Back to anthology index
Back to On "Cubism" index


Let us, for the sake of convenience, dissociate what we know to be inseparably joined together, and study this question of an integral plastic consciousness first through form and then through colour.  

To discern a form implies, apart from the visual function and the capacity to move, a certain cultivation of the mind; but to the eyes of most people, the world about them is amorphous. 

To discern a form is to verify it in relation to an idea that is already pre-existent, an act that no-one, except perhaps the man we call an 'artist' can accomplish without help from outside. 

When confronted with some natural spectacle, a child, wanting to organise [ordonner] his sensations and bring them into harmony with a direction in his mind, will refer to his picture book. Once culture has intervened, the man will turn to works of art. 

Once the artist has discerned a form - once it has presented a certain intensity of analogy with the pre-existent idea (6)  - he prefers it to other forms and consequently, for we like to impose our preferences on everyone else, he strives to enclose the quality of this form (the sum, in itself immeasurable, of the affinities he has felt between the visible manifestation and the tendency of his own mind) in a sign that is suitable for engaging other people [à toucher autrui]. If he succeeds he will oblige the common herd [la foule] to stand before his own integrated plastic consciousness in the same relation as that in which he himself had stood in front of nature. But while the painter, who wishes to create, will reject the natural image as soon as he has made use of it, the herd remains for a long time in a state of bondage to the painted image and persists in seeing the world only by means of the sign that has been adopted. That is why every new form seems monstrous and why the most servile copies will be admired.

(6)   'avec l'idée préexistante une certaine intensité d'analogie' in 1912; 'avec l'idée préexistante une certaine analogie'  in 1947/80.

The artist's mission should be deepened rather than widened. The forms he discerns and the signs whose quality he incorporates should be as far removed as possible from the imagination of the herd, lest the truth they offer should assume a general character. In fact, confusion [trouble] is created if the work becomes a sort of unit of measurement that can be applied indiscriminately in a variety of categories as well natural as artistic. We are making no concessions to the past; why then should we do any favours for the future by making the task of those who wish to make our work more widely accessible any easier? Too much clarity is unseemly, we should beware of masterpieces. Propriety demands a certain degree of shadow; propriety is one of the characteristics of art. 

Above all, no-one should be fooled by the appearance of objectivity that many an imprudent artist bestows upon his paintings. There is no direct means of assessing the value of the procedures thanks to which the links that attach the world to a man's thought are rendered accessible to the senses. The characteristic that is usually invoked - that the known attributes of the spectacle which provoked it should be found in the painting - proves nothing. Imagine a landscape. The width of the river, the thickness of the greenery, the height of its banks, the dimensions of each object and the relation between those dimensions - those are sure guarantees. Well! if we find all that in its entirety on the canvas we will have learned nothing about the talent or genius of the painter. The worth of the rivers, greenery, banks, even when they are all rendered conscientiously to scale, gains nothing by width, thickness, height, nor by the relations between these dimensions. Torn from their own natural space, they have entered a different space which cannot accommodate the proportion as it has been observed. It remains external. It has no more importance than a number in a catalogue, or a legend on the bottom of the picture frame. To question this is to deny the painter's space, to deny painting itself. 

The painter has the power to make enormous what we know to be tiny, and infinitesimal (7) what we know to be very large: he changes quantity into quality.

(7)  The 1912 edition reads 'infirme' which may be assumed to be a misprint for 'infîme' as in the 1947 ed, and also in the 1913 English version, which translates it as 'infinitesimal'.

Only when, through the help of whole epochs and of ages, thousands of consciousnesses have confirmed each others' findings and innumerable plagiarists, by adding their commentaries, have weakened the noble enigma which is what a painting is, only then, perhaps, will it be possible, without making oneself ridiculous, to talk about objective criticism. 

On whom, then, can the misunderstanding be blamed? On those painters who do not know their rights. Once they have extracted out of a spectacle the broad lines to which it can be reduced, they then think themselves obliged to indulge in certain explanations that are really quite superfluous. Let us remind them that we go to an exhibition to contemplate and take pleasure in painting, not to display what we know about geography, anatomy etc. 

Let the painting imitate nothing, and let it present the reason for its existence in all its nakedness! it would be inappropriate on our part if we were to complain about the absence of all those things - flowers, countryside, face - of which it could never have been anything more than a reflection. But we have to admit that the reminiscence of natural forms cannot be absolutely prohibited, at least not yet. An art cannot be lifted up all in one go to the level of pure effusion. 

The Cubist painters know this, tirelessly studying pictorial form and the space to which it gives rise. 

We have fallen negligently into the habit of confusing this space either with pure visual space or with Euclidean space. 

Euclid, in one of his postulates, asserts that figures do not change their shape when put into motion - which spares us the need to say anything more about that. 

If anyone wanted to attach the painters' space to any sort of geometry they would have to turn to the non-Euclidean specialists, to reflect on certain of the theorems of Riemann. 

As far as visual space is concerned, we know it results from the coming together of sensations of convergence and of accommodation. 

In the case of a painting, which is a flat surface, there can be no question of accommodation [l'accomodation est négative]. So the convergence which perspective teaches us to counterfeit cannot evoke the idea of depth. Again, we know that the quality of space in the painted work is not in any way compromised even by the most serious violations of the rules of perspective. Don't Chinese paintings evoke space even though they show a marked preference for divergence

To establish pictorial space, we must turn to tactile and motor sensations, to all our faculties. It is our whole personality which, contracting or expanding, will transform the plane surface of the painting. As, in reaction, this plane will reflect this personality onto the understanding of the person looking at it, we can define pictorial space as follows: an exchange, accessible to the senses, between two spaces that are themselves subjective. (8) 

(8)   A more literal translation of this sentence would read as follows: 'As, reacting, this plane reflects it on the understanding of the spectator, pictorial space is defined: a sensible passage between two subjective spaces.'

The forms that are placed in it are all tributary to a dynamic process [un dynamisme] which we take it upon ourselves to control. So that our intelligence should be able to grasp it let us first make use of our sensibility. It is entirely a matter of nuance. Form seems to be endowed with properties that are identical to those of colour. It is tempered or it becomes more lively 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 [y frappe toute chose à sa propre effigie]. Landscape artists, when they copy one or two leaves in minute detail so that it might seem that all the leaves on the tree have been painted, show, grosso modo, that they have some consciousness of this. Certainly it is an illusion! but it has to be taken into account. The eye finds it easy to draw the mind along after it [d'intéresser l'esprit] in its wanderings. These analogies, these contrasts are capable of everything bad and everything good; the masters felt it when they strove to compose in the form of a pyramid, of a cross, of a circle, a half-circle etc.  

To compose, to construct, to draw can be reduced to this: to structure the dynamism of form on the basis of our own activity. 

Some commentators, and not the least sympathetic [compréhensifs] of them, see the ends of our technique as situated uniquely in the study of volumes. We could declare them to be right if they added that since surfaces are the limits of volumes and lines the limits of surfaces, the imitation of a contour is sufficient to represent a volume; but they don't think beyond the 'sensation of relief', and we think that is insufficient. We are neither geometers not sculptors; for us lines, surfaces, volumes are only nuances of the general idea of fullness [plénitude]. If we were only to imitate volume, we would be denying these nuances in favour of an intensity that would soon become monotonous. We might as well renounce straightaway our commitment to variety. 

Between reliefs blocked out in a sculptural way, we should be able to insert small lines which define nothing but which are, nonetheless, suggestive. Certain forms should remain implicit so that it is the spectator's mind that becomes the place marked out for their birth into the world of concrete reality [leur naissance concrète]. 

And we should know how to introduce large, restful surfaces into each part of the work where the activity is becoming over-frantic with an excessive quantity of contiguous details [où l'activité s'exaspère à d'excessives contiguïtés]. 

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. 

What the curve is to the straight line, the cold tone is to the warm tone in the domain of colour. (9) 

(9)  The distinction between warm and cold tones does not feature very prominently in Neo-Impressionist colour theory but it is central to the teaching of Paul Sérusier.