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Albert Gleizes is best known among art historians as the author - together with his fellow painter Jean Metzinger - of Du "Cubisme", published in 1912 and widely seen at the time as an authoritative 'manifesto' of Cubism. [1] In fact, though, there is little in the book that refers to practices that could be described as specifically 'Cubist'. It is more a general argument for the right of painters to free themselves from having to copy the external appearance of things in nature; and it evokes non-European - in particular Chinese - art to argue that painting need not be bound by the laws of single point perspective.

[1]  There is an English translation of Du "Cubisme" in Antliff and Leighten 2008.

In 1923/4, however, Gleizes published La Peinture et ses lois which did outline a specific method of painting derived from practices developed by the Cubists, most especially the work of Metzinger and Juan Gris done in Paris during the war (Gleizes himself, after a short spell in the army, spent most of the war in the United States).[2]  Gleizes argued that the Cubism of 1912 had been intuitive - the painters had sensed possibilities that could not be realised under the conventional perspective mechanism. By 1924, however, it was possible to have a much clearer idea.

[2]  There is an English translation of La Peinture et ses lois in Brooke (ed) 2001.

'Painting and its laws' argues that through the researches of the Cubists a principle of mobility or 'rhythm' had been introduced into painting. Instead of being drawn into the depth of an illusionary third dimension, the eye was invited to circle from one thing to another round the surface of the painting. Gleizes called the new method 'translation' and 'rotation'. Translation was the organisation of space and as such remained essentially static, a matter of relative proportions. With 'rotation' however the eye was launched into movement and therefore into time. The whole at this stage was worked on the basis of plane surfaces standing in an intelligible relation to the overall proportions of the painting. Ultimately, in his later work, the 'translation' would still be understood as planar but the 'rotation' would be understood as linear.

The description of this method, though, only takes up a small part of 'Painting and its laws' - almost an appendix. Most of the book consists of an historical argument: that this approach to painting is not a novelty, not 'modern'. It is in fact a principle that can be seen in other times and other places. In the art of western Europe it is particularly characteristic of Romanesque art. Romanesque art was not - as was widely thought at the time - a 'primitive' art, the art of people who had lost the ability to represent realistically the external appearances of things, or the art of a people groping their way towards the precise scientific knowledge that was to be developed in the Renaissance. It was an art which had its own principle which was to do, not with the imitation of external appearances, but with rhythmic movement. If the faces and the folds of the garments in a Romanesque sculpture appear unrealistic it is because both are subject to a common logic which is dictated by the needs of a purely pictorial rhythm. And entering into that rhythm becomes, for the spectator as well as for the artist, an act of contemplation.

Gleizes went on to argue that the transition from the Romanesque to the Renaissance represented a change in the 'state of mind' or of spirit (état d'esprit) of the whole society which could be traced in all other areas of human intellectual and cultural endeavour, from an essentially religious mind frame which he identified as 'rhythmic' to one that was essentially materialist, or, in Gleizes's terminology, 'spatial', obsessed with observation of the material world and not with the internal life of the spirit. This is where his thinking joined up with that of Ananda Coomaraswamy.

In his essay Spiritualité rythme forme, published in 1945, Gleizes says that Coomaraswamy had contacted him after reading his book La Forme et l'histoire, published in 1932. The earliest correspondence I have seen between Gleizes and Coomaraswamy is a letter of Coomaraswamy's dated June 1936 but it refers to earlier correspondence. Gleizes mentions Coomaraswamy in his Homocentrisme, published in 1937. Gleizes took the view that spiritually useful knowledge could only be acquired through the practise of a manual craft and generally in his published writings he regarded pure intellectuals with contempt. But in Homocentrisme he makes exceptions of René Guénon and Coomaraswamy. [3]

[3]  Gleizes 1957, p.p.317-8 (my translation of Spiritualité rythme forme can be consulted here) and Gleizes 1937, p.12.

The linking of Coomaraswamy's name with Guénon is hardly accidental.  We know that Gleizes and Guénon met in Paris prior to Guénon's departure for Cairo in 1930 but it seems to be only in the 1930s that, largely encouraged by his pupil Robert Pouyaud, Gleizes began to read Guénon seriously. [4] There is a letter from Guénon to Gleizes dated November 1931 thanking him for sending him a copy of Vie et mort de l'occident chrétien which Gleizes had published in book form in 1930. Roger Lipsey quotes Coomaraswamy in the preface to his own translation of a chapter of Guénon's Crise du monde moderne saying 'The translator holds that no living writer in modern Europe is more significant than René Guénon whose task has been to expound the universal metaphysical tradition that has been the essential foundation of every past culture ...' [5]

[4] Alibert 1990, pp. 207-8 and Brooke 2001, p.199. See also note [22]
[5]  Lipsey 1977, vol iii, p.169.

That was in 1935 and according to Lipsey is the first reference to Guénon in Coomaraswamy's writings but he thinks Coomaraswamy must have started reading Guénon around 1930 and that his influence is very great from 1932 onwards. We might summarise the effect crudely by saying it represents a transition from art historian passionately interested in religion to theologian, or metaphysician, passionately interested in art. From 1936 onwards, when the journal Le Voile d'Isis changed its name under Guénon's influence to the more objective and scholarly Études traditionnelles, Coomaraswamy becomes, after Guénon himself, the principle contributor.