being moved by the epic spirit of adventure." (Gleizes 1928, Le Rouge et le Noir, 1929, Reprinted in Albert Gleizes: Puissances du Cubisme, Chambéry, Eds Présence, 1969)

Cubism, regardless of personal opinion, regardless of whether one liked it or not, whether one would think of it as a regression or a progression in the history of art, had become an epic spirit of adventure, capable of drawing the whole community in its wake, a movement that can still be felt today.




Inspiration and Intention

What were the inspirations that gave rise to Cubism? What were the intentions of the artists involved? The capacity to receive impressions through the sense organs enables us to see objects, the images of which are processed, and subsequently an opinion can be derived based on ones personal experience. The object may be liked or disliked, or may even leave the viewer indifferent. But in either cases something is missing. 

Indeed the senses tell us little about the inspiration of the artist. The senses tell us little about the artists intention. The answers to these questions—for obvious reasons fundamental—can for the most part be found in the relevant literature. The validity or invalidity of a personal 'opinion' about, say Cubism, depends on ones knowledge of both the inspiration and intention of the artists in question. Without such knowledge a personal opinion means little, i.e., one cannot know if works of art signify a "regression" or not. Without the pertinent information necessary to judge an artwork—a series of artworks, or an entire movement—an opinionated claim will be superficial at best, misguided, or wrong at worst.   

Of course, in addition to inspiration and intention, and related directly to both, is the effects of the environment on the artist at the time the work is realized. These effects have to do with society, politics, technology and so on, things that change with epoch, and can affect to some extent the subject matter. For example, Picabia would not have drawn a spark plug had he lived during the 18th century (see Picabia, 1915, Portrait d'une jeune fille américaine dans l'état de nudité). 

There is no need today to confuse laymen or students with ad hoc ideas about modernism being a regression by creating the illusion that chiaroscuro and verisimilitude are somehow prerequisites to the advancement of art. Any valid depiction of the changes that Cubism represented must be related to the inspiration and intention of the artists in question, in relation to the time and place, and how such would be materialized in the actual artworks produced. Clearly the work of Cézanne and African art were a source of inspiration, and by combining the two something new was created. Reproducing of copying something that had already been done was out of the question. This indisputable fact would fulfill the intention requirement of the avant-garde artist: which was (and still is today) precisely to create something new. 

The location, Paris, had been burgeoning for some time already (before 1907), with in addition to Cézanne, artists such as Seurat, whose geometric armature would have great influence on the workings of Matisse, Metzinger, Picasso and others.

Here, we pull together responses to several themes of Cubism, responses that would indeed rock the history of art from a physical point of view. Other characteristics have also been considered: the corroboration and definition of the theoretical foundation and the morphogenesis as a function of time. These were supported, as early as 1912 by geometrical arguments along with basic concepts and principles in novel logical sequence that reduced the traditional problems of partial definitions and vicious circles. Though it appears one vicious circle would linger on.

Cubism by 1912 had abstracted almost to the point of total non-representation. In Du "Cubisme" Metzinger and Gleizes had realized that figurative aspects of the new art could be abandoned: "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'. Though Metzinger and Gleizes hesitate to do away with nature entirely: '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' (Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger: Du "Cubisme" from Peter Brooke, Ampuis, Autumn 1990, English translation, Brecon, Spring 1991).



Albert Gleizes: The Metaphysical Factor




Albert Gleizes, evolution of works between 1908 and 1952


From left to right:
Gleizes, 1908, Jour de marché à Bagnères-de-Bigorre, oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm, Beaux-Arts museum, Lyon
Gleizes, 1909, es Bords de la Marne, oil on canvas, 54 x 65 cm, Beaux-Arts museum, Lyon
Gleizes, 1910, Femme aux Phlox, oil on canvas, 81 x 100 cm, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Gleizes, 1911, Le Chemin, Meudon, oil on canvas, 147 x 115 cm, Private collection
Gleizes, 1912-13, Les Joueurs de foot-ball, oil on canvas, 226 x 183 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Gleizes, 1913, Man in a Hammock, 130 x 155.5 cm, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo
Gleizes, 1914, Paysage près de Montreuil, oil on canvas, 73 x 92.5 cm, Saarland-Museum Sarrebrück
Gleizes, 1915, Le Chant de guerre, oil on canvas, 101 x 101 cm, Musee National d'Art Moderne, MNAM, Paris
Gleizes, 1917, Sur Brooklyn Bridge, oil on canvas, 161.8 x 129 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Gleizes, 1920 Femme au Gant Noir, oil on canvas, 126 x 100 cm, private collection
Gleizes, 1922, Composition, oil on canvas, 81 x 59.5 cm, Musée des Ursulines, Mâcon, France
Gleizes, 1930-31, Panneau décoratif pour la chambe de Jaqueline Rosenberg, oil on canvas, 160 x 100 cm, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Gleizes, 1932 Composition Rythmique: Les Bleus, oil on canvas, 134 x 96.5 cm
Gleizes, 1932-34, Support de Contemplation, oil on canvas, 141 x 111 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Menton
Gleizes, 1942, Pour la Contemplation, oil on canvas, 217 x 132 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon
Gleizes, 1952, circa, Arabesque (Libellule), 80 x 57 cm, Fondation Albert Gleizes, Paris

The beginnings of Gleizes' works are clearly impressionistic in nature. Gleizes came very close to nonrepresentation in some 1914 paintings. A work painted in New York, Composition of 1915, is entirely nonrepresentational, according to Gleizes himself. The first fully developed 'Suprematist' work of Malevich is also dated 1915, but is the result of an abrupt change. While Gleizes' Composition follows naturally and logically from his pre-1915 works. The last works painted before returning to Paris in 1919—the Bermuda series—are unambiguously representational landscapes. (See Peter Brooke, 1990) After World War I Gleizes' work consisted of 'purified' forms that were both abstract and geometrical. Illusion in painting would be abandoned in favor of a symmetrical planar structure.

Peter Brooke writes, in Two Philosopher-Painters, Albert Gleizes and Kasimr Malevich:
"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."

And his Conclusion:

"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'. (Albert Gleizes, Peter Brooke, Ampuis, Autumn 1990, English translation, Brecon, Spring 1991)



Jean Metzinger: The burgeoning of a new Geometry


Jean Metzinger, evolution of works between 1904 and 1921

Metzinger, c.1904, Landscape, oil on canvas, 54 x 65.1 cm, The Ackland Museum, NC
Metzinger, c.1905, Nature Morte, oil on canvas, 38 x 47 cm
Metzinger, c.1905-6, oil on canvas, 32.5 x 40.3 cm
Metzinger, c.1905-6, Paysage coloré au oiseaux aquatique, oil on canvas, 65 x 92 cm
Metzinger, c.1906 c, Nu, oil on canvas, 47 x 63.5 cm, Norton Museum
Metzinger, c.1906-07, Bacchante, oil on canvas, 72 x 53 cm, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, Netherlands
Metzinger, c.1908, Nu, oil on canvas, 54 x 73 cm, location unknown
Metzinger, c.1909, Landscape, oil on canvas, 27 x 21.5 cm
Metzinger, 1910, Portrait de Guillaume Apollinaire, oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm 
Metzinger, c.1911-12, Le Village, oil on canvas, 81.3 x 99 cm
Metzinger, 1912-13 L'Oiseau bleu, oil on canvas, 230 x 196 cm, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
Metzinger, 1912-14, Landscape, oil on canvas, 73 x 92.1 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Metzinger, 1916-17, Landscape, oil on canvas, 81.2 x 99.3 cm
Metzinger, 1917, Table by a Window, oil on canvas, 81.3 x 65.1 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New york
Metzinger, 1919, La Femme à la cafetière, oil on canvas, 115.5 x 81 cm, Tate Gallery, London
Metzinger, 1921 circa, Livre et Pipe Rouge, oil on canvas, 81 x 65.2 cm, Fondacion Telefonica




Jean Metzinger, through the intermediary of Max Jacob, met Apollinaire in 1907. Metzinger's 1909-10 Portrait de Guillaume Apollinaire, reproduced above, is as important a work in the history of cubism as it was in Apollinaire's own life. In his Vie Anecdotique of 16 October 1911, the poet proudly states : "I am honoured to be the first model of a Cubist painter, Jean Metzinger, for a portrait exhibited in 1910 at the Salon des Indépendants." So according to Apollinaire it was not only the first cubist portrait, but it was also the first great portrait of the poet exhibited in public.

Note too the two works directly preceding Apollinare's portrait: Nu and Landscape, dated circa 1908 and 1909 respectively. Indeed, Metzinger had already departed from Neo-Impressionism by 1908, turning his attention fully towards the geometric abstraction of form, allowing the viewer to reconstruct the original volume mentally and to imagine the object within space. His concerns for color that had assumed a primary role both as a decorative and expressive device before 1908 had given way to the primacy of form. But his monochromatic tonalities would last only until 1912, when both color and form would boldly combine to produce such works as Danseuse au café, reproduced above. "The works of Jean Metzinger" Apollinaire writes in 1912 "have purity. His meditations take on beautiful forms whose harmony tends to approach sublimity. The new structures he is composing are stripped of everything that was known before him."

As a resident of la Butte Montmartre, Metzinger entered the circle of Picasso and Braque in 1908. "It is to the credit of Jean Metzinger, at the time, to have been the first to recognize the commencement of the Cubist Movement as such" writes S. E. Johnson, "Metzinger's portrait of Apollinaire, the poet of the Cubist Movement, was executed in 1909 and, as Apollinaire himself has pointed out in his book The Cubist Painters (written in 1912 and published in 1913), Metzinger, following Picasso and Braque, was chronologically the third Cubist artist." (S. E. Johnson, 1964, Metzinger, Pre-Cubist and Cubist Works, 1900-1930, International Galleries, Chicago)


Both as a painter and theorist of the Cubist movement, Metzinger was at the forefront. But that's not all: It was too Metzinger's role as a mediator between the general public, Picasso, Braque and other aspiring artists (that would soon become Cubists, such as Gleizes, Delaunay, Le Fauconnier and Leger) that places him directly at the center of Cubism.


"Jean Metzinger" writes Daniel Robbins "was at the center of Cubism, not only because of his role as intermediary among the orthodox Montmartre group and right bank or Passy Cubists, not only because of his great identification with the movement when it was recognized, but above all because of his artistic personality. His concerns were balanced; he was deliberately at the intersection of high intellectuality and the passing spectacle." (Daniel Robbins, Jean Metzinger: At the Center of Cubism, 1985, Jean Metzinger in Retrospect, The University of Iowa Museum of Art, p. 22)

"It was then" writes Apollinaire (1912) "that Jean Metzinger, joining Picasso and Braque, founded the Cubist City."





The Sun: to Robert Delaunay's Disc paintings




Robert Delaunay, Premier Disque, 1913, Private collection, Öl auf Leinwand, Diam : 134 cm., Photo : Martin P. Bühler © L&M Services B.V.

The photo below represent a series of works where the Sun (or stars) occupy a prominent position. Note the evolution over time that leads to Delaunay's abstract Disque painting of 1913, in passing, the Cubist phase. 

Note too that paintings such as Monet's Impression soleil levant, or many of Turner's works, likely had an influence on the subject matter, and treatment, to some extent, chosen by Delaunay. Many works prior to Van Gogh's piece (upper left) that are more 'figurative', 'representational,' or 'realistic,' have not been shown, but could have been, to emphasize the evolution from figurative to abstract art (from representational to nonrepresentational).

The point here is to show that Cubism was an important pivotal transition phase that pointed directly towards what would become known as abstract art, as practiced at the time (circa 1913) by artists such as Malevich, Kupka, Survage and Mondrian. In this case it is shown the resulting abstractions of Delaunay, preceded by Van Gogh, Derain and Metzinger.




From left to right, top row:
Vincent van Gogh, 1889, Nuit étoilée, starry night
Vincent van Gogh, 1889, Le Soleil couchant
Andre Derain, 1906, Big Ben
Jean Metzinger, 1906, Coucher de soleil, no. 1

From left to right, bottom row
Robert Delaunay, 1906-07, Paysage au disque
Robert Delaunay, 1911, Champs de Mars
Robert Delaunay, 1912-13, Simultaneaous Contrasts Sun and Moon
Robert Delaunay, 1912, Circular Forms Sun No 2
Robert Delaunay, 1913, Premier Disque



Francis Picabia: From Post-Impressionist to Dada
(Francis Martinez de Picabia, dit, Paris, 1879 - 1953)
Neither the last, nor the least, observe the evolution below in the works of Picabia, between periods ranging from 1907 to 1919. Works prior to 1908 were largely influenced by Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley (two of which are shown here). 

The first work in the second row, painted in 1909 ("Caotchou" Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) is considered one of the founding works of abstract art. (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Picabia).

Picabia's Cubist phase between 1912 and 1915 was prolific and produced important works, yet is was short-lived. During the year 1915 Picabia's work took a new radical turn. This transpired during a trip to New York, where he met Man Ray, and was joined by Duchamp. Living the good life in the Big Apple, drugs and alcohol became the rule rather than the exception. The works produced at the time could be characterized as 'proto-Dada', consisting priciplally of his portraits mécaniques.

Observe too that, as with Delaunay, Mondrian and Duchamp (along with many others) Cubism is at the core of the evolutionary transition.

The point is to exemplify once again that, while one may 'like' or 'dislike' Cubism, the movement represents a fundamental transition phase in the history of art, one that would open the way through which the full creative potential of the avant-garde artist could be liberated and realized.


Works by Francis Picabia

Francis Picabia, evolution of works between 1907 and 1919

From left to right, top row:
Picabia, 1907, Farm at La Petite Mare, oil on canvas, 73.4 x 92 cm, Private collection.
Picabia, 1908, Effet de brouillard sur les bords de la Loire, oil on canvas, 65 x 54.4 cm, Private collection.
Picabia, 1909, On the banks of the Creuse, France, Coll. Henri Nannen, Emden, Germany.

From left to right, second row:
Picabia, 1909, Caotchou, Rubber, Watercolor, gouache, and India Ink on carton, 45.7 x 61.5 cm, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France.
Picabia, 1910, oil on canvas, size and location unknown.
Picabia, 1912, L’arbre rouge, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, Musée national d’Art moderne, Paris, France.

From left to right, third row:
Picabia, 1913, Udnie, Jeune Fille américaine, Danse, 290 x 300 cm, Musée national d’Art moderne, Paris, France.
Picabia, 1914 (possibly begun 1913), I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie, oil on canvas, 250.2 x 198.8 cm, Hillman Periodicals Fund.
Picabia, 1915, Idéal (Ici, C'est Ici Stieglitz, Foi et Amour) Mixed media on paper, 75 x 50 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

From left to right, fourth row:
Picabia, 1916-17, Fille née sans mère (Girl Born without a Mother) gouache and metalic paint on printed paper 50 x 65 cm, National Galleries of Scotland.
Picabia, 1916-18, Machine Turn Quickly, Brush and ink with watercolor and shell gold on paper, laid down on canvas, 49.6 x 32.7 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Picabia, 1919, Le double monde (L.H.O.O.Q), Ripolin and oil on canvas, 132 x 85 cm, Musée national d'Art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.


From 1903 to 1908, Francis Picabia was influenced by the Impressionist paintings of Alfred Sisley. Critics questioned his sincerity, expressing the view that he copied Sisley, Monet, and Signac. That would change in 1909, when he became aware of the undertakings of a select group of Montmatrtre painters. Around 1911 he joined the Puteaux Group, the Golden Section (Section d'Or), which held meetings at the studio of Jacques Villon in the village of Puteaux, just outside of Paris. There he became close friends with artist Marcel Duchamp (Villon's brother) and Guillaume Apollinaire. Other members of the group included Albert Gleizes, Roger de La Fresnaye, Fernand Léger and Jean Metzinger.

In 1913 Picabia was the only member of the Cubist group to personally attend the New York Armory Show, and Alfred Stieglitz gave him a solo exhibition at the gallery 291 (located at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York City). From 1913 to 1915 Picabia traveled to New York City several times and took active part in the avant-garde movements, introducing Modern art to America, along with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. The magazine 291 devoted an entire issue to the work of Picabia, These years are generally regarded as Picabia's proto-Dada period, consisting mainly of his portraits mécaniques.

Shortly thereafter, in 1916, Picabia went to Barcelona and within a circle of refugee artists, including Marie Laurencin, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, he started his well-known Dada periodical 391, modeled after Stieglitz's periodical. He continued the periodical with the participation of Duchamp in New York. In Zurich, he met Tristan Tzara, whose radical views captivated Picabia. Subsequently Picabia, the provocateur, was back home in Paris, the city of "les assises dada" where André Breton, Paul Éluard, Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon met at Certa, a basque bar in the passage de l'Opera. Picabia remained involved with the Dada movement through 1919 in both Zürich and Paris, before abandoning it is favor of Surrealist art. He denounced Dada in 1921, and issued a personal attack against Breton in the final issue of 391 (1924). (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Picabia)


As with Delaunay, Mondrian and Duchamp (along with many others) Cubism is at the core of the evolutionary transition.



Marcel Duchamp: From figuration to non-art

The case of Duchamp (aka Mr. Richard Mutt, Marchand du Sel, Rrose Sélavy) is an interesting one. Here we show the evolution between some of Duchamp's pre-cubist 'figurative' or 'representational' works, en passant par his style of Cubism, to the so-called 'non-art' phase, readymade(s) (often attributed to Dadaism). Note, it was a rapid evolution, and like that of Mondrian and Delaunay (see above), Cubism was at its core.

The point is to exemplify that, while one may 'like' or 'dislike' Cubism, the movement was an important pivotal bridge in the history of art, a transition phase that pushed wide open a door through which the full creative potential of the avant-garde artist could be liberated and realized.



Marcel Duchamp, evolution of works between 1910 and 1918 


Left to right, top row:
Duchamp, 1910, La partie d'échecs, 114 x 146 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, collection Louise et Walter Arensberg
Duchamp, 1910. Portrait of Dr. R. Dumouchel. Oil on canvas. 100 x 65 cm. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Duchamp, 1911, Le Buisson, huile sur toile, 127 x 92 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Duchamp, 1911, Jeune homme et jeune fille au printemps, 66 x 50 cm, Jérusalem, The Israel Museum

Left to right, center row:
Duchamp, 1911, Portrait de Joueurs d'échecs, Oil on canvas, 108 x 101 cm Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Duchamp, 1912, Mariée, Bride, Oil on canvas. 89.5x 55.25 cm. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Duchamp, 1912, Nu descendant un Escalier, No.2. Oil on canvas, 147.5 x 89 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Duchamp, 1913, Roue de bicyclette, original version, lost.

Left to right, bottom row:
Duchamp, 1914, Broyeuse de chocolat numéro 2, 65 x 54, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Duchamp, 1915, Glider Containing a Water Mill in Neighboring Metals - Glissière contenant un moulin à eau en métaux voisins, 147 x 79 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Duchamp, signed R. Mutt, 1917, Fountain, this original version was lost.
Duchamp, 1918, To be looked at, from the Other Side of the Glass, with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour, mixed media on glass, 55.8 x 41.2 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York


"In 1913 I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn. [...]. In New York in 1915 I bought at a hardware store a snow shovel on which I wrote 'In advance of the broken arm'. It was around that time that the word ‘Readymade’ came to mind to designate this form of manifestation." ('Apropos of Ready Mades, 1961', Duchamp’s lecture at the MOMA museum, New York, 109 October 1961; in Art and Artists 1, July 1966: 47)

Without a doubt, the challenge initiated by Duchamp helped create a new phase in the history of art, a revolutionary one, for sure. One may say that Duchamp's criticism of Cubism was that it too—even though he himself had been one of its most outspoken components of the avant-garde movement—was solidly rooted in the old tradition: that of painting itself.

"Duchamp withdrew from painting in 1913 and began working as a librarian to earn a living while concentrating on scholarly realms and working on his Large Glass. He studied math and physics – areas in which new discoveries were taking place. The writings of Henri Poincaré particularly intrigued and inspired Duchamp. Poincaré postulated that the laws believed to govern matter were created solely by the minds that "understood" them and that no theory could be considered "true." "The things themselves are not what science can reach..., but only the relations between things. Outside of these relations there is no knowable reality", Poincaré wrote in 1902. Reflecting the influence of Poincaré's writings, Duchamp tolerated any interpretation of his art by regarding it as the creation of the person who formulated it, not as truth." (See Wiki link below)

"In his studio he mounted a bicycle wheel upside down onto a stool, spinning it occasionally just to watch it. It is often assumed that the Bicycle Wheel represents Duchamp's first of his "Readymades", this particular installation was never submitted for any art exhibition, and was eventually lost. However, initially, the wheel was simply placed in the studio to create atmosphere: "I enjoyed looking at it just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace." (Mink, J., 2004, Duchamp. Taschen, p. 48. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcel_Duchamp)


Continuing the pedagogic evaluation, now with sculpture.


On the left: Joseph Csaky, 1913, Figure de Femme Debout (Figure Habillée), Bronze, Height 80 cm
On the right: Jacques Lipchitz, 1916, Baigneuse Assise, Bronze, Height 72.2 cm


Four Cubist sculptures, by four Cubist sculptors:


Upper left: Jacques Lipchitz, 1915, Head (71 CM)
Upper right: Alexander Archipenko, 1913, Head: Construction with crossing planes (38 cm)
Lower left: Joseph Csaky, 1914, Head (39 cm)
Lower right: Henri Laurens, 1920, Head of a young girl (34.2 cm)



The First Abstract (Non-Objective) Paintings:

The photo montage below presents a group of works that are considered by divers art historians as the first modern abstract paintings. These works followed directly from Cubism, as opposed to following from other forms of art, e.g., Islamic art (clearly, neither the intention nor the outcome were the same).

This is observational evidence that during the time period in question (between 1909 and 1913) artists had begun to explore new avenues that had been opened up by the art movement known as Cubism.




Top row, left to right:
Kandinsky, 1910, First abstract watercolor.
Picabia, 1909, Caotchou, Rubber, Watercolor, gouache, and India Ink on carton.
Delaunay, 1913, Premier Disque.

Bottom row, left to right:
Mondrian, 1913, Composition nuber II, oil on canvas.
Kupka, dated 1909 (possibly circa 1913), The first step.
Malevich, circa 1915, Black Square.




Cubism and the scientific connection

At present, it is possible to arrive at a detailed understanding of the sequence of events that led to Cubism, to extract the wealth of information necessary to describe how such processes transpired, evolved, and how such a processes were coordinated with the emergence of other phenomena, such as those in the parallel realms of music, literature and especially science.

Einstein’s objective had been to arrive at a “system of greatest conceivable unity…logically deduced from a basis, as narrow as possible, of fundamental concepts and fundamental relations” and which is still “compatible with the observations made by our senses.” In virtually every example that one can find, the turning points between classical and revolutionary ideas came from the coherent synthesis of diverse elements leading to a new world-view. Artists, like scientists, create innovative ideas based on information and amalgamation. Only through research, analyses, syntheses, intuition and imagination, can one hope to discover something new.

"In order to be content, men must also have the possibility of developing their intellectual and artistic powers to whatever extent accords with their personal characteristics and abilities.”  (Einstein 1940, from Ideas and Opinions 1954)


The concept was well established among the French artists that painting could be expressed mathematically, in terms of both color and form; and this mathematical expression resulted in an independent and compelling 'objective truth,' perhaps more so than the objective truth of the object represented.

Indeed, the Neo-Impressionists had succeeded in establishing an objective scientific basis in the domain of color (Seurat address both problems in Circus and Dancers). The Cubists were to do so in both the domain of form and dynamics (Orphism would do so with color too).

With the exception of Picasso (his Blue and Pink periods being entirely different intellectually), all the leading Cubists and Futurists came from Neo-Impressionism, believing its objective validity to be a scientific discovery. It was in part this scientific basis that left the avant-garde artists vulnerable to the critique of scientific objectivity, of the type developed first by Immanuel Kant, then Ernst Mach, Henri Poincaré, Hermann Minkowski and of course Albert Einstein; in relation to, for example, the treatment of time as the fourth dimension. (See Peter Brooke: www.peterbrooke.org.uk)

No observer, either academic or independent, could have mistaken the direction of change taken by the Cubists. The fundamental shift away from nature within avant-garde circles had advanced to the status of revolt, in far-reaching waysdiverging formidably from the developments of Cézanne and Seurat. The symptoms of that shift during the first decade of the 20th century are countless and redoubtable, bursting practically from morning to evening, and were soon to be perceived by the reactionary adversaries as no more than grotesque, incomprehensible, to be considered with haughty amusement, unnatural, divisive. 

Ironically, of course, it was Cubism, despite its inhomogeneous pre-1913 existence, and before its distillation into its later forms, that would provide the impetus towards a fusion of the representational and nonrepresentational, the natural world and the inner world of the artist, and too, a fusion of the temporal dimension with the three spatial dimensions. And yet it was precisely that kind of mathematical booster into art, which led away from the complexity of nature, towards simplicity—echoed (again ironically) by the 1913 injection of unrestrained exponential abstraction. Ironic, because as it turned out, the new art forms that followed from Cubism were both natural and unifying.




Juan Gris, 1925, still life




In the sciences too a similar transformation was underway. Willem de Sitter, a pioneer of general relativistic cosmology, approached pictorial space in an obviously relativistic way, and, even if he veered towards a synthetic shaping, the evidence indicates that he continued to work fundamentally in a natural way (or at least thought he did), working as he saw it from the manipulation of formal relations towards nature, not from the starting-point in nature. His range of world models was strictly limited and his ways of forming them were flexible enough for rhyming (synthetic and nature, art and science) to be a factorhis empty world model is an example. If such purity of conception was indeed his aim in 1917, it is difficult to believe that he ever altogether achieved it. Only in a superficial sense can de Sitter’s cosmology be called compromising, and if behind it there lay any true spirit of compromise, it had not come from the pressure applied by the detractors of relativity. For the fact is that his world-view had become successful, the concepts he had sold, and the criticism was generally positive, even for his empty universe model (a true masterpiece), though whatever element of compromise there was does seem to have been a direct response to the pressures of the time. (The most important of these came from Einstein himself). An underlying impression of de Sitter’s poetic license is there to be sensed beneath the luxuriant surface of Kosmos

“They are the highest manifestations of the human mind, science of the intellectual side of it, art of the emotional side. There is however much misunderstanding. It happens now and then that those in whom natural gifts or circumstances have developed an exclusively artistic or emotional view of life are filled with pity for the miserable, unimaginative scientist, crawling in the dust of matter-of-fact measurements and calculations, instead of soaring in the pure ether of mystic contemplation and understanding. On the other hand it also happens now and then, but perhaps not so often, that persons with a specially scientific outlook and education look down on the poor unpractical and illogical artists. Both these judgments, of course, are very much mistaken. Science and art approach the great problems of the understanding of nature each in its own way, but both require, and use, the full attributes of the human mind. Imagination is as indispensable for the physicist or astronomer as for the poet; logic is as necessary for the architect or the musician as for the mathematician.”  (De Sitter, W. 1932, Kosmos 110-138)


To break away from the established principles, it is indispensable that the artist has sufficient background knowledge of art history, to observe how it has evolved, and then attempt to surpass it. In this way she shall avoid reproducing concepts that have already been developed and can proceed with true creation—the conception of a new design that brings the visual arts further out onto a limb than has ever been previously explored, all the while using art history as a trampoline—the key to the formation of ‘original’ works.

For the scientist, things are slightly different, but there is a striking similarity—she too must create beauty and elegance using the full powers of the imagination in pursuit of an underlying truth. The scientist must have a deep understanding and knowledge of the work that has been developed by his or her predecessors (especially with regard to the laws of nature, the universal physical laws). In this way the scientist avoids the paths that have shown no outlet, avoids making the same mistakes, benefits from previous discoveries and may consequently further the realm of scientific interpretation, knowledge and comprehension.


"We should try to find a better representation of bodies behaving in a way expected by Euclidean geometry. If, however, we should not succeed in combining Euclidean geometry and physics into a simple and consistent picture, we should have to give up the idea of our space being Euclidean and seek a more convincing picture of reality under more general assumptions about the geometrical character of our space" (Einstein, Infeld, 1938, 1961, p. 225-226)

Of course, the inspiration generated by scientists must be tested against reality to find out whether there is agreement with nature’s methods, or whether it is the immaterial (sometimes irrelevant) construct of the imagination. Arguably, the big bang model were presented as a flat mirror held up to the universe: but it did not reflect, it was transparent, with its own properties. As an aperture out of the mind's eye, the moment of creation itself could only be a refusal of the fundamental characteristics of nature, just as Dada and non-objective art was liberated from material properties and constraints. It is impossible to envision a world-model as being other than a window with a view: but the first concern then is to know what it looks out on.



Jean Metzinger, 1917, Table by a window, oil on canvas, 81 x 65.1 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York



One of the essential arguments of Du "Cubisme", the first treatise on Cubism, by Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes (1912), was that knowledge of the world is to be gained through 'sensations' alone. Classical figurative painting offered only one point of view, a restrained 'sensation' of the world, limited to the sensation of a motionless human being who sees only that which is in front of him from a single point in space frozen in a moment of time (time was absolute in the Newtonian sense and separate from the spatial dimensions). But the human being is mobile and dynamic, occupying both to space and to time. She sees the world from a multitude of angles (not one unique angle) forming a continuum of sensations in constant evolution, i.e., events and natural phenomena are observed in a continuum of constant change. Just as the formulations of Euclidean geometry, classical perspective is only a 'convention' (Poincaré's term), rendering the phenomena of nature more palpable, susceptible to thought and understandable. Yet these classical conventions obscured the truth of our sensations, and consequently, the truth of our own human nature was limited. The world was seen as an abstraction, as Mach implied. In this sense, it could be argued that classical painting, with its immobile perspective and Euclidean geometry, was an abstraction, not an accurate representation of the real world.

What made Cubism progressive and truly modern was its the new geometric armature; with that it broke free from the immobility of 3-dimensional Euclidean geometry and attained a dynamic representation of the 4-dimensional spacetime continuum in which we live, a better representation of the reality, of life's experience, something that could be grasped through the senses (not through the eye) and expressed onto a canvas. Of course its wouldn't be the final word of the subject, but it was a starting point. Still today cosmologists are struggling to determine wether the universe is topologically hyperbolic or spherical (or even flat). And particle physicists are wondering wether spacetime curvature on small scales has any effect at all. The important conclusion to draw is that the avant-garde artists of the early 20th century, aware or not of the developments of Einstein, had asked themselves similar questions. And their response was Cubism.


Francis Picabia, 1913, Udnie, oil on canvas, 300 X 300 cm, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris


In Du "Cubisme" Metzinger and Gleizes write that we can only know our sensations, not because they reject them as a means inspiration. Au contraire, because understanding our sensations more deeply gave them the primary inspiration for their own work. Their attack on classical painting was leveled precisely because the sensations it offered were poor in comparison with the richness and diversity of the sensations offered by the natural world it wished to imitate. The reason classical painting fell short of its goal is that it attempted to represent the real world as a moment in time, in the belief that it was 3-dimensional and geometrically Euclidean. We've suspected since the advent of non-Euclidean geometry (circa 1826) and subsequently since the inception of Cubism and general relativity, that such a notion does not correspond to the spatiotemporal continuum in constant motion observed in the real world. Indeed, since the inception of Cubism and general relativity the concept of the existence of a 4-dimensional non-Euclidean (curved) spacetime manifold has been confirmed empirically.


Has creativity in the domain of science ever been influenced by art? Arthur Miller, author of Einstein, Picasso: Space, time and the beauty that causes havoc (2002), answers the question: 

"Cubism directly helped Niels Bohr discover the principle of complementarity in quantum theory, which says that something can be a particle and a wave at the same time, but it will always be measured to be either one or the other. In analytic cubism, artists tried to represent a scene from all possible viewpoints on one canvas. An observer picks out one particular viewpoint. How you view the painting, that’s the way it is. Bohr read the book by Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes on cubist theory, Du Cubisme. It inspired him to postulate that the totality of an electron is both a particle and a wave, but when you observe it you pick out one particular viewpoint."
(Arthur Miller, http://www.arthurimiller.com/journalism/creativity-special-one-culture/)


What follows are excerpts from Du Cubisme, 1912, articulated by Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes:

"Let the picture imitate nothing; let it nakedly present its raison d'être. We should indeed be ungrateful were we to deplore the absence of all those things flowers, or landscape, or faces whose mere reflection it might have been. Nevertheless, let us admit that the reminiscence of natural forms cannot be absolutely banished; not yet, at all events. An art cannot be raised to the level of a pure effusion at the first step. 

This is understood by the cubist painters, who indefatigably study pictorial form and the space which it engenders."

This space we have negligently confounded with pure visual space or with Euclidian space. Euclid, in one of his postulates, speaks of the indeformability of figures in movement, so we need not insist upon this point.

If we wished to relate the space of the [Cubist] painters to geometry, we should have to refer it to the non-Euclidian mathematicians; we should have to study, at some length, certain of Riemann's theorems." (Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, 1912)



It took mathematicians two thousand years to seriously question the axiomatic fundamental nature of Euclid’s fifth or parallel postulate (correspondingly: parallel lines are everywhere equidistant). Compelled by intuition, Saccheri (1667-1733), Gauss (1777-1885), Lobachevsky (1793-1856), Bolyai (1802-1860), amongst others involved in the revolutionary non-Euclidean geometric deliberations, independently worked to find solutions that would accurately describe the ‘real world.’ For fear that his reputation would suffer if he were to articulate that non-Euclidean geometry’s were possible, Gauss withheld his early discoveries from early publication. 

Lobachevsky (1826, On the Principles of Geometry) recognized the universal characteristics of his new geometry, yet nevertheless thought it essential to establish experimentally which geometry truly occurs in nature. It later became clear that Lobachevskian space (often referred to as hyperbolic space) became the Riemannian space of constant curvature that would subsequently find application within the framework of Einstein’s principle of general relativity—more than a half century after its discovery. In 1908 (an important year for Cubism), Minkowski considered this complex space in connection with Einstein’s special principle of relativity (now called pseudo-Euclidean space).

Astoundingly, today there is still great misunderstanding about the deviation from linearity of spacetime.

In Théorie des fonctions analytiques (1796), more than one hundred years before Albert Einstein and Hermann Minkowski, Joseph-Louis Lagrange referred to dynamics as a “four-dimensional geometry.” Without doubt, such illustrations aimed at their audiences, with physical intent, were certainly not geometric in any ordinary sense; but unquestionably they were geometric in their concern with planimetric space of gravitating systems, and in the fundamentals of their relationship with matter. He believed now another basic factor was to be understood and exploited: space. He saw the understanding of space as a legacy left by the inventions of Newton. In Lagrange’s system, imbued with the notion of dynamic continuity, is stressed the importance of unbroken rhythms and completed movements by circular field lines; now with the spatial factor introduced. He set out with extraordinary mathematical clarity to represent flat planes and massive objects simultaneously set in motion and made to evoke space by emanating intertwined fields shifted across one another as if rotating about tilting, ideally circular axes.

Why go back so far in time? I’ve, in fact, just answered this question. Several centuries ago began a conflict that was certainly unfolding during the Cubist epoch, and possibly still unfolding today underneath are very noses: a clash between an academic system and all those who, from specialists to the layman, wish to tear it down and replace it with something altogether radically different.

The point should been made that when geometric axioms or scientific laws show themselves so fragile, it is difficult to accept without question the fallacious elevation of a single ideal. In addition, the individual creed of personality and invention is in itself a demonstration of how significant and imperative it is that specifically individualistic ideals remain freed from academicism. The emphasis is on individual sovereignty to follow the dictates of his own sensibility, as an alternative to its contrary—it was accordingly that inspiration was asphyxiated in olden times. Things might have been otherwise in an era when mathematicians or artists of the Renaissance represented their models or paintings inscribed on the pediment of the Academia. Only the heterodox liberation from such bodies can transform man from a slave to creator, from dependent to autonomous, subservient to courageous, from a machine to an organism capable of hyperbolic expression (naïve as it still seems at present). 

It should be mentioned too that with the eighteenth century work of William Herschel, Pierre Simon Laplace, and the ensuing efforts of nineteenth century astronomers, both theoretical and observational cosmology crossed the threshold of a new era. The discovery of a supernova in the Andromeda nebula (1880s) came as a surprise to some, to others it was a confirmation of what they had suspected all along: Our Galaxy was not unique. Immanuel Kant had written about this possibility, in his influential Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755). With respect to Kantian dynamics, it becomes extremely delicate to assess the physical meaning or disentangle the level of influence that declarations like these had on the artistic community during the crucial years of the development of modern art. It has been noted by Michael Friedman that reference to the Kantian framework was almost necessary arbitration in all debate of the foundations of physical science up until the early 1930’s. 

Between 1909 and 1914, (when art was transiting from Cubism to nonrepresentational art), V. M. Slipher peered through a telescope and studied 15 spiral nebulae. At this time, ‘nebulae’ were presumed to be located in our Milky Way Galaxy. The spectral properties of these objects gave the impression that they were located outside the Milky Way. Edwin Hubble would eventually confirm this fact. In other words, it was becoming evident that the universe was a much bigger place than previously suspected. No longer was the earth located at a privileged location at the center of the celestial sphere, there were other galaxies like our own spread throughout a vast universe. Nature, in the large scheme of things, was no longer simply that which humans observed here on earth. A new consciousness was awakening, and not just in science.





Sonia Terk-Delaunay, 1914, Prismes électriques, oil on canvas, 250 x 250 cm, MNAM, Paris


Nature no longer needed to be represented as a tree or a mountain. An entirely new universe had opened up, consisting of space, time and matter. There’s more. In fact, there’s much more to the natural world than what could be observed at first glance: by the coordination of real objects of experience (a guitar, a still life, a landscape, or even a tree and mountain) with the conceptual schemata of non-Euclidean geometry, the Cubists were able to create a vision of the world that was contemporary, in tune with the developments of science, which at the time were contemplating not just the visible and large, but the invisible and small (e.g., constituents such as, elementary building blocks and nest of forces defined as elementary particles, atomic nuclei, atoms, molecules, ions, gravity fields and electromagnetic fields: along with the properties energy and entropy). To omit any of these features or things in the universe bounded by the same fundamental laws of nature as a source of inspiration would be to limit the scope of possibilities.

Certainly artists were at least partially aware of, if not in tune with, the developments in the diverse fields of science. Many scientists, in addition to Einstein, had made headway in the workings of nature before and during the crucial years of Cubism. Certainly too, there are differences.

Robert Andrews Millikan was able to establish his reputation in physics by confirming experimentally Einstein’s photoelectric law and for having measured the charge of the electron (in 1909). Millikan received his Ph.D. and set off to Europe for postgraduate study. While in Paris he attended lectures by Poincaré, took a course from Max Plank in Berlin and followed a line of investigation with the German chemist Walter Nernst in Göttingen. In 1911, the physicist measured the electron charge, studied ultraviolet and other cosmic rays, and earned the Nobel Prize for his work in 1923, when he became probably the most celebrated American scientist. In complete accord with his scientific credentials, Millikan was an outspoken modernist.

Walter Nernst developed a global reputation early in his career through his application of the principle of physics to chemical problems. He received a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1920, resulting from his work in chemical thermodynamics. In 1905 Nernst had presented his now classic “heat theorem” to the Göttingen Academy. It was that work and those deliberations that led to the enunciation of the third law of thermodynamics, conceived by Nernst in correlation with the search for an experimentally demonstrable theoretical solution through mathematical criteria to the problem of chemical spontaneity and chemical equilibrium. Nernst’s work involved thermodynamics and the behavior of nature in the low temperature range—in the vicinity of absolute zero—between 1904 and 1907. 

The French amateur physicist Gustave LeBon, in 1907, and another Frenchman, the physicist Jean Becquerel, the following year, respectively suggested that primordial condensations taking place in the substratum of space were responsible for atomic creation, and that electrons or electromagnetic fields were intermediaries “between ether and ponderable matter.” Nernst’s views were resolutely similar as were the views of many enlightened soles during those early years.

But it was Albert Einstein, the author and mastermind behind the general principle of relativity who changed our perception of the world in a most fundamental way. In 1905, Einstein’s first paper on the special theory of relativity—which applies to all physical phenomena with the exception of gravitation—was already written in its final form before the birth of Cubism. A short time later a second paper was published in which Einstein drew major conclusions that would rigorously transform our awareness of nature, specifically, with respect to the equivalence of mass and energy, as expressed by his famous equation, E = mc2 where E is the energy contained in a stationary body, m is its mass and c represents the velocity of light. 



Theory of Relativity

As early as 1907, Einstein stressed the importance of a generalization that had to be made, and presented the fundamental concept based on the equivalence of inertial and gravitational mass. In a 1911 study, he revealed some wide-ranging conclusions of the general theory pertaining to the influence of gravitation on light. (1) The influence of gravitational fields on the frequency of spectral lines (gravitational redshift) and (2) the bending of light rays due to the gravitational fields of massive bodies (gravitational lens). Equally important were contributions introduced by Einstein in 1907 regarding the application of the quantum theory to the theory of specific heats.

From 1905, upon completing the special theory of relativity (a theory of time, motion, and space), to the 1917 principle of general relativity, Albert Einstein assembled and built a foundation upon which would stand the mighty structure that encompass the science of the universe at large. Considerable weight rests on Einstein’s legacy as the true founder of contemporary cosmological theories. In the years that followed, de Sitter, Eddington, Weyl, Robertson, Friedmann, Lemaître and a few belated followers, whose names I kindly pass by in silence, would incorporate a variety of methods to critique, develop, and formulate the comprehensive code that laid the groundwork for the now generally acknowledged form of the standard world model: The expanding universe hypothesis was emerging as a direct consequence of Einstein's relativistic field equations.

There was, after all, little to prevent the Cubists from developing their own pictorial variants on the topological space in parallel to special- or general relativistic considerations. Though the concept of observing a subject from different points in space and time simultaneously (multiple or mobile perspective) developed by the Cubists (particularly Metzinger and Gleizes) was not derived directly from Einstein's relativity, it was certainly influenced in the same way, through the work of Henri Poincaré (particularly Science and Hypothesis) the French mathematician famed as the founder of algebraic topology and the use of his theory on differential equations in celestial mechanics. Dynamical systems, according to Poincaré, are characterized in terms of the kinetic energy of its constituents plus the potential energy due to their interactions

Recall that Einstein's relativity remained somewhat obscure throughout the crucial early years of the 20th century. It wasn't until 1919 that the name Einstein became a household word, after confirmation of the bending of optical starlight by the Sun’s gravitational field during a total eclipse (proved observationally by Eddington and Crommelin, 1919). Einstein, then, became an international celebrity.



Jean Metzinger 1906-1907 Femme au Chapeau 44.8 x 36.8 cm, Christie's New York, May 2010, Korban Art Foundation



Indeed, it could be argued that Cubism evolved not only in parallel to relativity, but independently of relativity, since Einstein's concepts had not yet entered into popular culture. That picture falls short, however, since it is known that both mathematicians and scientists associated quite closely with the Cubists. Einstein had already begun stirring the pot in 1905, with his special theory; something that would have been known to many mathematicians and scientists within a short time thereafter.

An art historian submitted to Albert Einstein a draft of an essay entitled Cubism and the Theory of Relativity, in which a connection had been made between the general theory and the simultaneity of multiple viewpoints in Cubism. But the relation was not so clear cut. Einstein's response:

"The essence of the theory of relativity has been incorrectly understood in [your article], granted that this error is suggested by the attempts at popularization of the theory. For the description of a given state of facts one uses almost always only one system of coordinates. The theory says only that the general laws are such that their form does not depend on the choice of the system of coordinates. This logical demand, however, has nothing to do with how the single, specific case is represented. A multiplicity of systems of coordinates is not needed for its representation. It is completely sufficient to describe the whole mathematically in relation to one system of coordinates.

This is quite different in the case of Picasso's painting, as I do not have to elaborate any further. Whether, in this case, the representation is felt as artistic unity depends, of course, upon the artistic antecedents of the viewer. This new artistic 'language' has nothing in common with the Theory of Relativity." (See Gerald Holton, 1995-96, Einstein, History, and Other Passions: The Rebellion Against Science at the End of the Twentieth Century) 

In his 1945 essay (Cubism and the Theory of Relativity) Paul M. Laporte elaborated on the notion that there are analogies or relationships between these divergent manifestations of culture. There were allowances made for the simultaneity of several views; the seeming distortion or dissolution of bodies in painting, and the convertibility of mass and energy in Einstein's theory. Space and time were no longer considered absolutes, in the Newtonian sense. They became interdependent, forming a spacetime continuum. In painting, this 4-dimensional manifold was expressed in the form of geometric patterns, characteristic of Cubism, experienced by the observer who scanned the picture. Laporte submitted his essay to Einstein because he felt it should not be published without Einstein's opinion. Here is the answer by Albert Einstein, 4 May 1946:

"I find your comparison rather unsatisfactory. If I disregard the practical values of science I do see a similarity between the scientific and the artistic activity. Both attempt to assemble from parts a whole which by itself is indistinct—in such a way that the resulting order creates distinctness and clarity. The distinctness and clarity thus achieved give us a satisfaction of a high order. This occurs both in science and in art. In science, the principle of order which creates units is achieved through logical connection while, in art, the principle of order is anchored in the unconscious. The artistic principle of order is always based on traditional modes of connection which are felt as equally compelling by those who live in this tradition as the logical connection is felt by scientifically oriented persons.

The essence of traditional modes of connection in art shows itself clearly in the simple forms of art, e.g. the musical melody and the ornament, which are based on intuitively grasped regularity. In both cases the means of achieving clarity are felt to be necessary, just as in mathematics logical conclusion is felt to be necessary. In more complex forms of art the means of creating clarity or "unity" are less easily recognized.

Consequently, a work of art can be experienced and evaluated as such only by those in whom the respective traditional modes of connection are alive. For these modes of connection there is no other sanction than their living existence. If they are given, the work is good or bad in relation to them depending on the perfection with which, based on the traditional modes of connection, the impression of lucid unity is achieved.

If the forgoing is correct it would be absurd to try to evaluate modes of connection, which represent, as it were, the language of the periods of art, in any way in their relation to on another." (Albert Einstein, 1946)


Thus while, as Einstein writes, the physicist can generally limit herself to one system of coordinates for the description of physical reality, the Cubist endeavors to show the simultaneity of several such views, or, at the very least, their unwillingness to commit themselves to a single coordinate system. Hence Einstein's objection. (Paul M. Laporte, Cubism and Relativity with a Letter of Albert Einstein; Introduction by Rudolf Arnheim. Leonardo, Vol 21, No. 3 (1988), pp. 313-315, published by The MIT Press. http://www.jstor.org/pss/1578661)


An attempt to refute the scientific connection


A multitude of analogies have been drawn over the decades between modern science and Cubsim. But there has not always been agreement as to how the writings of Metzinger and Gleizes should be interpreted, with respect to 'simultaneity' of multiple view-points.

John Adkins Richardson, for example writes: "As it happens those analogies are as specious as they are ubiquitous."

He continues: "The idea that the scientific conception of simultaneity has something to do with both prosaic dimensionality and Cubism seems to have become more and more assimilated into thinking about the art of the period since the time it was first expressed."

Richardson further objects to idea expressed in the writings of Metzinger and Gleizes that Cubism represents a truer picture of nature since in addition to the three spatial dimensions it includes the dimension of time, as burgeoning within scientific theory.

He writes: "The view has become increasingly fashionable since and is, indeed, a cliche of contemporary criticism. Curiously enough, there has been from the very first a tendency to apply the ideas of physics to Cubism without any attempt to "check out" either the ideas themselves or their applications. And as a flagrant falsehood is perpetuated it begins to sound more and more reasonable since it is met with more and more often."

Richardson's belief is that a simple analysis of a works by Picasso, such as Ma Jolie (reproduced below), should suffice to prove his point: "Now, one has only to examine Cubist painting by its major practitioners to observe that their forms could not possibly have been arrived at by the procedure outlined by Metzinger."

His argument revolves around the assumption that "No conceivable superpositioning of given objects would produce a Ma Jolie"  he continues, "unless the fractioning of those elements were carried out to an extremity altogether uncalled for by the explanation. In fact, a Cubist image is made up not of elements of fractured objects but, instead, is built from fragments of elements."

The circular reasoning offered by Richardson is entirely irrelevant to the issue at hand since it does not address the problem of the mobile interpretation, i.e., one can construct or represent an object from multiple angles either from the bottom up, or the top down (by fracturing objects or by building from fragments).

Furthermore, writes Richardson, "what is most peculiar about Metzinger's theory, in view of its prominence, is that at the very time he was propounding it, Einstein was proving the impossibility of establishing the simultaneity of any two events that do not occur approximately, that is, side by side. So far as the Special Theory of Relativity is concerned, the sole difference between it and classical science lies precisely in Relativity's denial of the absoluteness of the simultaneity of spatially separated events. Had the Cubists really been consistent with the new developments in physics they would have demolished simultaneity!"

This last attack (in straw man form) falls short of its goal for the simple reason that it misrepresents entirely the position held by Metzinger and Gleizes. Du Cubisme was not promoting the possibility of establishing the simultaneity of events. Nor was it claiming Cubism represented the absoluteness of the simultaneity of spatially separated events. Quite the contrary! Both motion and time were said to be involved in the process of revolving around the object. It was the observer (the artist) who chose the coordinate system and the direction of motion, thus permitting the viewer (or spectator) to see the finished product (or event) from several different vantage points. The succession of images created by such a motion around the object would not be unlike a motion picture, dynamic and changing in time.


Metzinger had already written of 'mobile perspective', as an interpretation of what would soon be dubbed "Cubism" with respect to Picasso, Braque, Delaunay and Le Fauconnier (Metzinger, Note sur la peinture, Pan, Paris, Oct-Nov 1910). And Apollinaire would echo the same tune a year later regarding the observer's state of motion. Mobile perspective was akin to "cinematic" movement around an object that consisted of a plastic truth compatible with reality by showing the spectator "all its facets." Gleizes too, the same year, remarks, Metzinger was "haunted by the desire to inscribe a total image [...] He will put down the greatest number of possible planes: to purely objective truth he wishes to add a new truth, born from what his intelligence permits him to know. Thus—and he said himself: to space he will join time. [...] he wishes to develop the visual field by multiplying it, to inscribe them all in the space of the same canvas: it is then that the cube will play a role, for Metzinger will utilize this means to reestablish the equilibrium that these audacious inscriptions will have momentarily broken."



Prior to special relativity the concepts of space and time were separate in physical theory. Special relativity connected the two and showed that both were dependent upon the observer's state of motion. The ideas of absolute time and space were superseded by the notion of spacetime in special relativity, and in general relativity by dynamically curved spacetime.

The theory of relativity postulates nonexistence of absolute simultaneity, denying the existence of absolute time. Absolute simultaneity, in classical mechanics, refers to the experimental establishment of coincidence of two or more events in time at different locations in space in such a manner agreed upon by all observers regardless of their location. The theory of relativity postulates a maximum rate of transmission of information as the speed of light, and one consequence is that simultaneity at separated locations always is relative to the observer. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absolute_time_and_space)

So too is the object, seen from different view-points (from separate locations simultaneously), in a Cubist painting relative to the observer (albeit not exactly for the same reasons).


Indeed, Richardson creates the illusion of having refuted a proposition held in Du Cubisme by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the straw man fallacy), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.



Pablo Picasso, 1911-12, Ma Jolie, Woman with Zither or Guitar, oil on canvas, 100 x 64.5 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York



In the description of Picasso's work on the Museum of Modern Art website, it is written that the figure represented in Ma jolie is "loosely built using the signature shifting planes of Analytic Cubism." [...] In Cubist works of this period, Picasso and Georges Braque employed multiple modes of representation simultaneously: here, Picasso combined language (in the black lettering), symbolic meaning (in the treble clef), and near abstraction (in the depiction of his subject)." (http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=79051) Bold added.


Referring to Einstein's theory of relativity and the complex mathematic involved (and simultaneously blurring the distinction between the special and general theory of relativity) Richardson writes, after having quoted Einstein in the context of general relativity (Generalization of Gravitation Theory):

"The author is no less aware than his reader that a thorough understanding of these matters presupposes a more than rudimentary grasp of the calculus. The point, though, is that that particular attainment is quite unnecessary to an understanding of Cubism. Surely, it must be obvious to any careful reader that the space of painting cannot accommodate the field concept of modern physics; those two things have nothing in common. What is more, the paintings do not represent such a concept symbolically. The fragmentations of Cubist art did not derive from simultaneous presentations of shifting points of view, but even if they had they would be unconnected with the Theory of Relativity. Thus, it can be argued that the entire notion of a hermetic connection between Einstein's theory and Cubism is false. [...] Cubism has nothing to do with the Theory of Relativity and that is the end of the matter." (John Adkins Richardson, Modern Art and Scientific Thought, Chapter 5, Cubism and Logic, University of Chicago Press, 1971, pp. 104-127.)

Here once again, Richardson falls short of his goal. Einstein's special theory of relativity, published in 1905, provided the transformation rules for how an electromagnetic field in one inertial frame appears in another inertial frame. The Cubists intention had not been to portray electromagnetic fields, symbolically or otherwise. However, Du Cubisme did provided the transformation rules of how an object in one inertial frame (e.g., a guitar, model, bowl of fruit) appears from several other inertial frames: consistent to some extent with a key concept of special relativity.

The general theory of relativity is the geometric theory of gravitation, published by Einstein in 1916, four years after the publication of Metzinger and Gleizes. It should be of no surprise that the Cubists were unfamiliar with Einstein's concept of the gravitational field (spacetime curvature). The attempt to refute the claims made in Du Cubisme by highlighting incompatibility (or that Cubism has nothing in common) with general relativity is nonsensical. Evidently Cubism (aside from its use of non-Euclidean geometry) has more in common with special relativity.

What John Adkins Richardson fails to point out in his critique, unfortunately, is most revealing and detrimental to his hypothesis. As mentioned briefly above, Jules Henri Poincaré (1854–1912), as a mathematician and physicist, had made many fundamental contributions to pure and applied mathematics, mathematical physics and celestial mechanics. These writings, unlike Einstein's, were well known during the years leading up to and during the Cubist epoch. He had discovered a chaotic deterministic system that laid the foundations of modern chaos theory. He is also one of the principle founders of the field of topology. Poincaré introduced the modern principle of relativity, and was the first to present the Lorentz transformations in modern symmetrical form. Poincaré discovered the remaining relativistic velocity transformations and recorded them in a letter (dated 1905) to Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz (1853–1928). In doing so, he achieved perfect invariance of all of Maxwell's equations: an important step in the formulation of the theory of special relativity.

The common denominator between the special relativistic notions—the lack an absolute reference frame, metric transformations of the Lorenzian type, the relativity of simultaneity, the incorporation of the time dimension with three spatial dimensions—and the Cubist idea of mobile perspective (observing the object from several view-points simultaneously) published by Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes in 1912 was a direct descendant from the work of Poincaré and others.


The geometrization of space

Metzinger's early interests in mathematics are documented. He was undoubtedly familiar with the works of Gauss, Riemann, Helmhotz and Poincaré (and perhaps Galilean relativity) prior to the development of Cubism: something that reflects in his pre-1907 works. It was the French mathematician Maurice Princet who introduced the work of Poincaré, along with the concept of the fourth dimension, to artists at the Bateau Lavoir. He was a close associate of Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Jean Metzinger and Marcel Duchamp. Princet is known as "le mathématicien du cubisme." Princet brought to attention of these artists a book entitled Traité élémentaire de géométrie à quatre dimensions by Esprit Jouffret (1903) a popularization of Poincaré's Science and Hypothesis. In this book Jouffret described hypercubes and complex polyhedra in four dimensions projected onto a two-dimensional page. Princet became estranged from the group after his wife left him for André Derain. However, Princet would remain close to Metzinger and participated in meetings of the Section d'Or in Puteaux. He gave informal lectures to the artists, many of whom were passionate about mathematical order. In 1910, Metzinger said of him, "[Picasso] lays out a free, mobile perspective, from which that ingenious mathematician Maurice Princet has deduced a whole geometry".


Later, Metzinger wrote in his memoirs (Le Cubisme était né): "Maurice Princet joined us often. Although quite young, thanks to his knowledge of mathematics he had an important job in an insurance company. But, beyond his profession, it was as an artist that he conceptualized mathematics, as an aesthetician that he invoked n-dimensional continuums. He loved to get the artists interested in the new views on space that had been opened up by Schlegel and some others. He succeeded at that."


Louis Vauxcelles sarcastically dubbed Princet "the father of cubism": M. Princet has studied at length non-Euclidean geometry and the theorems of Riemann, of which Gleizes and Metzinger speak rather carelessly. Now then, M. Princet one day met M. Max Jacob and confided him one or two of his discoveries relating to the fourth dimension. M. Jacob informed the ingenious M. Picasso of it, and M. Picasso saw there a possibility of new ornamental schemes. M. Picasso explained his intentions to M. Apollinaire, who hastened to write them up in formularies and codify them. The thing spread and propagated. Cubism, the child of M. Princet, was born. (Vauxcelles, Louis (December 29, 1918). "Le Carnet des ateliers: La Père du cubisme". Le Carnet de la semaine: 11. in Henderson, Linda Dalrymple (1983). The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 72)

Duchamp told Pierre Cabanne, "We weren't mathematicians at all, but we really did believe in Princet". (Cabanne, Pierre (1971). Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp. London: Thames and Hudson. pp. 39. in Crunden, Robert Morse (1993). American Salons: Encounters with European Modernism, 1885-1917. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 431) (See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurice_Princet)


In addition to mathematics, both human sensation and intelligence were important to Metzinger and Gleizes. It was lack of the latter human attribute that the principle theorists of Cubism were to reproach of the Impressionists and Fauves, for whom sensation was the sole necessity. Intelligence had to work in harmony with sensation, thus together providing the building blocks for the Cubists construction. Metzinger, with his mathematical education and prowess had realized this relation early on. Indeed, the geometrization of space that would characterize Cubism can already be observed in his works as early as 1905.


Jean Metzinger, 1905-1906, Two Nudes in an Exotic Landscape,  oil on canvas, 116 x 88.8 cm

The type of symmetry observed in Two Nudes above would stay with Metzinger throughout his entire career.

For Metzinger, along with to some extent both Gleizes and Malevich the gran bacatazo of the classical vision had been an incomplete representation of real things, based on an incomplete set of laws, postulates and theorems. It represented, quite simply, the belief that space is the only thing that separates two points. It was the belief in the geocentric reality of the observable world, unchanging and immobile. The Cubist had been delighted to discover that the world was in reality dynamic, changing in time, it appeared different depending on the point of view of the observer. And yet each one of these viewpoints were equally valid, there was no preferred reference frame, all reference frames were equal. This underlying symmetry inherent in nature, in fact, is the essence of Einstein's general theory of relativity. (The laws of nature are the same everywhere—no matter the location, speed or direction of the observer—and at all times).


If a slab of marble had embodied within it the ideal representation of a human being just waiting to be discovered by an artist of the Renaissance (e.g., Michelangelo), then a Cubist work had embodied within it an entire universe, with its uncertainties, its imperfections, just waiting to be discovered.

The relativist Arthur Eddington (after Einstein and de Sitter), at least once, tried to examine the manner in which the inspired subject would metamorphose into the structure of the cosmos. All would not agree that the conception, synthesized from experience and recreated in the mind of the observer, was where the great value lay. There was diversity, too, in determining what constituted the experience to be synthesized, whether it was merely a contemporary conceptual phenomenon elevated to an idea, or a more complete description of nature as first expressed by Einstein in connection with the general theory. 

For both the Cubists and the relativists, the starting point of a natural description was with mental experience that was already more than purely visual—it was believed there was more to the universe than met the eye—and the undertaking was to translate the idea into physical terms, hence the emphasis on inspiration, on grandeur, on the paroxysms of the epoch. These insights, as opposed to mere sights, could also be synthesized into a new equilibrium, a new symmetry, a new unity, a new harmony, but what was required was far more complex than the recombinations of particular points of view to constitute the idea of a whole.

Einstein’s concerns would eventually be validated, but before 1918 there was no direct observational evidence available to corroborate his claims. He was to be seen, before that, at the intersection of high intellectuality and the new fly-by-night spectacle. A new spectacle, generated not solely by the theory of gravity that would replace Newton's classical concoction, but by a full-scale cosmic confrontation, founded on nothing but the general theory of relativity: based on the fact that the totality of events form a four-dimensional continuum, where space and time together are considered in determining spacetime coordinates of other systems; and the fact that the velocity of light is the same for every observer in all coordinate systems—as a result, the presence of gravitational field curvature influences the length of standard measuring rods and the rhythm of clocks—are also testimony to, and are thoroughly determined by, the relationship with all happenings in nature.

With this vision, no longer can the world of events be described on the classical background of three-dimensional space with a separate time component (or absolute time), but obligatorily becomes perceivable as a universe where all events and transformations are founded on the evolution of a background of the four-dimensional spacetime continuum that exhibits the workings of non-Euclidean geometry.


Robert Delaunay, 1910, Ville no. 2, oil on canvas, 146 x 114 cm, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris



These were perhaps modest changes from the classical view, but for the Cubists (as for the relativists), they were worth building on. For that to happen, Cubists need two things almost as elusive as their new geometry: cooperation between the avant-garde (something that would be found to some extent within the Section d'Or) and the radical opposition (radical because of ingrained beliefs), and acknowledgement that the long-held policies of classical painting had failed. Such a hope, in retrospect, would never be fulfilled, and eventually all the Cubists (except for Gleizes, Delaunay and a handful of others) would return (or regress) back to some form of classicism at the end of World War I. Even so, the lessons of Cubism would not be forgotten.

The departure from Cubism circa 1918 would indeed leave open the 'spatial' susceptibility to classical observation, but the 'form' could only be grasped by the 'intelligence' of the observer, something that escaped classical observation.




Jean Metzinger, 1922-23, Arlequin, Embarkation of Harlequin, oil on canvas, 162 x 112 cm, Sale Parke-Bernet, Los Angeles, 20 November 1972, current location unknown



September 1920: Jean Metzinger in a letter to Léonce Rosenberg wrote of a return to nature that appeared to him both constructive and not at all a renunciation of Cubism. His exhibition at l'Effort Moderne at the outset of 1921 was exclusively of landscapes: linear perspective was avoided, yet his formal vocabulary remained rhythmic. There was a motivation to unite the pictorial and the 'natural.' Christopher Green writes: "The willingness to adapt Cubist language to the look of nature was quickly to affect his figure painting too. From that exhibition of 1921 Metzinger continued to cultivate a style that was not only less obscure, but clearly took subject-matter as its starting point far more than an abstract play with flat pictorial elements." Green continues: "Yet, style, in the sense of his own special way of handling form and color, remained for Metzinger the determining factor, something imposed on his subjects to give them their special pictorial character. His sweet, rich colour between 1921 and 1924 was unashamedly artificial, and is itself symptomatic of the fact that his return to lucid representation did not mean a return to nature approached naturalistically... Metzinger himself, writing in 1922 [published by Montparnasse] could claim quite confidently that this was not at all a betrayal of Cubism but a development within it. 'I know works,' he said, 'whose thoroughly classical appearance conveys the most personal [the most original] the newest conceptions... Now that certain Cubists have pushed their constructions so far as to take in clearly objective appearances, it has been declared that Cubism is dead [in fact] it approaches realization.'" (Christopher Green, Cubism and its Enemies, Modern Movements and Reaction in French Art, 1916-1928, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1987, pp. 52, 53, 166. See also Jean Metzinger, 'Tristesse d'Automne,' Montparnasse, 1 December 1922, p. 2. And Léonce Rosenberg, Cubisme et empirisme, 1920-1926, in E.M., no. 31, January 1927).


Jean METZINGER (1883-1956), Jeune Femme à la Mandoline (c. 1923), Signed Metzinger, lower left, Oil on canvas, 39 ¼ by 28 ¾ in. (100 x 73 cm)


The strict constructive ordering that had become so pronounced in Metzinger's pre-1920 Cubist works is present in Jeune Femme à la Mandoline, in the careful positioning of form, color, and in the way in which Metzinger delicately assimilates the union of figure and background, of light and shadow. Note, for example, that from the division (in two) of the model's features emerges a subtle profile view—resulting from a free and mobile perspective used by Metzinger as early as 1905 to constitute the image of a whole—one that includes the fourth dimension. The sophisticated figure, simultaneously clothed and unclothed, preserves the refined form of Metzinger's work as he tapped into a timeless impression of female splendor. (Coldcreation, published in Sotheby's Modern and Impressionism sale catalogue, May 2008) 

For Gleizes, it was evident that life does not exist without movement. The life of a painting is to be found in the internal movement. The movement must be constructed with planes, angles and surfaces. The intelligence and its own mobile nature produces 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 write. ('Art et science' in Albert Gleizes: Art et religion, Art et science, Art et production, Chambéry (Editions Présence) 1970, p.100).


Albert Gleizes, 1913, L'Homme au hamac, oil on canvas, 155.9 x 130.9 cm


Certainly the intention of representing time as the fourth dimension was admirable, but as mentioned above the Cubists would, arguably, fall short of such a goal. The mobile perspective (painting objects from divers view-points simultaneously on one canvas) was one solution, but it had its drawbacks. Gleizes argues in La Forme et l'Histoire that time is the only meaning that can be attached to the concept of the fourth dimension, but should be taken as a metaphor only, a misleading one to a certain extent. The new geometry of Cubism was essentially an attempt to show motion, which would imply the time dimension, albeit spatially. Projecting mobility (by juxtaposing geometric forms and vibrating color combinations) would give the illusion of time without actually realizing a true depiction of a 4-dimensional spacetime manifold. That goal would be left to the spectator, optically, through sensation derived by the living experience of the eye, by the very act of seeing the artwork. 

Certainly the development of relativity was influential, but thermodynamics would produce machines, a technology that would affected the lives of all. In Painting and its Laws (1924), Gleizes wrote that it is the 'life' of machines that had brought the Cubists to appreciating the value of rhythmic movement. The development of the new painting and the development of the new machines was the result of new technologies, i.e., of science.




















"Painting and Its Laws uses the term 'movements' of translation and rotation, and indeed the idea of movement is implicit in the words themselves. They are borrowed from Physics. 'Translation' signifies a movement of an object in relation to other objects in space, 'rotation' a movement of an object in relation to itself. The earth revolving round the sun is moving in translation; the earth revolving on its own axis is moving in rotation. The terms are used by Aristotle and they occur frequently in Einstein's Relativity. At the time when Gleizes was writing Painting and Its Laws, he was friendly with the physicist Paul Langevin who was one of the leading French exponents of Einstein's ideas. But Gleizes insists that he is not applying ideas derived from contemporary science to painting. Insofar as there are parallels between the work of the scientists and that of the painters it is because they share a common state of mind; in their separate fields, they are both grappling with the same problems. The scientists, dissatisfied with classical mechanics, and the painters, dissatisfied with classical perspective, are both groping towards a new (or towards the recovery of an old) religious consciousness." [The argument is particularly developed in his essay Art et Science in Albert Gleizes: Art et Religion, Art et Science, Art et Production, Chambéry (Eds Présence) 1970 - Translator's note: http://www.peterbrooke.org.uk/a%26r/gltexts/1934]


As it turned out, just as artists of both the Renaissance and Cubism would fall short of their goals, so too would Albert Einstein, and all the other relativists that would follow in his footsteps. Still unresolved are the goals of unifying gravity with the other forces of nature, the unification of general relativity with quantum theory, and finally, the goal of discovering the essence of the physical universe and its evolution in time. These are all works in progress at the forefront of twenty-first century theoretical physics, and will likely remain so until there is discovered a theory of everything. But even after the ultimate theory is discovered there will always be another aspect of nature that remains to be discovered or observed. The process is never ending.

These setbacks could hardly be seen as trivial, but at the same time, just as for science, Cubism was a work in progress at the forefront of 20th century art, there would always be another aspect of nature that remained to be discovered. The process was never ending. Cubism would set the groundwork upon which other movements such as nonrepresentational art would flourish, along with Orphism, Non-Art, Dadaism, and so on. Cubism was never an end unto itself, nor was it ever meant to be. It was a transition phase, an important one to be sure, in the history of art. It was not a science, but it paralleled the works of Einstein (and others) in a way that was a sign of the times, it was a green light, une carte blanche, a billboard even that said to artists: 



Something has only just begun!



Alexander Mittelmann
(aka Coldcreation, DVDjHex)

email:
alexmittelmann@yahoo.com