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Du "Cubisme" - the straight line and the curve

Even so, the change was continuous with Lewis's early work. It can easily be seen in the progressive abstraction of his Timon of Athens series (the works referred to here can be easily enough consulted on the internet). Timon of Athens - Shakespeare's play about the transformation of a philanthropist into a misanthrope - is almost perfect material for Lewis the creator of grotesques. Vorticism - New Perspectives opens with an analysis of Timon of Athens by Frederic Jameson, arguing first of all that it is a very great achievement and secondly that it is symptomatic of a lifelong struggle in Lewis between the curve and the straight line - the curve expressive of the dynamic, the organic, the sensual, and the straight line as the stable structure of materiality. This of course is one of the great themes in all painting, especially twentieth century painting, and it is hugely frustrating to me that the best discussion of it, that of Albert Gleizes in his books Form and History, Homocentrism and Man Become Painter, is completely unknown to most modern aesthetic theorists.

Jameson goes on to say that Cubism resolved the dilemma in favour of the straight line - 'Cubism attempted to submit the round to the domination of the square' - while 'Futurism, far closer to Vorticism than Cubism ever was, places its bets on speed and on the power of high velocities to transform everything in its path into the rectangular, into vectors and winds, arrows and tornadoes ... Meanwhile it is the round, which we may simply take to be the category of the independent free standing object or body, that remains unreduced to its subatomic elements.' (p.26)

That last sentence - that 'the round' is simply 'the category of the independent free standing object or body' (never mind the 'subatomic elements', whatever that's supposed to mean) - may not be unreasonable in the context of Lewis's development but it is quite wrongheaded in relation to the overall evolution of Cubism. The difficulty of reconciling straight line and curve lies in the fact that the curve, launching the eye into movement, is of the nature of time, while the straight line is the means by which - in an abstract work of art, using the terms as understood by Worringer and Hulme - we structure and learn to appreciate space. Jameson goes on to relate this tension - 'the warring intersection - the mortal struggle - of the square and the round' - to Lewis's whole career with the square predominating in 'the peculiarly sterile concatenation' of Lewis's painting The Crowd and the round 'culminating in the remarkable nudes of which Edwards [another contributor to New Perspectives - PB] has observed that "line" in them takes priority of the model.' But his main argument about the Timon of Athens series is that here the tension or, indeed, war is at its most acute.

In stressing that this is very far removed from the concerns of Cubism, however, Jameson seems to me to be far off the mark. 1913, the year when Lewis produced Timon of Athens, also saw the publication of an English translation of the book Cubism by Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger. I cannot claim to have read the whole literature on Vorticism but in the material that has come my way I have never seen this mentioned (it is, I am happy to say, mentioned in the chronology of the catalogue for the Antliff and Greene exhibition). I do not know who organised it, or who did the translation but it seems to me improbable that the publication of what was seen at the time as the manifesto of French Cubism would have gone unnoticed by the group that was still in December 1913 (time of the 'Cubist Room' in the Exhibition of the Work of English Post Impressionists, Cubists and others in Brighton) calling themselves 'Cubists'. Hulme refers to it in his talk in January 1914, albeit somewhat dismissively:

'I look at most cubist pictures with a certain feeling of depression. They are from a certain point of view, confused. If I may be allowed to go against my own principles for a minute, and to describe abstract things in a metaphor borrowed from organic life, I should say they look rather like embryos. I think they will soon open out and grow distinct. I picture what is about to happen in this way. A man whose form is, as it were, dimly discerned in hay, stands up, shakes the hay off him, and proceeds to walk, i.e. he proceeds to do something. Dropping the metaphor then, cubism ceases to be analytical, and is transformed into a constructive geometrical art. The elements and the method patiently worked out by analysis begin to be used. If you want a concrete example of the difference I mean, compare the work illustrated in Metzinger's book on cubism, with that of Mr Epstein and Mr Lewis.' ('Modern Art and its Philosophy' in Speculations, pp.102-3)

The illustrations in Cubism (and in the French original) are indeed unimpressive-looking small black and white photographs of sometimes very large paintings. But even if Hulme had seen the originals - he was a frequent visitor to Paris - he could well have felt the painting technique was too naturalistic, too blurred, lacking the hard mechanical edge he liked in Epstein and Lewis.

He also talks (p.94) about 'certain elements of Cubism, what I might call analytical cubism - the theories about interpenetration which you get in Metzinger for example.' I know as much as anyone about Mezinger's views on art but I can't be sure what Hulme is talking about here. Possibly the view expressed in Cubism that elements widely scattered in space and time can be brought together in a single work, which is obviously not likely or desirable in a 'new complex geometrical art' of the sort envisaged by Hulme. But Metzinger also argued for the possibility of opening out the object represented - even a human face - so that it could be seen from different angles simultaneously. This is almost certainly what Hulme means by the term 'analytical Cubism'. It doesn't appear - or only appears in passing - in Cubism but it was much talked about and it is the result of a process of intellectual analysis that rather resembles the 'extensive manifold' as Hulme describes it in Bergson ('The Philosophy of Intensive Manifolds' in Speculations, p.177): 'Explanation means ex plane, that is to say, the opening out of things on a plane surface. There is the phrase, the chestnut explains its leaves, i.e. unfolds them. The process of explanation is always a process of unfolding. A tangled mass is unfolded flat so that you can see all its parts separated out, and any tangle which can be separated out in this way must be of course an extensive manifold.'

But the main point I want to make here is that the tension between straight line and curve is a major theme in Cubism which is far from wanting to 'submit the round to the domination of the square':

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

'It would be the same for a painting in which curves and straight lines balanced each other exactly, since an absolute equivalence amounts to a zero.

'The diversity of the relations between the lines must be indefinite; that is the condition on which it is able to embody quality, which is the sum, not susceptible to measurement, [la somme incommensurable] of the affinities that have been perceived between what we discern and what is pre-existent in us; that is the condition which the painting must fulfil if it is to be capable of moving us.' (my translation - PB)

When Jameson evokes 'Cubism' he is obviously thinking of the studio-based art of Picasso and Braque, with its very modest subject matter, but Gleizes and Metzinger's book argues for an art in which 'the plastic continuum must be broken up into a thousand surprises of fire and of shadow'. Thus, apart from the fact that the still figurative images in the Timon of Athens series are very chaotic, they are close in intention to the 'epic Cubism' - paintings on a large scale combining many heterogeneous elements - of Gleizes and perhaps more so Henri Le Fauconnier, with his Hunter and Mountaineers chased by Bears. I am not suggesting that Lewis was following the Cubists any more than that he was following Hulme but as his work of 1914 is consonant with the arguments of Hulme so it happens that his work of 1913 is consonant with the arguments of Gleizes and Metzinger.

We may indeed trace Lewis's evolution in terms of this emphasis on straight line and curve as elements with a power in their own right, independent of the subject represented. In 1912 he is painting caricatures in which the influence of Daumier is obvious though the stylisation is more extreme. There is no particular emphasis on straight line or curve. In 1913 (Timon of Athens) the emphasis is still on grotesque caricature but the straight line and curve are emerging as elements in their own right. By the end of 1913 the representational-grotesque element is beginning to disappear. In 1914-15 the curve disappears. This is the phase that corresponds most closely to Hulme's arguments, though Hulme, in his articles in The New Age mostly talks about Epstein and David Bomberg.

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