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Albert Gleizes

Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger: Du "Cubisme", Compagnie Française des Arts Graphiques, 1947

Metzinger wrote to Gleizes in June 1945 to propose a new edition of Du "Cubisme". The two painters had had little contact since Gleizes' return to Paris from New York in 1919. Metzinger had received Gleizes in quite a hostile manner, though Gleizes in his various writings on Cubism, continued to speak highly of him. Most if not all of the work for the publication was done by Metzinger in Paris. Gleizes had retired to a large agricultural domain near St Rémy de Provence and was always reluctant to leave it. According to letters from Metzinger in 1947 and 1950, the book was not a commercial success. 

It was thirty three years ago that we - Metzinger and myself - wrote the pages that are being republished today. A third of a century! How much has happened in all fields of human activity, or inactivity, since 1912. What does the future hold? A modification of the present state of affairs, or a true revolution of the kind that can only take place if we bow the head and burn what we have venerated to venerate what we have burned. The eye must be sharpened if we wish to see through the veils of the future. The meaning of certain surprising manifestations of our recent past will become clear, will be justified, become meaningful [expressif], going beyond individual attitudes, the incarnations of personalities which hold the attention for a moment. It is always easy to talk about mere incidents. It is more difficult to uncover the living, underlying idea that brought them into being and of which they were nothing more than the more or less perfect resonance. Especially when this idea is contrary to our habits, and goes against the preconceived assumptions of our intellectual upbringing. To perceive the idea and why it is legitimate requires qualities of spirit that are rare among those who, though they wish to render to each according to his works, must still admit that it is the idea that is important; it is the idea that is passed on through anything that is human and that, providing a sense of direction, will, in the course of time, give rise to a real harvest of achievements [productions]. The service of an idea requires a form of courage that is, perhaps, the finest of them all, that of intellectual courage. To be able to accept becoming, for a moment, poor; renouncing a wealth that has suddenly been shown to be powerless, despite a brilliance that continues to fool the general opinion. To be capable of recognising one's errors and poor workmanship [malfaçons] and to say so aloud, through a passion for the truth.

In 1912, at the beginning of this study which was the first to be written on Cubism, we said that, if we gave it as title 'On Cubism', we were not taken in by the word. Chosen by people other than ourselves, it could not express [justifier] our aspirations which were for the realisation of painting in its totality. We recognised that the future has its rights; that painters had the duty not to be misled by the use of words. Thirty three years of effort on the part of each and everyone, steady and very diverse, have not proved us wrong. Doubtless at that time we could not have imagined exactly how much what we had asked of painting was going to require in the way of a reconstruction of the man who is its support. And that, precisely, is what constitutes the revolutionary character of Cubism which certain people have recently liked to call, without explaining why, 'the most important pictorial revolution since the Renaissance.' Its importance lies precisely in a radical reversal of the position of man which, by corollary, necessarily involves a radical reversal in the position of the painter. The Renaissance was the apotheosis of the SUBJECT, which overturned the primacy of the OBJECT, which had been the essential concern of the ages prior to the thirteenth century.  (1)

(1) It may be noted that in Du "Cubisme" itself, and in other essays in the present volume, Gleizes uses the word 'object' to refer to the thing represented, and Du "Cubisme" argued in defence of what might be called a 'subjective' interpretation of it. The use of the terms 'object' and 'subject' in 1947 reflects a later development in Gleizes' thinking, especially worked out in a letter to André Lhote written during the war. Here the object becomes that to which we aspire through the act of painting which is ultimately of the nature of the divine and therefore absolutely and objectively true; while the subject is an arbitrary and relative means that we might use towards that end and the subjective is a turning towards the arbitrary and relative and consequently away from the objective and divine.

Categorically, Cubism once again raised the question of the rights of the object; it would bring to an extreme level the contempt into which the subject had fallen during the course of the nineteenth century - when 'any old thing' would be painted by the worthwhile painters because they felt, and this was where their genius lay, that the intrinsic values of painting were of greater importance than the accessory values of the subject; which latter values had thrown painting and, consequently, man, into the darkness. Cubism was going to put the painter back to work. And the general circumstances were favourable: in other fields of intellectual endeavour, in philosophy and science, important changes were taking place; in the field of social problems too troubles indicative of things to come had appeared. Renaissance man, the slave of appearances, was losing his grip, entering into himself and searching to rediscover the principle of his reality.


This text, which marks the beginning of an age [qui marque une date], should be read, or re-read, today, with attention. Anyone possessed of a free spirit and insensible to those pressures that have an interest in distorting the facts, will understand of what in its beginnings the underlying reality of Cubism was made, and what it was that brought together certain painters whose works already had their own clearly marked individual character. Later on, their personal inclinations, becoming more pronounced, would, not so much put them in opposition to each other as distinguish them yet more. But, most importantly, these tendencies would give an intensity to the vows they had pronounced in common and which would be enough to ensure that those who saw their works and were struck by their general characteristics would run them all together under a common epithet.

We wrote this essay for a variety of reasons. First to clarify for ourselves what it was that we wanted to do, persuaded as we were that painting was something more than a result of reflexes [réactions] of an inferior nature, spontaneous and inconsequential [sans lendemain], but that it came from a thought that had occurred beforehand, from reflexions and combinations that were intelligent, expressed in a craft that was a language rendered more malleable through feeling and sensibility. Then, to reply to the questions which were being thrown at us and to put a stop, at least for the moment, to ambiguities and misunderstandings. Finally, to assume our responsibilities and not to hide behind literary go-betweens who, however well-intentioned they may have been, brought nothing to the discussion other than subjective opinions.

In doing this, were we going beyond our prerogatives as painters, trespassing outside the boundaries of our traditional rights? That was insinuated right from the start and certain interests which had nothing about them that is idealistic, made a point of asserting it noisily. Even today there is a tendency among commentators born at the moment when our works were shaking up the sanctified habits of the age, to blame us in this matter. They say that painting and what they call, derogatively, theory are incompatible. From where does such an opinion take its origins?

Perhaps from the condition of man as he is at the present time, suffocating in the dust of all the different specialisations which they never question and which even appears to them to be a good thing. We can be quite sure it is not in what could be learned from the past if only they would look at it seriously. There they would find, going back to the earliest times, a host of writings by painters and by craftsmen written to be used by their peers, and declarations by highly cultivated men, praising and approving of these clarifications which possess a character of authority based not on opinions but on experience.

It is true that in those days there was no question of 'aesthetics'. Or, when 'aesthetics' appeared, it was only a modest aspiration that did not go beyond the limits of little groupings of intellectuals. Painting still belonged to painters and, from the time of Boethius (fifth century), who said that 'theory is greater than practise', it was the age of the corporate workshops where the master was the one who brought theory and practise together, the companion excelled in practise, and the apprentice aspired to knowledge of both practise and theory. Right up to the foundation of the Academy of Painting (seventeenth century), whose statutes required the painters to meet periodically to discuss their art, the painted work could not be reduced to the satisfaction of a superficial hedonism, nor to serving only the artist's unbridled fantasies. Those are facts that cannot be questioned and that are proved abundantly by works that may be larger or more modest in their ambitions but which are always passionately interesting. Painting, then, required a solid base of knowledge. Have we gained anything through replacing that with conventions, with formulae, with subjective outpourings? Its not for me to say. Our study was a matter of the painter affirming his position with regard to painting. Looking at it again today we feel no need to change anything in it. It expresses perfectly well certain principles of a general nature which, in time, have only become clearer and more authoritative.

In no way was it a clever, self-serving piece of publicity [un rusé plaidoyer pro domo] for ourselves. We were serving only one interest - that of our art. The poets of our generation, who approved this attitude and loved our paintings, had the same spirit as we did. They supported our effort and, whether in articles or in books, they have left a witness to which the young commentators of the present time ought to pay the most respectful attention. Above all when it is a matter of Guillaume Apollinaire, the purest poet of our generation, author not just of the Aesthetic Meditations on the new painters, but also of many articles on the first Cubist exhibitions, in L'Intransigeant, and the young literary and artistic reviews of the time. Together with him, André Salmon should be consulted and listened to. His articles in Paris-Journal, in Montjoie!, and his works on painting and on the Living Art would illumine and clarify many of the points that are lacking. Also Maurice Raynal, who put his talent as an essayist to the service of our aspirations and achievements. And others too, such as Roger Allard, as he was at the time, who was the first to write, in 1910, an article on Le Fauconnier, Metzinger and myself, in L'Art Libre in Lyon which was run by the young Joseph Billiet. 

I give these few names, but there are others which the papers and reviews of that heroic age could easily yield if only the historian, wanting really to serve truth in teaching himself, would devote himself to searching in the Bibliothèque Nationale. His efforts would be rewarded by interesting discoveries which would correct very many errors, and to get certain things clear. Painters and poets were led by a passion for art, for ideas, for truth. The atmosphere of the artistic circles of those days was not sullied by any mercantile after-thoughts. That is a guarantee I can give the researcher of today. Our youthful spirits were far too full of enthusiasm to tolerate any compromise. With our visors up we fought everything we thought was an error. I have the impression that the youth of our own time is less scrupulous. We accepted poverty as the price we expected to pay for freedom of spirit and. always, our works were elaborated without thought of reward.

How many writings have been propagated since, on Cubism in general and on the painters in particular! But the crystal resonance of those that were produced before 1914 has been lost. What confusion has been introduced into the initial idea by powerful interlopers with concerns that were other than those of the art!  And by the tardy adherents who appeared the moment the anathema pronounced on the very first painters seemed to have been lifted. Also by the indifference some of the artists of that time felt towards those pleasures of self-esteem that can be had through a well managed career. (2)

(2) l'indifférence de certains artistes d'alors envers les séductions d'amour-propre que propose une carrière bien conduite. I am unable to decide whether this should be interpreted as praise for artists who refuse careerism (and therefore did not bother to defend their reputations against the distortions of the art world - a reproach Metzinger makes against Gleizes in the correspondence over the republication of Du "Cubisme"); or alternatively a criticism of some of his contemporaries for having succumbed to careerist motives - a charge he makes elsewhere notably with respect to Léger. The problem turns on whether 'carrière bien conduite' can be translated 'well-managed career' ie careerism, or 'career that has been conducted with integrity'.


An important retrospective exhibition of Cubism from 1911 has just been held (Galerie de France, Paris). It was made up of a collection of very talented painters but many of them, truth to tell, were never part of the group which had provoked the first battles, those who could most genuinely serve as examples of Cubism. That the most notable representatives of a generation should finish up by being grouped under a family name of distinction is not at all surprising. But it should be recognised nonetheless that at first this name belonged only to certain individuals and that it corresponded to a very distinct attitude of mind. In 1911, the name 'Cubist' was applied to only a limited number of painters. Among those who claim it nowadays there were some who devoted themselves over a long period of time to showing that they had nothing to do with them. Which, moreover, was true. And no-one who knows anything about it could think otherwise. Apart from the sources I have already indicated, I would refer the interested reader to an article by Jean Metzinger, published in the literary review Pan after the Salon des Indépendants of 1910, (3) and to an article of my own in the review Les Bandeaux d'Or about the Salon d'Automne of 1911, which establish clearly where everyone stood. These documents of the time dispose of all ambiguity and show precisely the respective positions of the Cubists and of those who were closest to them.

(3) sic! In fact it was published after the Salon d'Automne of 1910.

On the other hand, the order of the illustrations in the original version of the work we are republishing here, will inform the reader as to the chronological order in which we were committed to the ideas on which Cubism was based.  (4) Certain legends have been given credence since that time which have a tendency to change this order which no-one would have thought of questioning in 1912. Such a one, who came late to Cubism, now tries to pass himself off as a precursor. All very childish perhaps but I still think we should try to get things right. Its a matter of throwing some light on a historical event.

(4) It is worth noting that in this order Picasso and Braque appear in advance of the Salon Cubists.

With regard to these illustrations, I ought to add some further explanations. Cézanne and Derain are there by way of reference to an immediate past which we claimed as our own. The presence of Marie Laurencin may appear surprising but it can be explained very simply. Marie shared in our struggles and her art was closer to our own than that of those painters nearest to us who were still dominated by their imagery. Three regrettable absences - those of Herbin, Le Fauconnier and Robert Delaunay, which were not our fault - have been made use of since by certain painters who, drawing attention to them, have used them to claim that they too had a right to appear in the illustrations of our book. They even dare to suggest that these painters were victims of an injustice on our part. (5) Nothing could be further from the truth. The accuracy of what I am saying can be established by consulting the texts I have already mentioned. Herbin, Le Fauconnier and Delaunay were absent for the following reasons: Herbin led a very retired life and we had no contact with him, we did not know him. As for Le Fauconnier and Delaunay, certain disagreements which had nothing to do with painting (6) had separated them briefly from us. In a moment of ill feeling they refused us the privilege of reproducing their work. What could we do? Today we give them the place which they could have had in 1912. Apart, then, from the painters who are illustrated in the present book, no-one else can claim any right to the original title of 'Cubist'. The name serves today to cover a number of very different personalities whose orientations are for the most part opposed to each other, which does nothing to simplify the job of those who want to study the meaning of a movement in painting that was provoked by a collection of precise ideas, broadly those that are summarised in our text.

(5) Gleizes may be thinking in the first instance of André Lhote. Lhote made charges of this sort in the course of a sometimes heated correspondence with Gleizes during the war.

(6) See the sections on Le Fauconnier and Delaunay in the Introduction.


Precise ideas whose final consequences can now be seen clearly: a painting that is independent of the classical subject. That enables us immediately to understand the position we were trying to adopt, a position that would be determined by the formal laws of the object and opposed to all a priori deformation of the subject. Deformation of this kind does indeed appear in the work of certain Cubists with a vigorous intensity, but it is no less the case that it has been determined by the laws of the object. A perfect knowledge of the science of painting gives the painter the means to realise the unity of object and subject, even when the subject has been imposed. It is up to the commentators who, these days, take on the job of explaining Cubism in its beginnings and its consequences, to recognise before all else the pivotal about-turn that it accomplished: that is where all its importance lies. And it is precisely because of this that it is, indeed, the most important revolution that has been achieved in painting since the Renaissance. Because it was not just the painter that it challenged [mettait en cause] but the whole nature of man [l'homme intégrale]. If the commentator does not begin by once again becoming conscious of himself, if he does not bring the revolution into his own field of activity, it will be impossible for him to understand events whose meaning he cannot know, which are wholly opposed to the generally recognised intellectual conformism. He will mistake Piraeus for a man (7) and understand Cubism as a collection of avatars of the age who were using their talent to embellish the worst excesses of their subjectivity.

(7) From Aesop's fable: 'The Monkey and the Dolphin' :A sailor, bound on a long voyage, took with him a Monkey to amuse him while on shipboard.  As he sailed off the coast of Greece, a violent tempest arose in which the ship was wrecked and he, his Monkey, and all the crew were obliged to swim for their lives.  A Dolphin saw the Monkey contending with the waves, and supposing him to be a man (whom he is always said to befriend), came and placed himself under him, to convey him on his back in safety to the shore.  When the Dolphin arrived with his burden in sight of land not far from Athens, he asked the Monkey if he were an Athenian.  The latter replied that he was, and that he was descended from one of the most noble families in that city.  The Dolphin then inquired if he knew the Piraeus (the famous harbour of Athens).  Supposing that a man was meant, the Monkey answered that he knew him very well and that he was an intimate friend.  The Dolphin, indignant at these falsehoods, dipped the Monkey under the water and drowned him. [Obtained off the internet at] 

Young artists today are wanting to realise what we declared thirty three years ago to be a legitimate aspiration - a painting that would express nakedly the reasons for its existence. It is very important [il serait urgent] that they should be informed precisely about their rightful demands so that they should know that it is in Cubism and the developments that flowed logically from it that they can find the principles and means that they lack. It isn't in torturing an academic drawing, nor in using exclusively geometric 'figures', still less in giving themselves up to the impulses [impulsions] of fantasy, that they will manage to give substance to their desires. Only in recognising the authority of laws which have their causes in the nature of man in action [la nature agissante de l'homme]. And in submitting to them - just as the painters of the Renaissance submitted to the laws which govern the world around them of appearances, such as they are, determined by the manner in which our senses are adapted to receive them. 

Circumstances, always stronger than the intentions of men, have recently provoked a very lively interest in the Christian and French mural paintings of the twelfth century. Much has been said about the frescoes of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, and young painters have been recommended to study them. But if the letter has attracted their attention, the spirit has escaped it entirely. They should be taught that the rule that was followed in those days went as follows: ars imitatur naturam in sua operatione, art imitates nature in its mode of operation. (8)

(8) From Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae, I q.117.a.1, a passage Gleizes quotes frequently.  

Nothing new under the Sun. The positions alternate in time, that is all. And the appearances of works differ from each other without in any way altering the principle. Cubism felt that this return was on its way, it announced it and eventually, after successful experiments, it found once again the traditional craft elements of a pictorial expression whose justification [raisons] lies first and foremost in itself. Abstract painting, non-figurative painting, non-objective painting, these are all errors based on intentions which are themselves excellent but which cannot become real without knowledge of the corresponding organic laws. At the time when we wrote this essay, Jean Metzinger spoke of the 'total image'. In saying that, he had the premonition of a form which would be the integral summation of the figures which the eye can apprehend at a distance when it analyses an object. This form is the object itself, identified with the person who realises it. For the painter, this total image, the object, is the painting of which he is himself the cause. And this object can be figurative or not so long as it arrives at the unity that characterises every organism that has ever developed out of a single seed.

Cubism has enlarged the fragmentary idea of man that had been adopted since the time of the Renaissance, and restored it to its traditional fullness. Without denying the rights of whatever can be apprehended by the senses, or those of feeling, it raised the painted work up to the level of intelligence. Painting, I have often repeated it, is a marvellous instrument of knowledge. Understood as an activity and not as a material whose aesthetic is good just to express the ways in which we are liable to be irritated by the things or spectacles that surround us [nos irritabilités devant les choses ou des spectacles]. (9)

(9) There may be an echo here of the 'psycho-physicist', Charles Henry, whom Gleizes knew and admired. Henry begins his essay Sensation et Energie with the view expressed by his own teacher, Claude Bernard, that the whole of life could be interpreted as an 'irritation' of the nerves, and he argues that this could be measured through the mathematical relation between the excitant that provokes the irritability, the duration of the excitation, and the outlay of energy on the excited nerve.

A study of the pages that follow ought to provoke a reflection on this Cubism that is still so poorly understood, whose historical importance is no longer doubted but which has been distorted by too many examples of opportunism, over-simplified interpretations, and the confusions that are inherent in the prejudices of our time.

Albert Gleizes
"Les Méjades"
July 1945