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Mainie Jellett

Preparatory drawings


In my exhibition in Oxford in 2015 I devoted a room to an exhibition of scans of preparatory drawings by the Irish artist Mainie Jellett, mostly - perhaps all - done in the 1920s. The scans were made by Shirley O'Brien from an archive preserved by Bruce Arnold which is now in Trinity College library. Other similar material is lodged with the Ulster Museum in Belfast and the National Gallery in Dublin.
Jellett's preparatory drawings are the best records we have of the early stages of 'translation-rotation', the mode opératoire developed by Albert Gleizes on the basis of the Cubist experience, and theorised - and put into a large historical context - in his book La Peinture et ses lois. The story of his relations with Jellett and with her friend, later known as a stained glass artist, Evie Hone, is told in Arnold's Mainie Jellett and the modern movement in Ireland  and in my own Albert Gleizes - For and against the twentieth century. Francis Boutle publishers in London have published my translation of La Peinture et ses lois.
In his essay Kubismus written in 1925 for the Bauhaus (published in 1928), Gleizes argued that Cubism had been a revolution in form following the Impressionist/Post Impressionist revolution in colour and that all the major Cubist painters had passed through three phases - an emphasis on volume (hence the cube); a multiplicity of points of view in hopes of giving a more complete account of the form, still thought of as a subject independent of the painting; and finally, acceptance of the conditions imposed by the two dimensional nature of the surface being painted, and the distinctive characteristics of the means being employed - straight line (vertical, horizontal, diagonal), curve, circle, spiral, and colour in its variations of tone and of movement round the colour circle. For Gleizes, the pioneers of this last phase, the culmination of what could still be called Cubism (though in his eyes all subsequent developments of any value continued in the direction set by Cubism) were Jean Metzinger and Juan Gris, in the work they had done in Paris, largely during the war.

This could be reduced to a very basic scheme of rectangles (consistent with the usual rectangular format of the painting) either parallel to the verticals and horizontal of the overall frame, or tilted to the right or to the left.
The vertical/horizontal orientation asserted the stability of the painting, and the verticality/stability of the person looking at it. Gleizes called this 'translation':

The tilting of the planes launched the eye into movement, which he called 'rotation':

These illustrations are from Painting and its laws.
For Gleizes, this freedom to enter into movement was the most important achievement of Cubism - already prefigured in the stimulation given to the eye by 'multiple perspective' and by the idea - whatever about the realisation - of 'plastic dynamism' proclaimed by the Italian Futurists. Gleizes did not see it as a new invention. He argued that it had been central to the Romanesque art of Europe in the twelfth century but obstructed by the development of naturalism in the thirteenth century. The connection with Romanesque art is far from obvious at this stage in the development but it becomes more obvious later on.
The 'new mechanism' outlined in Painting and its laws was, according to Gleizes's own account, a result of the need to clarify his practise and thinking once he had begin to teach. And the need to teach had been forced on him by Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone. They were therefore present at the very beginning. What we see in the Jellett drawings is an arrangement of rectangles giving a basic structure consonant with the overall rectangle of the picture plane going through stages (a series of pieces of tracing paper placed one on top of the other) towards a final drawing which will then be the basis of the painting. We see how very soon the idea occurred of a construction with more than one centre (paintings with several 'elements'), how these are initially scattered in an apparently arbitrary fashion, analogous perhaps to different currents acting in a stream, but then become more formalised in a clearly delimited division of the overall space. We then see an effort to reincorporate a figurative - often liturgical - subject acting in conformity with the new principle. What we don't see is the next stage, beginning in the later twenties, when Gleizes and Jellett became more insistently non-figurative, both participating in the collective movement, Abstraction-Création, and concentrated on a research into 'cadences' of colour. The use of colour in the period we are examining here was still largely untheorised, still a matter of simple taste.
I am very grateful to Shirley O'Brien, Bruce Arnold and to Michael Purser, responsible for the Jellett estate, for letting me use this material.