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Between 1920 and his death in 1953, there is a marvellous logic to the development of Gleizes' painting. Despite the great difference that separates the sometimes awkward and apparently simplistic experimental works of the early 1920s from the radiant, masterly 'figures lumière' of the 1930s, 'Supports de Contemplation' of the 1940s and 'Arabesques' of the last years, they all represent different stages in the working out of a common idea, the set of principles first announced in La Peinture et ses Lois, written in 1922.

A similar process of logical development, from austere, simple beginnings to immense freedom and complexity, can be seen in the short period of Gleizes' early Cubism, from the simplified landscapes of 1908/9 to the immense and endlessly satisfying Dépiquage des Moissons of 1912 or, if it can be judged from the surviving photograph, La Ville et le Fleuve of 1913. In three years we see a steady accumulation of means which is almost as impressive as that of the thirty years between 1920 and 1950.

Bords du Marne, 1909
Oil on canvas, 54 x 65 cm
Lyon, Musée des Beaux Arts

Les joueurs de football, 1912-1913
Oil on canvas, 226 x 183 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

It is, however, more difficult to trace the logic that is at work in the period 1914-1919 – the period which sees Gleizes in the military garrison of Toul at the beginning of the war, in New York in September 1915, in Barcelona between May and December 1916, New York again from 1917 to 1918, and back in Paris in 1919.

Not that this period is lacking in very fine paintings; nor that Gleizes has left no written texts that can help us to understand his thought. Quite the contrary. This is the first period for which an important archive of written material exists. 

Despite his reputation as a 'theorist' of Cubism there are very few texts written before, say, 1915. For the 'Cubist epoch', we only have three or four articles and a book written in collaboration with another painter. This is not much for a man who first came to public notice as part of an artistic community – the 'Abbaye de Créteil' – which consisted mainly of writers. Perhaps other pieces written by him have been lost but what is certain is that, at the age of 35 when he left France for New York, very little had been published. Gleizes is regarded by many who know little about him as a painter more interested in writing than in painting; but it was only in his forties, with twenty years painting experience behind him, that he began to publish on a large scale.

The New York writings themselves remain, almost in their entirety, unpublished. (1) They can be divided into three categories:

– a sequence of prose poems brought together under the title Le Cavalier du dimanche [Sunday's horseman].

– poems in free verse brought together under the title La Tortue emballée [The Runaway tortoise] 

– an attempt to understand the major developments in the intellectual life of his time – L'Art dans l'évolution générale, his most ambitious piece of writing in terms of its length, after the great La Forme et l'histoire (1932).

(1) I had access to copies in the Viaud archive in Aubard, now dispersed. I possess photocopies. I have scanned L'Art dans l'évolution générale in digital form and sent it to the Fondation Albert Gleizes, but, not having received an acknowledgement, I don't know if anything has been done with it.

These three works, however, even L'Art dans l'évolution générale, do not have much to say about painting, or about the need to recover the principles of pictorial construction, the themes that will dominate his later writings. Which could be taken as evidence to support the view of those critics who are usually hostile to Gleizes but who see this period as a brief moment in which he was freed from his obsession from theory and able to surrender almost naively to the many delights of modern life and of the city of New York. (2)

(2) For example Robert Rosenblum: Cubism and Twentieth Century Art, New York (Harry N.Abrams) 1960, p.182.

I would like to propose three hypotheses to try to account for this period which seems to stand apart from the rest of his career – three hypotheses which are mutually contradictory but each of which contains, I am quite sure, some elements of the truth:

1 (thesis): Gleizes is simply disorientated and does not know where he is going.

2 (antithesis): On the contrary, despite the emotional shock of his encounter with New York, Gleizes is simply enjoying his mastery of the extraordinary means he has developed during the Cubist period.

3 (synthesis): Far from being a period in which no significant development occurs, it is a period of radical evolution, immensely important for the development of his later work. It sees a complete change in orientation from the 'subject' (the appearances of the world as experienced by the senses) to the 'object' (the objective laws which determine the relation between the flat surface of the painting and the consciousness, the whole person, who is looking at it).

The starting point for these three hypotheses is Gleizes' achievement at the high point of Cubism between 1912 and 1913, especially the Dépiquage des Moissons [Harvest threshing]. It is probably with this work in mind that Apollinaire used the word 'majesty' to characterise the work of Albert Gleizes. (3) It is a painting that, like the later Supports de Contemplation, can be looked at for hours on end, not as an intellectual puzzle (it really does not matter what all the different figurative elements in the painting signify) but as a simple, endless, interweaving movement that could be called 'ocular' (because it corresponds to the nature of the eye) or 'spiritual' (because it corresponds to the nature of consciousness). Yet as a description of what he has achieved, Gleizes' book of the time, Du "Cubisme", written with Jean Metzinger, is inadequate. It is only much later, with La Forme et l'Histoire (1931) that Gleizes begins to develop a language adequate to describing what he has done. Without a clear understanding of his achievement, how can he follow it up?

(3) Les Peintres cubistes, 1965 ed, p.76