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Albert Gleizes

'La Peinture moderne', 391, No.5, 5th June, 1917

This essay appeared in a journal published by Picabia in New York. Although it speaks highly of both Picabia and Duchamp it is actually a covert attack on their influence and probably would be better placed in an anthology of Gleizes' wartime writings. It is included here because in trying to give a coherent account of what he believes to be important in 'modern painting' he is also to some extent identifying what in Du "Cubisme" belongs to himself rather than to Metzinger. Most obviously he dismisses 'dangerous adventures in the squaring of the circle or in the mathematical absolute of a Henri Poincaré.' There is also a significantly different interpretation of the relations between the artist and the general population. And the attack on using painting 'to defend an idea', on the grounds that ideas are better expressed in prose, also reads like an attack on Metzinger.

The original Peinture Moderne is written in very long paragraphs which I have broken up, while indicating the original paragraph breaks with asterisks. Another version of the same article was published, somewhat mysteriously, in Geneva in 1918 as a pamphlet under the title Le Cubisme. It is this version (so far as I can see identical to the version in 391) that I have used for this translation.

The noble ambition some painters have to express themselves in their own age has caused a shift in the very basis on which judgments are made and, for the moment at least, has rendered impossible any attempt to see clear. Inevitably everyone wants to go further than everyone else and the door is wide open to all possible contortions and other sorts of antics [grimaces] since it has become more and more difficult to get a good overview of what is happening.

And yet the first researches had been neither an alchemy nor a system; they were nothing more than the normal evolution of an art that was mobile, like life itself. Already at the beginning of 1912, (1) in our book Du Cubisme, Jean Metzinger and myself tried to clarify the directions we were going in. We claimed for the painter the right to be intelligent and cultivated without for all that envisaging the necessity to be clever merely for the sake of it, and we spoke of the sterility to which art would be led by dangerous adventures [incursions] in the squaring of the circle, or in the mathematical absolute of a Henri Poincaré; already before their birth, which we could tell was coming, we were chary of the dogmas, the hermeticisms, destructions disguised under the mask of a new construction.

(1) The book was published at the end of 1912, though we may note that its publication was announced in March - see introductory remarks to On "Cubism". This passage in Modern Painting may suggest that it really was largely written at that time.

Rejecting nothing, we sketched out in its broad development the curved line of the tradition of French painting from Courbet to ourselves, the latest to appear, persuaded as we were that the new order could not be created independently of the order that is permanent. That did not prevent the excesses [les surenchères], nor the most fantastic theories which have vindicated all the complaints that had been made against the pictorial movement of our time. Beside the sincere efforts which young painters are making to find their true means of expression, there are a host of advertising brochures, professions of faith, alarming manifestoes in which a luxurious erudition is spread out and an intoxicated passion for science, each product labelled with an impressive "ism".

The world about us, reluctant to engage in any sort of effort, had claimed it could see nothing in the new paintings; and that was enough to enable the distance separating a passing moment of incomprehension from a state of total incomprehensibility to be crossed with a single leap. The noise of violent attacks led to the conclusion that painting had become a mountebank, and that all that was needed to be a great painter was to bang the big drum and provoke storms of outrage. The anathema pronounced among so many others against intellectualism was heeded, and the result was a total obscurity imposed by the will of a laboratory mentality swimming in speculative intellectualism as in its natural element. People painted abstractions, forces, pure ideas, qualities - a remarkable heresy; at the same time as exact scientific discoveries were being made in the field of movement, painters undertook researches of the same order, condemned in advance to failure.

An abyss of contradictions opened up as certain terms that had been advanced by the first Cubists were distorted. Dynamism of form was confused with speed, the influence of modern life taken in it entirety led to eyes opened in astonishment before certain of its particular manifestations which were blown up out of all proportion; the importance of a car or an aeroplane was exaggerated, there was a complete failure to understand that the subtle, witty impressions of a Picabia or a Duchamp, while making use of mechanical equivalents, were transformed into something that could be savoured and enjoyed, not into a mathematical product.

The distance separating a steam engine [marmite de Papin] and a combustion engine was exaggerated without anyone ever thinking that the distance between the wheelbarrow and the steam engine was a hundred thousand times greater still and yet it was only as a result of a whole range of different factors that the painting of that time changed its nature. This idea of 'modernism' was developed so systematically that not only did it reject the naturalistic accident, and nature as whole, but painting itself, to attach on the canvas the temporary objects of our household life which change with the seasons, are speedily condemned to decrepitude and would be of no more value tomorrow than a daguerreotype or a crinoline is today.

Nowadays there is a terrible confusion, the best intentioned do not dare to commit themselves when faced with an absolute hermeticism in which, alas! idiocy and genius appear to be the same. The others, who absolutely refuse to engage in any effort, point to what are quite self-evident mystifications to reject en bloc everything they cannot understand.

And yet, despite these appearances, painting today is separating itself from these waves that have poured over it; it is freeing itself because, before going off looking any further for the nourishment it needs if it is to burst into flower, it plunged its roots resolutely down into the bedrock of tradition.

In contrast to the development of a painter like Picasso, who straightaway made contact with men of the last generation - Seurat, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, Derain, Braque, and exotic elements borrowed from Chinese and black African sculptures - the group of painters who have been called 'Cubists' - Le Fauconnier, Metzinger, Léger, Picabia, M.Duchamp, J.Villon, de la Fresnaye - had the courage to return to the basic origins, to the old image-makers [imagiers] and stone cutters of their cathedrals, the ancient masters who alone could show them the secrets of their craft, architectures and techniques. The first paintings bear the unmistakeable marks of lessons of this sort. 

Beside Picasso's art, which is all a matter of sensibility, these works appear as thoroughly willed, massive, restrained. Lightheartedness and humour in the first, a solemnity reaching the level of the dramatic in the others; an art of analysis on the one hand; an art that is going towards synthesis on the other. Gradually, the greyish tones which had been used at the start began to acquire colour, the broken fragments came together in a new construction, and today we see the emergence of a wholeness of expression [ensemble d'expression] whose development has never separated it from the original stock.


The appearance of the painting is different from the appearance it had yesterday, and that is to be expected, but it is still the same language; it has simply undergone the law of time, of 'our' time which, in turn, has added to it and which is - it is our pride to be able to say it - greater than the greatest of the ages of the past. It has added new riches to a means of expression that is supremely human and which cannot be satisfied with any compromise that would not itself be capable of further development. 

The great changes [bouleversements] that are being produced nowadays will have got rid of all the empty rhetoric, torn down the little chapels whose secrets [grimoires] could only be read by initiates. We do not want a painting for old men any more than a painting for failed philosophers [raisonneurs à la manque]. Something is needed that is both healthily human and new - a transposition of the thousand nuances of our life into a manner of painting that is capable of being understood.

We should not be misled by the apparent unintelligibility of certain present day paintings; it is the same unintelligibility as that which there was in the past for the works of the new painters of that time and which has since disappeared. It is only a momentary problem, since it is impossible to taste something unless one is adapted to it and the new elements are still so surprising that they stand in the way of that reaction which is translated into emotion. Nowadays too many explanations are needed, we are too much obliged to speak to the mind in order to justify ourselves, to be understood; but, unfortunately, understanding does not necessarily produce the delight [jouissance] of the senses. And the work of art is delight. It implies a certain disequilibrium outside space, a sort of rupture with the intelligence: today it is renewing its means simply because those of yesterday have grown rusty; but it wants to arrive at the same result, to provoke the same emotion that the men of the past had when they stood before the works of art of their own time. (2)

(2) Note the contrast with Du "Cubisme", which welcomes a certain degree of unintelligibility and regrets the process by which the work of art becomes normal.

I insist on this because I am sure that it will be helpful in preparing the ground on which we might come to an agreement. Never has the delight of the senses ever changed, emotion is a quality that is the same everywhere, only the means are different. They may be more or less rudimentary, more or less complex, depending on the quality of the individuals, but that remains their only role [fonction]. So, nothing is ever absolute. It would be very childish to think one holds the whole truth - so many men, so many interpretations of this truth, so many subtle disagreements [divergences] in the means used to arrive, nonetheless, in the same places. The point of departure and that of arrival - desire and enjoyment - they alone are identical among the individuals of every age and at every level [de tous les plans].

The artist tries by these means to create a common measure that will enable him to share his emotion with other men; (3) only if he was addressing himself alone would he have any right to being obscure; if he goes out from himself to address the crowd then he must, not make concessions to this crowd, which is to say, encourage them in their laziness, but show them what they themselves contain but would never, all on their own, be able to reveal. He must be the relentless witness and speak in such a way that people will, one day, come to understand him; but this will never happen if he strives to invent from scratch [de toutes pièces] a cryptic language as a substitute for the language of the painters that is so rich with all that has been brought to it by so many generations. It could in any case only be a substitute - one might as well want to speak using only signs instead of using the words we hear and which have required so many centuries to arrive where we are today.

(3) Again contrast with Du C and its desire to bend the herd to the artist's will.

It is only in its own nature that a painting can be justified; each must be able to experience it in its truth, if it holds a little portion of truth - by which I mean a truth that is objective, not some relative notion developed in some little artistic circle [cénacle] but a truth capable of spreading out beyond itself not some hypothesis that is incapable of verification. To express himself intelligibly the painter must, then, confront the old formula [le 'poncif'] honestly and renew it - that is where the solution lies, nowhere else. The complex reactions of his age - if he considers it not in its accidental appearances but in its totality - will oblige him to add new elements to the syntax and laws of his chosen means of expression; and these will be enough to enable him to make a synthesis out of the relation that exists between the human coefficient of his own time and the universal that is without limits; in this way he will provide a new basis on which a true comparison can be made and it is thus that he will be able to touch us and to move us.

A number has no value other than the flavour that it offers us [saveur qu'il apporte], man has made God in his own image, so imagining a concentric relationship that goes out from himself to embrace the Universe. So nothing is new, just a perfectly reasonable process of evolution in our understanding, uniquely a work of time.  Nowadays the painter develops through a work of interpreting on a larger scale, he touches a greater degree of transposition, that is all. What could be more natural? Just as printing freed painting from its philosophical and literary mission, so the discoveries of our own time - photography and cinema - free it from its documentary role, while problems of movement and the many different ways in which movement can occur influence and enlarge the notions we have of perspective. 

Painting gains in purity and in meaning. There is a material shift in the vehicle it uses, but it does not offend against its eternal ends, it is organised through the intelligence which it involves by organising and engaging our eye, since it is a word addressed to the eye, just as music is a word which is addressed to the ear, and the rhythms of poetry too were devised to respond to the demands of the ear. We live in a world of five senses, and the whole work of our intelligence is a matter of preserving the quality of their sensibility [notre intelligence ne travaille que pour en conserver la sensibilité]. It is by the intelligence that painting shifts as, in that way, it prevents our retina from becoming lazy - it reacts against [se cabre devant] new forms which appear to it to be monstrous, and it is this very movement which saves it from being stopped [de l'arrêt], from death; before all else painting is representative [représentative]; (4) to use it to defend an idea is to use the most limited means; a sentence can evoke more levels than a painting with intellectual pretentions [à visée intellectuelle]; the intelligence can suspect the existence of ultra-violets and ultra-reds but they cannot be conceived by the eye.

(4) I could be tempted to translate this as 'symbolic' in a strict sense of the term. It stands in the place of, represents, the reality felt by the painter.  

So we should stay within the limits of the painting; the field is still vast, paintings cannot be justified through any mathematical reasoning, they have their own taste, like fruits and, also like fruits, they come in an infinite variety. The difficulty of tasting them in our own time induces a process of selection among the spectators, that is all. It is not true that there are more individuals who love Rembrandt than who love Cézanne. The appearances are misleading, many people have learned their admiration for Rembrandt on a school bench, and that has been enough to fill them with illusions about their own taste. In truth, those who love Rembrandt for what he was are the same people who love and understand Cézanne, and already they have some feeling for the new painters who are expressing their own time.

The storms of indignation are of no importance; a lazy routine opposed to life prevents people from understanding, but the painters of our time have not asked anyone's permission to bestow new freedoms [licenses] upon them, liberties must be seized brutally, you don't ask for them; they have them already and will never again give them up. It is up to the spectators in their turn to make the effort that is needed to sift through the whole and to be in advance of the judgment of time, by which all the excesses will be put in their place.