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Albert Gleizes in 1934


In Painting and Its Laws, written in 1922 and published in 1923, Gleizes outlined his two principles of 'translation' and 'rotation', corresponding to the two activities in which the eye can engage when looking at a painting. 'Translation' is to do with balance, proportion, harmony, the qualities we associate with classical painting. In 'rotation', this balance and harmony is disturbed and the eye engages in a second activity, that of turning round and within the painting in an organised manner. (1) In the historical essay which takes up the major part of the book, Gleizes argued that the principle of perspective which had governed painting since the Renaissance tended to suppress this second activity of the eye, but that it had been understood and enjoyed in the earlier, so-called 'primitive' work of the Celts and of western Christianity prior to the thirteenth century. In developing the science of representing the external appearances of things, painters had lost the science of what he called 'rhythm' in painting. Whether or not the painters were themselves aware of the fact, the disturbances which had marked the course of painting over the previous half century or so, overthrowing the conventions of representational perspective, were attempts to recover this rhythmic principle which, Gleizes argued, had been known not just in Western Christendom, but in all the great religious civilisations of the world. The development of representational painting, even if it had a religious subject matter, corresponded to the development of an essentially materialist attitude to the world, more concerned with observing the external appearances of natural phenomena than with living the inner life of the soul.

(1) Albert Gleizes: La Peinture et ses Lois, ce qui devait sortir du Cubisme, Paris 1924 and in La Vie des Lettres et des Arts, vol xii, n° 5, nd [1922 or 3]. English translation, Painting and Its Laws, Francis Boutle publishers, London, 2000. See on this website the account of translation/rotation introducing the preparatory drawings of Mainie Jellett who was closely involved with Gleizes while the technique was being developed -

Painting and Its Laws uses the term 'movements' of translation and rotation, and indeed the idea of movement is implicit in the words themselves. They are borrowed from Physics. 'Translation' signifies a movement of an object in relation to other objects in space, 'rotation' a movement of an object in relation to itself. The earth revolving round the sun is moving in translation; the earth revolving on its own axis is moving in rotation. The terms are used by Aristotle and they occur frequently in Einstein's book, Relativity. At the time when Gleizes was writing Painting and Its Laws, he was friendly with the physicist Paul Langevin who was one of the leading French exponents of Einstein's ideas. But Gleizes insists that he is not applying ideas derived from contemporary science to painting. Insofar as there are parallels between the work of the scientists and that of the painters it is because they share a common state of mind; in their separate fields, they are both grappling with the same problems. The scientists, dissatisfied with classical mechanics, and the painters, dissatisfied with classical perspective, are both groping towards a new (or towards the recovery of an old) religious consciousness. (2)

(2) The argument is particularly developed in his essay Art et Science, Moly Sabata, Sablons 1933; La Presse Universitaire, Aix-en-Provence 1961. See Albert Gleizes: Art et Religion, Art et Science, Art et Production, Editions Présence, Chambéry, 1970. In English, translation with introduction and notes by Peter Brooke, as Art and Religion, Art and Science, Art and Production, Francis Boutle publishers, London, 1999. 

But if translation was a movement of objects in relation to other objects, and rotation a movement of an object in relation to itself, what was the 'object' or what were the 'objects' in question? For Gleizes, there was only one object with which the painter had to deal: not the whole multitude of 'subjects' he might choose to paint - people, trees, pots and pans, historical events or whatever - but the painting itself or, rather, from the start, prior to the realisation of the painting, the area that was destined to be covered with paint. The characteristics of this space were already given as the necessary starting point of the painter's act. It was a plane surface with particular proportions, normally a rectangle with the single proportion of length and breadth. Everything in the painting had to derive logically from that simple fact if it was to work as a living organism, if everything in it was to be inter-related in a coherent and rational manner. The movements of translation and of rotation were movements of planes bearing an intelligible relationship to the overall plane surface of the painting itself.

Later, as we shall see in the present essay, Gleizes was to feel that he had been mistaken in describing 'translation' as a movement, and indeed in using a language that suggested that the movement was in the painting rather than in the consciousness and in the operations of the eye of the beholder. What he had called translation, he argued, corresponded to the nature of the eye when it is immobilised and at rest. That such an eye might make a series of observations one after the other was not sufficient to put it into movement. The eye watching the series of 'moving pictures' in a film is itself entirely immobile and passive, much as a man sitting in a high speed train is himself entirely immobile and passive. But painting could awaken another property of the eye. The eye was not condemned always to record the movement of things other than itself. It had its own movement. But this capacity of the eye was atrophied for want of use. It was indeed quite useless for the practical purposes of a society which demanded of the eye only a host of observations, as precise as possible. But the eye exercising itself, rejoicing in its own movement, was an aid to contemplation, to the inner activity of the soul, hence the 'rhythmic' nature of the art of all the great religious ages.

We have seen Gleizes insist that, if the painting was to be experienced as a single organism inter-related in all its parts, then it had to derive from the overall proportions of the surface to be covered in paint. In practice this meant that, assuming the overall surface to be a rectangle, the 'translation', appealing to the eye at rest, was a simple repetition of those proportions, parallel to the sides of the painting, while the 'rotation' was evoked by tilting the planes, to the right or to the left, in such a way that the eye would, so to speak, imagine that the plane itself was turning, and follow the movement round. Initially, Gleizes and his close associates, the Irish painters Evie Hone and Mainie Jellett, experimented with odd shapes, but they seem to have quickly concluded that the vertical and horizontal of a rectangle were fundamental to asserting the stability, the static quality, of the painting and would have to be asserted even if the overall surface was not itself rectangular.

Composition, 1921, oil, 92 x 65 cm. Formerly in the monastery of Ste Marie de la Pierre-qui-Vire, Saint- Léger-Vauban, Yonne. Destroyed in a fire 1987.
CR 998

Gleizes and his pupils made very rapid progress using these means throughout the 1920s, from the early paintings, which are stiff and awkward, to the paintings of the mid-1920s, which are much more supple and varied. There were still, however, fundamental problems that were worrying Gleizes. One was the difficulty of incorporating the curve and the circle into a painting that was derived from an overall rectilinear base; the other was that the theory as outlined in Painting and Its Laws was helpful with regard to questions of formal construction but provided no guidance to the use of colour. In reflecting on both these problems, Gleizes in the late 1920s was much preoccupied with the example set by Robert Delaunay in his Circular Form paintings done in 1913-14. (3)

(3) See on this website Gleizes's own comments on Delaunay in his general history of Cubism, The Epic - and in the later Spirituality Rhythm Form -

The problem was to find in what way the two properties of the eye - the static observation and the mobile activity - could be evoked through colour. Gleizes felt that the striking colour harmonies of the great French colourists - Gauguin, Matisse, Bonnard - were still essentially static in nature. They could be seen and appreciated together, all at once. A means had to be found by which one colour could give way to another - the eye would move from one to the other as across stepping stones, and thus a direction could be established. These chains of colour, one after the other, Gleizes called 'cadences'. They followed the direction given by the colour circle, itself derived from the rainbow. If we start with a red, for example, the eye can easily follow a movement in one of two directions, towards orange (red + yellow) or towards violet (red+ blue). Following the movement towards orange, we come to yellow, then to green (yellow + blue), then blue, then violet (blue + red), coming back to red. For Gleizes, this circularity was no accident. It corresponded to the necessary circularity of the movement evoked in the painting (the movement would stop if ever it should pass outside the limits of the picture frame. It had to continually turn back on itself). In the early 1930s, Gleizes was almost wholly concentrating on the research into cadences to the extent that the rectilinear structures of the 1920s had almost disappeared.

1932 Study in cadences, 1932, Gouache, 28 x 14 cm, CR1402

This is the stage that Gleizes had reached by the beginning of 1934. The rest of this pamphlet takes up the story in his own words. The extracts given (from Gleizes'Souvenirs, 1934-39) complement those given in our separate pamphlet, Key Words(4) which deal with the same problems from a more exclusively theological point of view.

(4) Albert Gleizes: Le pouvoir des mots-clefs, Association des Amis d’Albert Gleizes, Ampuis, 1993. Extract from Gleizes: Souvenirs. English translation, Key Words, ibid, 1995.