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Jean Metzinger

'Kubistická Technika', Volné Smery, xvii, 1913 Original Czech translation from the French by Fr Sedlacek

(1)   Note by Metzinger Those who have read in Du "Cubisme" (Figuière ed. 7 rue Corneille, Paris) the claim that 'there has never been a Cubist technique' may find this title surprising. At that time, Gleizes and myself were rather reluctant to use the word 'Cubism'. Even though we have not changed our ideas we now accept the term, though we do not find it any more appropriate.

The journal Volné Smery (Free Directions) was co-edited by Josef Capek, leader of what might be called the pro-Gleizes and Metzinger group of artists based in Prague who opposed the view of the art critic and collector Vincenc Kramar and the painter Emil Filla that only Picasso, Braque and Gris (not Léger) could be taken seriously as Cubist painters. The journal had already published a translation of Le Fauconnier's La Sensibilité moderne. The following year, in 1914, Capek, together with Alexandre Mercereau, organised an exhibition of Czech Cubists together with a selection of French contributors who included Delaunay, Gleizes, Metzinger and Villon but not Picasso and Braque. This was in response to an exhibition held by Kramar and the 'Group of Graphic Artists' which had shown a different selection of Czech artists together with Picasso, Braque and Derain. It is interesting to note that Gris, though he had already signed a contract with Kahnweiler, did not appear in either exhibition. It is probable that by this time Kahnweiler was already pursuing his policy of refusing to allow his artists to be shown together with any of the Salon group. (2)

(2)   This account is drawn from Lahoda: Cubist imperialism. But see also the account in Antliff and Leighten, Cubism Reader, p.612 et seq.

Painting in the first instance consists in representing volume on a surface and in stimulating an illusion of depth with the help of the other two spatial dimensions. The study of perspective should therefore be the backbone of all instruction in painting. Naturally, as soon as they started to be disquieted by the mysterious need to discover a new law, it was on perspective that the Cubists concentrated their efforts.

Classical perspective is aimed exclusively at a satisfaction that is merely visual; our rational faculties are, almost invariably, obliged to supplement it, correct it or to reject it outright.

To begin with, the tendency of perspective is to subordinate all the lines in a painting to one single line, called the horizon. Since this line is determined strictly by the position of the painter's eyes and since, in addition, the picture itself was immobilised and could not be put into motion by the eyes of the person looking at it - a state of utter immobility was the inevitable result. Classical perspective may have suited the old masters whose aesthetic was static and who strove to express movements of the mind through an arrangement that was external and anecdotic rather than by values that would have been internal to the work of art. This is no longer so in our own time. Today it seems we are striving for a dynamic art in which movements of feeling would be expressed directly through nothing other than an interplay of forms. Classical perspective appears to us as a dead world seen through eyes graced with the ability to see but not to move.

Perspective, moreover, produces various distortions. By this I mean that the forms concerned are destroyed both in their substance and in their most obvious characteristics. For example, perspective causes us to see a circle as an ellipse or as a simple line, depending on where it is placed, whether it is lying on the ground several yards away from us or somewhere above us so that we have to turn our eyes upwards. Perspective obliges us to use a trapezoid to depict the square facade of a house if we are looking at it from an angle. We have to forget everything we have learned through a long experience of movement and of touch (3) under the supervision of the reason.

(3)   This should help us understand the often quoted passage in Du "Cubisme": 'To establish pictorial space, we must turn to tactile and motor sensations, to all our faculties.'

These distortions and paradoxes did not prevent creative minds from expressing themselves. That can hardly be denied. But just because something has not prevented something that is good, do we have to conclude that it must itself also, inevitably, be good? In actual fact, the great masters often treated classical perspective very freely, sometimes even boldly transcending it. On this basis we can conclude that, even if classical perspective is not always bad it is, always, useless. So we shall in this respect be patient, knowing as we do that it will stop being bad only when it ceases to exist altogether.

The perspective of the Cubists is an attempt to satisfy not just the eye of the beholder but also his mind. It gives the artist the right to preserve mentally all the major aspects of a particular object however they might stand in relation to each other. It teaches him to keep changing the position of objects so as to concentrate attention on certain of their appearances that might otherwise have escaped the notice of a viewer trained in the traditional way. We need hardly say that such changes of situation are determined by objective laws and not by the accidents of 'inspiration'. If we reject classical perspective because it does not satisfy the demands of the mind it is not because we want to replace it with something that continues to defy the mind, albeit in a different way. We do not want just to exchange backwardness for stupidity.

Cubist perspective therefore establishes the principle of mobility. In other words it allows for the existence of many different relations between the painter and reality, not just one. It requires, however, that when he moves from one relationship to another, the painter should be subject to the natural laws of motion. If he delivered himself up exclusively to his feelings, the picture would lack unity. Indeed, the painter's attitude to reality which, inevitably, is a gradual development, becomes simultaneous in time the moment that reality is transformed into an image; so the specific value of the simultaneous presentation of the relations is determined by the concrete value (4) of those relations as they are experienced in succession. If the painter could not change the situation in a way that was reasonable, conscientious and sincere, all he could hope for would be to paint a whole that was made up randomly out of images that were only partial, and this would achieve the direct opposite of the coherent picture it is his apparent intention to create. (5)

(4)   Fr Sedlacek has a note here to say that word 'valeur' in the original French really means 'durée'. I don't see why.

(5  David Hockney's photomontages, influenced as they are by the multiple perspective of Cubism, may be guilty of this.

I do not wish to deny that a picture brought together in this way would not be susceptible to analysis - it would not be possible easily to work out the thousands of partial images that have contributed to making the whole. The form in a coherent image of this sort may much less obvious. (6) What is important is to ensure that the procedure we are using should enable us, unobtrusively, to go back to the initial feeling and thus, through following the individual steps in the process, to help us understand the picture.

(6)  I'm taking it here, rightly or wrongly, that by 'form' he means the figurative likeness.

A work of art that is executed in keeping with this kind of perspective will comprise as many 'horizons' as the artist deems to be necessary. The space will not be divided up following the visual cone - the vanishing lines - but rather by perpendicular cross sections which will be suitable for preserving the qualities and properties of each of the forms. Circles will remain circles and squares will be squares.

With a view to showing the advantages of the new perspective let us suppose that I wish to depict an open box lying on a table. (7) I say 'depict', not reproduce. A photographer will reproduce, a painter depicts. That is why I will not try to copy the visual image of the object. No. I will try, with the help of lines and colours, to express the ideas which the visual reality of the given object has evoked in my mind, and to express them in the order in which they are born within me.

(7) As I remark in On "Cubism" in context this suggests the passage in Gleizes's 1917 letter to Barzun: 'How, for instance, give the equivalent of the enormous Broadway, fantastic river with a thousand currents, going against each other, getting tangled up with each other ... by applying in our painter's expression some little principles that are just about good enough to describe a very simple object, inkwell, box etc.

The first idea will be that of stability; I will express it by indicating the contact of the box with the surface of the table. The second will be of space. This will be expressed if I draw a rectangular opening in the spot in which the outer forms of the objects contained in the box may appear.

We do not need the warning implicit in the third idea (8) to become aware of the visual inconsistency there is between the first two and of the impossibility of expressing them by using the old perspective. The contact of the walls of the box with the surface of the table can of course be implied merely by sketching perpendicular lines. To put it another way, the stability of the box only seems to be assured when and if the sides of the object are perpendicular to the horizontal surface on which it rests.

(8) I'm not sure what is meant by the 'third idea' unless perhaps Metzinger, as is quite possible, is thinking of Hegel's thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The synthesis in this case being the unity of the final painting.

But at that moment, the inside of the box is virtually non-existent. If I wish to take account of it I have to position myself in such a way that the gaze of my eyes is parallel with the side walls and perpendicular to the surface of the table. But in that case, the horizontal surface has changed into one that is perpendicular, and the vertical surfaces merge into the horizon; it is the sides of the box that are now visually non-existent.

As soon as the idea of the space is born, visually, and following traditional perspective, the idea of stability disappears. The opposite would occur if the succession of ideas was reversed.

With the appearance of Cubist perspective, reason regains its rights.

I conclude as follows: the overall aim of art is to express ideas, not to remake material objects, so the importance of a material coherence is outweighed by that of the coherence of the ideas. The box is presented to my eyes in two images, each of them equally coherent and visually complete, but the relation between them is such that the idea conjured by the one becomes the negation of the idea conjured by the other. I will merge these two images into a single, incongruent image which will be able to embrace both of my ideas. And so, whether by cutting brutally into the image or by making use of a fine gradation, I will indicate the transition of the given object from the horizontal to the perpendicular. I will not refrain from showing in parallel part of the surfaces of the side and part of the rectangular opening: stability together with space.

It is up to the painter's talent to distribute the basic elements of the picture in such a way as to help the viewer grasp quite easily the change in position I have tried to accomplish. This means, as I have already remarked, taking note of the natural laws of movement so that the train of thought can be expressed comprehensibly in the singular nature of the painting. I would only add that this incongruous image should comprise three dimensions, otherwise it will very much resemble a certain kind of technical drawing and thus fail to attain the objectives we have come to expect of it.

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. (9) 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.

(9)   Gleizes might be one of the people concerned. He does try it, but very timidly. See his remarks in the 1911 essay on Metzinger.

Jean Metzinger: La Femme à léventail
oil on canvas, 92.8 x 65.2 cm

Art Institute of Chicago

Juan Gris: Head of a man with a cigar, 1912
Charcoal and chalk on paper, 42.9 x 27.5 cm
Art Institute of Chicago

I even dare to assert that a painter who, wishing to respect the succession of a large number of ideas would redistribute and transpose all the parts of a face would certainly arrive at a likeness more perfect than that of a foolish artist who wore himself out trying to achieve, in the coming together of a single moment, a sense of life that is unattainable.

We may note here that any face that is painted, whether by Titian or by a Cubist, is still only a painted face, which means: a collection of lines and colours, of signs, a whole we have grown accustomed to calling a face.

In fact, the freedom the new perspective gives to the treatment of anatomy never runs counter to common sense and will always conform to the possibilities of movement performed by the body. The changes in position which we impose on the various parts of this structure tend only to disrupt its visual arrangement not the real coherence which is both visible and comprehensible. The same holds true, in a different field, in the case of well-arranged charts and tables.

We have seen that classical perspective was harmful to the coherent expression of ideas since it kept changing the nature of forms. Without going through the thousand examples that spring to mind I will only emphasise that classical perspective offends against our sense of beauty since in it proportions are subordinated to distance. It is common knowledge that what is small or big in a picture does not really correspond to anything that could be described in such terms metrically. Cubist perspective will also teach us how distances can be assessed qualitatively, and why the ancient claim to geometrical accuracy in measuring size according to distance should be dismissed as foolishness.

But I admit that Cubist perspective does touch upon certain geometrical expressions that official science likes to characterise as Utopian, and I am not even far from believing in the existence of an artistic geometry which is still only in a germinal stage. (10) This, however, has no bearing on the state of the Cubist technique as it is at the present time.

(10)  Note here Metzinger's letter to Gleizes in 1916, discussed in On "Cubism" in context: 'You cannot imagine how much I've worked since [the start of] the war, working outside painting but for painting. The geometry of the fourth space has no more secret for me. Previously I only had intuitions, now I have certainties. I have made a whole series of theorems on the laws of displacement, of reversal [retournement] etc.'

I believe I have succeed in showing clearly the relationship there is between the Cubist technique and the logical perception of space, thus enabling us to enumerate some of the new resources which will be available to painters of the future. Painters will now be in a position to depict all the ideas presented to them by reality and to impart to that reality the highest degree of expressive power. When I say 'all the ideas' I mean all the ideas that belong to the realm of graphic art and not ideas that are literary, philosophical, musical etc. It is difficult to choose among them. It is difficult to be a painter.