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 Albert Gleizes: Le Chemin au Meudon
, 1911
Oil on canvas, 147 x 115 cm

The collaboration between Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger began as a consequence of the Salon d'Automne of 1910.  The Salon d'Automne and the older Salon des Indépendants were the two great annual showcases for the most radical tendencies in French painting.  In 1910 both were still dominated by the bright, exaggerated colours of the Nabis, Neo-Impressionists and Fauves.  The fledgling Cubists were recognised by their much more sombre colours and by an emphasis on structure, volume, form - characteristics of painting that had been underemphasised since the emergence of the Impressionists.  It was this that gave their work its 'cubic' appearance.  A review of the 1910 Salon d'Automne in La Presse talked of 'the geometrical follies of Messrs Metzinger, Le Fauconnier and Gleizes'. (1) 

The two painters came from very different backgrounds.  Metzinger was a habitué of Montmartre.  He knew Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire and Juan Gris.  He also knew Maurice Princet, who had been the first to see a connection between the new painting and recent developments in mathematics, a theme that was to interest Metzinger all his life. (2) With Jacob, Apollinaire, Gris and Princet, Metzinger had been among the earliest admirers of the Cubist work of Picasso and Braque.

1  Quoted by Gleizes in The Epic.

2  He gives an account of his life in Montmartre in Cubism was Born.  

Gleizes too was well connected, but in a different, more literary, sphere.  He had first come to public attention in 1906 as a member of the 'Abbaye de Créteil' - a group of young artists (mainly writers) who wanted to develop their art free from commercial pressures by living in a community and supporting themselves with a craft, in this case, high quality printing.  It was an idea Gleizes never abandoned and which he was to try again in the 1920s at 'Moly Sabata', a house in Sablons in the Rhône Valley and, later again, at 'Les Méjades', near St Rémy de Provence.  The core members of the Abbaye were Gleizes; the writers René Arcos, Charles Vildrac, Alexandre Mercereau, Henri Martin Barzun and (the best known) Georges Duhamel, together with the musician Albert Doyen and the printer, Lucien Linard.  These were to be developed into a loose but wide network of contacts which, in the early 1920s, was denounced as a demoralising force in French society, preparing the way for pacifism and for Bolshevism.  Gleizes and his comrades were to deny that in 1906 they had had a common ideology but there is an 'atmosphere' about them and about their subsequent contacts - a serious concern for the wellbeing of society which is very different from the carefree individualism of Montmartre. (3)

3  'Jean Maxe' (pseudonym):  The "Abbey" and Bolshevism.  There is an account of the Abbaye drawing heavily on correspondence with Gleizes in Christian Sénéchal: L'Abbaye de Créteil, Paris (André Delpeuch) 1930.  Also in Gleizes' still unpublished Art in the General Evolution (1916-17) and Memoirs (c1941-2).

Cubism was to profit from the Abbaye de Créteil network, especially through Alexandre Mercereau, who introduced Gleizes to Metzinger, and who promoted the work of the painters in Eastern Europe and in Russia.  Mercereau, as assistant to the publisher, Eugène Figuière, was also behind the publication of On "Cubism" in 1912 and of Apollinaire's Aesthetic Meditations:  The Cubist Painters in 1913. 

By 1906, Metzinger, together with his friend Robert Delaunay, had arrived at a radical Neo-Impressionist style in which the characteristic dots of bright colour had become so large that one critic even called them 'cubes'. (4) Gleizes at this time was still painting in a conservative Impressionist style mainly remarkable for its subdued colour.  He was one of the few Cubists who had not been influenced by - indeed he seemed almost unaware of - Fauvism or Neo-Impressionism.  In the two years prior to 1910 he concentrated on a series of almost monochrome landscapes, with a preference for the semi-industrial landscape of his own home at Courbevoie, in the suburbs of Paris.  Some time before the meeting with Metzinger, he had already - again through Mercereau - met Henri Le Fauconnier, whose austere, simplified style had impressed him deeply. (5)  Le Fauconnier was also to impress Metzinger whose A Note on Painting, published at the time of the 1910 Salon d'Automne, cites Picasso, Braque, Delaunay and Le Fauconnier as painters who were realising a 'total emancipation' ('affranchissement fondementale') of painting: 

'Le Fauconnier situates his idea, which is particularly inaccessible to those who cannot stop talking about order and style, in a vast equilibrium of numbers. Making use of the riches of both the intelligence and the senses without preferring one to the other, he is able to put up with 'a certain coefficient of naturalism' - just what is needed to satisfy the requirements of a normal sensibility without throwing the mind into darkness. He does not allow charm to stumble into the space that is reserved for force, that one of the terms of the generous formulation he has adopted should draw attention to itself at the expense of the others. There is a precise link binding the constituent parts of the painting together into blocks that cannot in any way be altered. Le Fauconnier reaches the highest level of evocative power - grandeur is the mode of beauty he has chosen.' 

4  Louis Chassevent: The Independent Artists, 1906, quoted in Daniel Robbins, preface to the catalogue Albert Gleizes, Paris (MNAM) 1964-5, p.20.

5  Gleizes: Memoirs - Cubism, 1908-14. Gladys Fabre (Albert Gleizes et l'Abbaye de Créteil, pp.138-9) has established that Gleizes and Le Fauconnier knew each other as early as 1908. She argues, uncontroversially, that Le Fauconnier's influence is evident in Gleizes' landscapes done in Bagnères-de-Bigorre in Summer 1909. She manages to convey the impression that Gleizes is guilty of concealing the debt he owes to Le Fauconnier but this is perfectly consistent with the account he gives in the Memoirs.

This quotation evokes what was soon to become one of the most characteristic marks of the 'Salon Cubists' - the group who, unlike Picasso and Braque, exhibited in the public salons.  They worked on a large scale, and they had an interest in large 'epic' subjects.  Daniel Robbins has coined the term 'Epic Cubism' to distinguish their work from the more intimate painting of Picasso and Braque.  In an essay published in 1929 under the title The Epic, Gleizes said, evoking his own development into non-representational painting: 

'At the same time, we changed the generally accepted dimensions of the picture.  The painting on its easel seemed to us to be too small given the dangers implicit in what we had undertaken.  We needed a certain fullness in the surface space if painting was to become itself.  This fullness undoubtedly imposed changes on our technique.  The visible brushstroke, which had had its place in the small picture, became problematical in the expanse of a great canvas.  We all struggled against the fluttering effect which it imposed on the painting.  Delaunay even used size and wax, difficult techniques, incompatible with the small, delicate Cézannean brushstroke.  Little by little, the notion of form was restored to the plane surface of the painting.  Once again it became plastic, it learned how to emerge independent of the description, in an illusory space, of something other than itself.  And so the technical means too had to correspond to the nature of the plane surface, free from all those complications into which they had been led by the cult of easel painting [le tableau] - free, finally, to express a plastic reality that would be mobile, in response to the needs of the spirit - a reality of which any spectator, of whatever social background or no matter what intellectual capacity, could become conscious through the intermediary of his eyes ...' 

1911 was the year in which Cubism became known to the general public through the Salon des Indépendants, held that  Spring.  The Indépendants was an open exhibition without a jury, but much depended on how and where paintings were hung.  The Cubists and their sympathisers plotted to get control of the hanging committee out of the hands of the Neo-Impressionists, led by Signac. (6) The result was that they were able to appear together, in one room, as a coherent school, showing paintings that were still, in principle, conventionally representational but which made a startling, sobering contrast to the bright colours all about them (as the first Impressionist paintings had appeared in startling contrast to the huge, sombrely coloured 'machines' of the mid-nineteenth century).  The painters had hoped to make an impact, but they were not prepared for the scandal that followed: 

'Never had a crowd been seen thrown into such a turmoil by works of the spirit, and especially over esemplastic works, paintings, whose nature it is to be silent.  Never had the critics been so violent as they were at that time.  From which it became clear that these paintings - and I specify the names of the painters who were, alone, the reluctant causes of all this frenzy:  Jean Metzinger, Le Fauconnier, Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay and myself - appeared as a threat to an order that everyone thought had been established forever ... 

'With the Salon d'Automne of that same year, 1911, the fury broke out again, just as violent as it had been at the Indépendants.  I remember this Room 8 in the Grand Palais on the opening day.  People were crushed together, shouting, laughing, calling for our heads ... 

'The winter season in Paris profited from all this to add a little spice to its pleasures.  While the newspapers sounded the alarm to alert people to the danger, and while appeals were made to the public authorities to do something about it, song writers, satirists and other men of wit and spirit provoked great pleasure among the leisured classes by playing with the word 'cube', discovering that it was a very suitable vehicle for inducing laughter which, as we all know, is the principle characteristic that distinguishes man from the animals ...' (7)

6  Account in Gleizes: Memoirs - Cubism.

The Epic, pp.11-12. 

It was in the Summer of 1911, in between the two Salons, that Gleizes drew particularly close to Metzinger.  Metzinger was living in Meudon and Gleizes in his father's house in Courbevoie, both still pleasant, largely rural suburbs of Paris.  The walk between them is recorded in Gleizes' lovely Landscape, Meudon. (8)  It was in those conversations that Metzinger won Gleizes round to the idea of 'multiple perspective'.  To show the subject of a painting from only one angle was, Metzinger argued, a mere convention that gave only a very limited idea of the subject in its real, living movement.  The artist had the right to make a new, composite, 'total image', (9) choosing the aspects he wanted without regard to the laws by which a photographic likeness could be achieved.

8   Cottington: Cubism in the Shadow of War, p.114, makes much of the fact that Gleizes shows this area that was undergoing rapid urbanisation as very rural. Many of Gleizes' earlier drawings of the area round Courbevoie, however, show a clearly semi-industrial landscape while Cottington himself notes the factory chimneys behind Women Bathing, painted the following year.

9   A Note on Painting.

However, if Metzinger proceeds with multiple perspective boldly through 1912, especially applying it to portraiture, Gleizes proceeds gingerly. He uses it to great effect in his landscapes but one feels Metzinger might have Gleizes in mind when, in his Cubist Technique of 1913, he says: 

'Thanks to a peculiar prejudice, there are some people who are quite happy to connive at such a visual incongruence so far as inanimate objects are concerned but appear to be revolted when it is used for the human face. They loudly evoke the principles of anatomy. In my view, a painter who takes the anatomical appearance seriously is as foolish as a surgeon would be who performed his autopsies following the rules of art. The painter's only concern is with the coherence of ideas. That such a coherence is sufficient in itself is confirmed by the fact that we can reverse the sequence of all the anatomical features in a portrait without in any way disturbing the likeness.' 

About the end of 1911 Gleizes and Metzinger and several others (10) began to meet in  Puteaux, a suburb of Paris where the painter and engraver Jacques Villon and his brother, the sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon had their studios. It is probably in this context that, perhaps around the middle of 1912 (11) the main lines of On "Cubism" were decided. It was also these painters who planned the launch of a new salon - the Salon de la Section d'Or - which would bring together all the most radical currents in painting at the time. The Section d'Or salon was held at the same time as the 1912 Salon d'Automne and the publication of On "Cubism".

10   The Puteaux Group does not seem to have included Delaunay or Le Fauconnier.

11   See my introductory note to On "Cubism".

 All this was calculated to make a great impact, not just in Paris but abroad. It occurred quite independently of what has since come to be regarded as the mainstream history of Cubism - the story of the extraordinary relationship between Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, both associated with the discreet gallery of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler in the rue Vignon in Paris.