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(a)  'Plastic' and 'esemplastic'

A key word in the texts that follow is the word 'plastic'. The essential argument is for a painting that will use to the full the plastic qualities that are proper to painting itself. It is not an argument for 'abstract' art, though the idea of a non-representational painting is present in it. But insofar as the object in the natural world - landscape, figure or whatever - is being studied and converted into a picture, the painter is studying first and foremost those characteristics that are suitable for the conversion. The object is subordinate to the painting, not vice versa. (12)

12   Gleizes, changing his understanding of the words 'subject' and 'object', would later say 'the subject is subordinate to the object'. 

To say this may seem to be labouring the obvious. It is something that these days we all take for granted. But it needs to be reasserted because, I believe, we have taken it so much for granted that we have lost sight of it, both in the literature on the history of Cubism and, which is much more important, in present-day artistic practise. There has never been any lack of picturesque deformations of objects represented in painting but this is precisely one of the tendencies Gleizes and Metzinger are protesting against. The interest there lies in the deformation of an original appearance. It is still 'nature seen through a temperament' - the painting is still subordinate to the object. On the other hand, most of the art which is regarded as 'avant garde' at the time of writing (2004, when, really, the notion of an 'avant garde' should have become obsolete) is in one way or another 'conceptual' and has none of the plastic qualities discussed by Gleizes and Metzinger whatsoever. 

The problem may be illustrated by the difficulty I have had as a translator trying to find English equivalents for the word 'plastic'. The key concept of Cubism requires a word which has been debased. It has come to refer to a material that can be adapted to any use but which is of itself banal and unpleasant to the touch. The term 'plastic arts' is also rather meaningless, an old fashioned alternative to the term 'visual arts'. I have long been strongly tempted to translate plastique with Coleridge's word 'esemplastic', referring to the act of forming diverse phenomena into a unity. (13)  This it seems to me is precisely what Gleizes and Metzinger have in mind. The word is very precious and it is significant that it has not entered into the general discourse. It remains a peculiarity of Coleridge and I do not feel free to use it without each time inserting a footnote to warn the reader against thinking that the Cubists were aware of him. There is a relationship of thought - both saw the same truth - but no direct influence. 

13   Coleridge describes the imagination as 'the esemplastic power', Biographia Litteraria, ch. xiii.

At one time I thought that the word 'form' could be used, since 'to form' is the simplest translation of the Greek word, plassein. In his later writings, Gleizes drew a distinction between what he called 'form' and 'figure', and argued that the word 'form' could only be used in the singular. It is the unity to which the painter is working. Where a plural is necessary the word 'figure' should be used. The painter forms the figures into a unity which is the Form. This is indeed the idea that is implicit behind Gleizes' and Metzinger's use of the word 'plastic', but at this time they are still, both of them, talking about 'forms'. Metzinger will continue to use the word 'form' in this sense (essentially what Gleizes would later call a figure) throughout his life as we can see in the little comment on Gestalt theory in Cubism was Born

So I have had to bite the bullet and translate plastique with 'plastic' despite the embarrassment of a phrase such as 'towards a plastic consciousness' - a very important phrase because, appearing as it does in On "Cubism", Gleizes later uses it as a general title for a whole series of writings on painting, including the monumental Form and History. 'Towards an esemplastic consciousness' would have been perfect. 

(b) A note on Neo-Plasticism and Suprematism 

Recognising what we might call 'plasticism' as the central idea of the 'Salon Cubists' may also throw an interesting light on the 'Neo-Plasticism' of Piet Mondrian. The term 'Neo-Plasticism', deliberately adopted by Mondrian (it is the title of an essay by him published in 1920 by the champion of the Cubists, Léonce Rosenberg) necessarily evokes the term 'Neo-Impressionism', deliberately adopted by Paul Signac as the title of his crucially important essay From Eugene Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism published in 1899. Signac was arguing that Neo-Impressionism was a precise scientific understanding of the rather nebulous, intuitive insights of the Impressionists. Similarly, Neo-Plasticism could be seen as a precise scientific understanding of the previous rather nebulous, intuitive insights of 'Plasticism'. And what would 'Plasticism' be, if not Cubism? 

I have argued in my Albert Gleizes - For and Against the Twentieth Century that On "Cubism" was written in dialogue with Signac's book. The section on colour criticises it quite sharply but it also builds on it. The Neo-Impressionists, Nabis and Fauves could all boast that they had liberated colour from its dependence on realistic appearance and thus established it as a source of pleasure in its own right, independent of the subject/object represented in the picture. The Cubists were continuing this line of thought but applying it in the domain of form and arguing that in fact the revolution in colour could not be fulfilled until it was also accomplished in the domain of form. 

An essential part of the Neo-Impressionist argument was based on the observation that colours in proximity modify each other - that the appearance of a blue placed beside a red will be different from that of the same blue placed beside a green. The Cubists made the same observation in relation to form: 

'Form seems to be endowed with properties that are identical to those of colour. It is tempered or it becomes more strident through contact with another form, it breaks up or spreads itself, multiplies itself or disappears. An ellipse can turn into a circumference because it has been inscribed in a polygon. Sometimes a form that is expressed more affirmatively than those about it will dominate the whole painting and everything will be reduced to replicating its image.' 

This is reaffirmed by Gleizes in the succinct account of his working method in the 'Opinion' he gave to the journal Montjoie! at the end of 1913: 

'with regard to the relations between the forms, the influence they exercise on each other by means of the way they are situated within the space of the picture'. (14)

14  Available elsewhere in this section of the website.

And we can see a development of the same idea in Mondrian's Neo-Plasticism: 

'The coloured planes, as much by their position and dimension as by the qualities [valorisation] of the colour express plastically only relations, not forms.' (15)

15   Piet Mondrian: Neo-Plasticism, p.4.

It is this surrender of the individual character of the 'forms' or 'figures', each modifying the other until a new unity which transcends them is achieved, that lies at the heart of the term 'plastic' as it is used by the Cubists. In Mondrian's case, of course, in contrast to the Cubists, the forms - and not just representational forms but anything other than a minimal reassertion of the vertical and horizontal - disappear altogether. Thus Neo-Plasticism is a virtual denial of the idea of plasticity as understood by the Cubists who would ideally want the widest possible variety of forms incorporated into the painting, while admitting that it is very difficult, requiring great skill and 'tact'. 

We may remark straightaway the difference between this concept, in which the individual 'form' surrenders its autonomy, and the concept of the Russian Suprematist, Kasimir Malevich, for whom: 

'The square is a young prince, full of life ... 

'Each form is free and individual. 

'Each form is a world' (16)

16  'From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism. The New Realism in Painting', in Malevich on Suprematism - Six Essays: 1915-1926 , p.40.

In what we might call this 'anti-plastic' idea, the space of the painting becomes a sort of playground in which the individual forms spin about freely like boisterous children. Despite the suggestion that his vertical and horizontal lines could be projected into infinity, Mondrian's work remains firmly moored to the edges of the canvas and in this respect at least he remains closer than Malevich to Cubism. 

Cubism, then, feels free to use all sorts of shapes, juxtaposing them in such a way that through their mutual interactions a new unity is established. The starting point is a conventional representational subject, but this - especially, as we shall see, in Gleizes' case - is no more than a 'pretext'. The end - or rather what is chiefly interesting about the end, the new unity - is purely plastic in nature, meaning that its power is based precisely on the interplay of the forms and colours independent of the subject represented. Which is used as a collection of 'plastic signs' (Metzinger's phrase) from which the artist is free to pick and choose. The famous device of walking round the object to take it from different angles is not so much an attempt to recreate an experience in time as of simply widening the repertoire of plastic signs the artist has at his disposal. 

Malevich expresses it very well in his essay On New Systems in Art - Statics and Speed when he says of Cubism: 'its construction consists of the distribution of the most widely varied forms of painterly differences ... If the artist was unable to find enough essential painterly, textural, graphic, volumetrical, linear and other forms in a given object for his construction, then he is free to take these from elsewhere, and to collect these essential elements until his construction achieves the necessary tension of harmonious and dynamic conditions. In view of these conclusions, Cubism's first assumption concerning full treatment of the object [Metzinger's 'total image'] was annulled by a new logical conclusion: that the revelation of the object in space at various moments in time was simply aimed at constructing on the plane a variety of units into the new assymetric Cubist unity ...' (17) 

17   Quoted in Patricia Railing: From Science to Systems of Art, pp.52-3.

(c)  The representational function 

All that having been said, there is present, especially in Metzinger, the idea that by these means a better likeness can be achieved. Likeness to what? Certainly not to the merely 'retinal' appearance of the object. It is a likeness to the object as it exists in the mind. This is stressed more by Metzinger than by Gleizes but Gleizes at the time seems to go along with it. Both painters share a philosophical idealism, a recognition that it is only as ideas - functions of consciousness - that the elements of the external world can be known. This indeed could be seen as the philosophical assumption underpinning the whole modern movement as it was manifested in the early twentieth century. The object, then, insofar as it is a reality in its own right, is unknowable. It can only be known as a mental event, and that mental event is wider than the immediate appearance before the eye. Cubism aims to express the way in which the object is experienced in the painter's mind. Which is where, Metzinger insists, reality, function of consciousness, is to be found. (18)

18   'Outside science and its instruments, the object, a group of sensations, can only be seized in its entirety by memory or by desire. It is to the representation of the internal reality, the only one that counts from the point of view of art, that Cubism is attached.' - Metzinger's afterword to the 1947 ed of On "Cubism".

Of course this reality differs from one mind to the other and the painter's role, Metzinger insists, is to establish conventions within which the appearances of the external world can be experienced and human exchange facilitated. Although this is a service to humanity, the painter is doing it uniquely for his own delight and can never be content with the convention once established. The very motor force of his activity is a restlessness that obliges him constantly to redefine the way in which the external world is experienced. (19) Gleizes and Metzinger do not use the word but this dilemma by which the greatest achievement only leaves the artist with a sense of its inadequacy, could properly be called 'tragic' and that is the word Mondrian, who saw his art as contributing towards an eventual reconciliation between the artist and society, uses to characterise the relationship between painting and 'naturalism' - the appearances of the external world.

19   The argument is particularly developed in On "Cubism" part V. 

So we have in On "Cubism" two poles - the one an emphasis on the purely plastic qualities of painting, independent of external appearances, the other on the redefinition of the way in which we experience the appearances of the world. The first may be particularly associated with Gleizes, the second with Metzinger. As Metzinger points out in his 'Afterword' to the 1947 edition, the distinction between these two positions will become sharper as the painters develop but for the moment they interpenetrate and this interaction of contradictory positions is full of possibilities. I have suggested that Mondrian's Neo-Plasticism is a development, valid or not, of the 'plastic' side of the argument; I will argue later that Duchamp - and with him a large amount of artistic endeavour at the turn of the twenty-first century - is a development of the 'realist' (in Metzinger's understanding of the term) side of the argument.

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