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Henri le Fauconnier

La Sensibilité moderne et le tableau, from the catalogue of the Moderne Kunstkring, Amsterdam (Stedelijk Museum), 6th October-7th November, 1912.

An error zealously maintained by the dilettantes and all the parasites of art would have us believe that the work is always an accidental product of the human mind. Nothing however could be more childishly false. Like all important manifestations of the genius of man, the work of art has its laws and appears in its own time. For anyone who takes his stand on a point of view that is a little elevated, there is nothing surprising about the conditions in which the great ages manifest themselves; all that can be surprising is their greater or lesser qualitative value.

So it is that, after the triumph of the fresco, the art of easel painting [l'art du tableau (1)] is an event that is perfectly logical and in absolute correspondence with the aspirations of the age. In Florence, at the Chiesa del Carmine, in the fresco painting of Massaccio and Lippi, this tendency towards easel painting can be felt; these paintings, though very large, use only a few of those elements that are called decorative. Certainly some beautiful pictures and admirable portraits were painted for the churches and noblemen of the fifteenth century; but it is noticeable that the technique and concepts of these painters still belonged very much to the old mode of expression.

(1) In this context both 'easel painting' and 'picture' will be used to translate 'tableau' . Note also the defence of easel painting in Du "Cubisme" . Gleizes, Léger and Delaunay were later to insist that Cubism marked a return to wall painting. Note Gleizes's hostility to easel painting in the extract from his 'L'Art dans l'évolution générale', No 3 in my anthology, Gleizes on Picasso and Braque

Doubtless many of the reasons that pushed the artists to abandon the ornamental way of understanding fresco were social in nature; but there are others, and we must see in the appearance of easel painting a complex evolution of the pictorial spirit. Other preoccupations and new possibilities began to be glimpsed by the artist. Games of shadow and of light, easier to express than they had been on the ornamental flat surface; modelling, perspective, which allowed subtleties of nuance. Through chiaroscuro, of which Leonardo already had the idea, the work acquired a form that was enclosed [enveloppée], elliptical, fertile in things implied but not openly stated [sous-entendus]; and it knew a greater richness and joy in the material (School of Venice), through the mysterious transparencies of oil.

This conception of painting triumphed [s'imposa] for nearly four centuries and was served by very great artists according to the capacities of their talent or of their genius. Towards the end of the last century, the sensibility of the painters felt constrained [se trouva à l'étroit] in formulae that had grown old and expressed it badly. Impressionism was unquestionably the first and most important innovation in a series of researches which have today resulted in a new way of conceiving the picture. The pioneering role of Cézanne was to add to the concerns of the Impressionists - concerns that were limited to the domain of colour - those, much more important, of organisation and construction. He dreamed, to use his own words, of making of this art an art that would again join up with that of the museums. So Cézanne's very French genius incited him to order, to condense, for the purpose of giving it greater scope [ampleur], this modern variety of feeling [émotivité] which was still, among his contemporaries, in a state of confusion.

Of the different modifications undergone at the end of the last century by the sensibility of the artists, some are of the domain of the philosophy of art and are above all of interest to the aestheticians; others have causes that are very obvious [simplement évidentes]. As in all ages, we cannot deny the influence of the world about us. The ease with which travel is possible has developed cosmopolitanism in the towns, and this enables us to observe and to compare day by day the widest variety of types of races. The means of shifting rapidly from place to place enables us to see very different landscapes in a short stretch of time, and has brought us to a more synthetic view of nature. Scientific realisations have offered to the eye forms which up until now were unknown. Machines, the motor, electricity have changed the idea we had of movement and of force. Industrial activity has completely transformed the appearance of our cities, creating unexpected perspectives, daring architectures, bizarre dissonances.

Ideas have shifted that used to be of capital importance. The machine, with its hard angles, has given us an image of movement that is violent and mathematical and which a man's step or the running of an animal would not have allowed us, in other times, to foresee. The artist finds a speculative interest in the appearances [décor] to which, every day, he has to submit. He is not satisfied with translating the representation of modern life directly. He tries to give it its plastic equivalent. Still, this representation of modern movement does not require any obsession [l'idée fixe] with the automobile with fifteen wheels; the dissonances of the street (violences of the poster and advertising hoarding) do not oblige the painter to use exclusively their tonalities.

That would be a facile idea which, by a childish and mannered way of conceiving the picture [pittoresque] would circumvent all those difficulties of the pictorial problem that have to be resolved in every age. That is precisely where the creative and ordering role of the artist is to be found. His mind registers forms, lines, colours, a new rhythm. He draws out of them elements of a new beauty to create a language with which he expresses himself, often even about something quite other than the street, factories, the machine [la mécanique]. It is not part of the artist's intention to reduce the new elements [données] of perception to a system. He wants to give the age in which he lives its own mode of expression, sufficiently human and powerful to withstand time.

The laws that determined the way the old picture was ordered have evolved. The modern mind [esprit] is weary of the well-established ways of establishing an equilibrium [des équilibres attendus]. It gives the original [primordiale] surface of the work limits that are less predictable, so asserting the rapidity and diversity of its ideas.

The schema (whether one still calls it 'arabesque' (2) or abstract line of the picture) does not seek to impose itself as directly as it did but rather to appear as the result of a relation of volumes, forms, strokes of colour.

(2) I think this refers to an academic way of conceiving the construction of the picture, as in Ingres' remark 'the right angle is the bed of the arabesque'. We may remember that Le Fauconnier started his studies with the academic painter, Jean Paul Laurens.

In his desire to come to know the object, the artist is no longer content with the carefully studied model [modèle savant] or the perspective of those who came before him. He observes the changes undergone by this object in space and tries to give it a concise inscription that will multiply ten times the power of the representation.

By establishing a ramp - to use the term that is used in optics - between the image and ourselves, chiaroscuro separated it from external realities by means of approximations to verisimilitude that could be evaluated intuitively [les àpeuprès intuitivement évalués de la vraisemblance]; it multiplied the plastic accidents of shadow and of light. Modern complexity, gradually tiring of the monotony of 'pleinarisme', could not have failed to take account of this mode of expression which was unknown to orientals and to the primitives of all ages, and which was illustrated with genius by Rembrandt. However, the new way of inscribing forms and volumes, reducing the importance of the optical ramp, enables the artist to engage in a game of shadow and light that is freer and which serves those concepts better in their mobility and variety. 

A parallel change can be felt in the colour. While in the old masters the biggest role can be attributed to intuition, we can say that their whole effort was to preserve in colours their principles, resonances or accuracy [justesse] through all the different accidents of shadow, of the half tone [demi-teinte] or of light. The result is a harmony which our very different sensibility rejects and which it breaks in a desire to give life to the coloured surface with a life that is more various [multiple], more intense. (3) Thus, tones are juxtaposed with less managing of the transitions. Gaps are created deliberately and delicacy and fluidity are reserved for those cases where the hues or tones resemble each other more closely [des trous, voulus, se créent et des souplesses délicates s'établissent quand l'accord est moins distant]. (4) Out of this contrast of dissonances and harmonies, the colouring gains in intensity.

(3) The idea suggests what was to be the central idea of Gleizes' Painting and its Laws: 'To paint is to give life to a flat surface; to give life to a flat surface is to convert its space into rhythm'

(4) Although I find this passage a little obscure, the gaps, or 'trous' may refer to the device by which  juxtaposition of colours can give the impression that one plane is 'behind' the other - a sense of depth unrelated to single point perspective. Gleizes, in particular, makes effective use of this through 1912 and afterwards while rigorously excluding it once the clarifications of the early 1920s have been made.

A preoccupation that is too often neglected is that of the material which, destined to fulfil a new role, could endow the work with a power of expression if not capital at least very important, if we do not want to overlook the real advantages that oil painting offers over fresco. The choice of materials that are thin, fat, fluid, transparent or neutralised, rich in colour [teinture] or broken, presents the artist with a multiplicity of resources with which to translate the liveliness of his emotion or to crystallise its complexity. It is not just a matter of obtaining on the coloured surface a feeling of the solidity of things (realist preoccupation) or their fleeting appearances (Impressionism) but of putting at the disposal of our intuition that amazingly suggestive power, and that internal life which painting can contain, in its brightness [éclat], in its mysterious transparencies, or in a more profound radiance [rayonnement profond].

More than ever, the subject is for the painter only a 'pretext for painting'. An excessive preoccupation with the subject is found only in schools that are mannered or decadent. Another mannerism would be its complete suppression in favour of the simple game of volumes or of strokes of colour. If he were to suppress this duel that is so very interesting [passionant] which takes place between his mind and the life outside himself, the artist would end up with a painting of moods [d'état d'âme] of a necessarily very limited plastic interest.

Certainly many of these considerations should be developed at greater length than I can do here, thus countering some objections that can easily be made. Superficial minds have, in particular, tried to render these researches invalid by calling them 'theories'. The true artist is not at all a theorist in the narrow sense of the word, and this continual succession of thoughts [préoccupations] which are precisely of very great interest in the creation of a work should not be called 'theories'. The fullness [ampleur] of expression which is struck out of [jaillit de] a series of concepts elaborated in the unconscious and disciplined by a very precise logic, cannot be seized by the theorist, who hates intuition and whose inability to generalise is characterised by the obsessive preoccupation with a single coefficient, that of emotional feeling [émotivité]. On this coefficient, incapable of endowing a work of art with strength [force] or plenitude, the theorist builds a thousand little systems. more or less clever, always very mannered. There have always been 'theorists of the age'. We have them in Mr Armand Point, with Neo-classicism, Mr Emile Bernard, with pictorial symbolism, Mr Séon, with the Rosy Cross. Why be surprised if there should be some more of more recent creation.

The painter is always repelled by Theory (as distinct from methods) with its small element of truth and its great number of errors, often of a metaphysical or literary nature. Methods, which can be used to create one's own logical convention adequate to express our sensibility, could not exist by themselves without intuition, that internal fire that gives life to concepts and raises them to a general level [anime et généralise les concepts]. often upsetting what the artist had in mind, transforming it [pour se traduire], sometimes with a sharpness and violence that reduces the theorists and 'those who are said to be people of taste' to a state of despair.

Although appearing in an unexpected manner that certain lazy minds have perhaps found disturbing, this new conception of the picture will, nonetheless, be imposed on our age because it speaks the language of its sensibility. More refined intelligences will more and more distinguish between, and appreciate, the qualitative differences (power, charm, subtlety etc) there are between works which too often appear to common minds to be all on the same level. That will be the best response to those who are scared off by the growing number of artists (?) (5) who, without the slightest sense of conscience or shadow of talent are advancing in the name of modern art in a way that has not been prepared by their previous researches. Perhaps we will even see painters who, only the day before yesterday were 'usefully' exploiting the line of the pleinairistes, precipitated with a faith that is always new in the direction of an art that also always has to be new. (6)

(5) Question mark in original

(6) The 'painters who, only the day before yesterday were "usefully" exploiting the line of the pleinairistes, precipitated with a faith that is always new in the direction of an art that also always has to be new' rather suggests Francis Picabia as Le Fauconnier might have seen him in 1912.

Young painters who are pursuing a slow, thoughtful process of evolution do not need to worry themselves over these cumbersome non-persons [impersonalités].

The work of art possesses in its own right a force which allows of no confusion, which immunises it against the laughter of those who do not understand and which will, sooner or later, impose it.

To create as well as to judge, souls of quality are always able to put themselves beyond the reach of contingent considerations of a frivolous nature.