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Albert Gleizes in 1934

1934 is the year that I consider to have been the most important in my life.

After I had puzzled, stumbled, had glimpses of the truth, attempted in my books several times to clarify the results of my researches; after several years in which I had gone intellectually beyond my possibilities as a painter, which is to say that my means dragged behind my aspirations; in two stages, one following quickly after the other, I was able to reach the resolution in which, once and for all, the state of mind and the means of realising its incarnation were united, and so I was able to bring Cubism to its logical conclusion - the return of painting to the order of tradition.

At that time, it was my book, Form and History, which gave the fullest idea of what this state of mind might be. For me, form was no longer to be seen as a partial, immobilised figure, but rather as a development, in movement, complete, divided into periods, cadences and, consequently, essentially circular, since all periodicity implies a return.

In this mobile development, the figure - static and measurable - gave way to a series of furrows, curvilinear, spiralling, made up of numbers - hence the non-figurative character of my painting. But I did not confine my activities to painting, which has never for me been anything more than an experimental mode, never an end in itself. So I tried hard to see what conclusions could be drawn from the application in a particular field of a principle that was general. And soon, all the different human activities - practical, intellectual and religious - began to appear to me to be changed. Instead of seeing them through the frozen perspective of rationalism - stopped, stupefied, in the indefinable instant, shorter or longer, which is all that rationalism allows - I saw them drawn into a movement which tore them away from the figure to project them into form, which, capable as it is of being seen and of being thought, brings them into an ever closer unity with the flow of life itself, beyond concept and beyond any sensory perception.



I tried in the course of this work to develop a criticism of the position that calls itself 'rationalist', and to show how, and by what devious means, it is now being disturbed in all fields of human activity by people who are still, however, unable to renounce it altogether - to such an extent do heresies, once they have become fixed habits of mind, turn into superstitions.

I wasn't mistaken as to the ground on which I had placed myself. More and more I felt that this ground where I was had been occupied before me and that, in other times, men had seen it as the very centre of their knowledge of the world, of their state of consciousness.

The ground I had assumed was that of mobile, temporal memory, as opposed to that lower level which is spatial, accessible to the senses. It was not the level of time in the sense in which Bergson understood it, of duration. That seemed to me to be no more than a subterfuge, a means of pretending to go beyond the instant simply by prolonging it, by failing to recognise that it is elastic and can therefore be shortened or lengthened without essentially changing its nature.

The ground on which I had placed myself was, rather, that of traditional time, of change which continues ceaselessly, whatever our sensual impressions may say, however much they may deceive us - a time punctuated by memories of the past and big with aspirations, with longings that go towards a future at once indefinite and, nonetheless, absolute ...

Intellectually I saw before me. I went beyond myself.

But at the practical level I was dragging behind, prisoner as I was of my bodily self. My means as a painter - I could hardly conceal the fact - did not correspond to what I wanted. Space held me in its grip and, if I made several little efforts to free myself, I felt only too well that there were chains holding me back. I organised my compositions in a circular arrangement. I made harmonies of colour interpenetrate, one following the other in series of succession that were authorised by the order of the prism. I developed the means of putting several elements together, still independent of each other but inter-related. Despite all my efforts, despite my patience - there are pictures I worked and re-worked for over ten years - I was not satisfied. There was something I could not see that prevented me from succeeding in my project.



This inability to synchronise realisation and intellectual understanding should give us food for thought. There is more than one lesson to be drawn from it.

First, it should bring us to this certainty - that these two modalities are the irreplaceable poles that are necessary to the acquisition of knowledge. If, by misfortune, we only have at our disposal for this end one of these modes of activity, then we are heading towards a failure that is certain, despite our illusions and despite certain seductive appearances. If we cultivate only a manual activity without completing it intellectually, we are heading towards the incompleteness of the man, and the consequences of this for the work of the craftsman will appear very quickly. But if we only cultivate an intellectual activity, without completing it through a work that is manual, we are again heading towards the incompleteness of the man which again will very quickly reveal its consequences in our intellectual work. It is only by constant reference backwards and forwards between these two different modes of activity, that the experience given by manual work, and the theories developed by the intellect can become fruitful for man and enable him to achieve the prize, which is to say, consciousness of himself.

Thomas Aquinas reminds us, somewhere in the Summa, that there are two ways by which knowledge can be reached - through the teaching of masters and through the teaching of practical experience.

The first is good - so long as we have good masters. The other is better, and is that that was chosen by Jesus Christ.

What would Saint Thomas have had to say now, these days when the only masters available are University lecturers, and culture has become uniquely a matter of examination results!

But St Thomas' process of understanding through practical experience must not be confused with the sort of elementary empiricism that is incapable of drawing conclusions from its experience. Experience must be accompanied by an intellectual process capable of drawing consequences that go beyond it, pushing it forward. At least during that period of time that it always takes before we are able to arrive at any valuable conclusion.

Boethius in the fifth century after Jesus Christ said that theory must go further than practice. Which shows well that realisations and intellectual understanding must necessarily support, enlighten, enrich each other through their own individual contributions. But these two vehicles of knowledge are not always precisely synchronised. At one moment it is experience that goes beyond the intellectual theory, at another it is the intellectual theory that takes the lead.



Around 1920, in my case, my practice was ahead of my intellectual understanding. I sorted things out sufficiently to produce an acceptable result. But, with regard to the theory, which is to say, the clear understanding of my act, I had not got very far. I have already said what it was that forced me to take consciousness of what I was doing - those young painters who came along, asking me to teach them. I had necessarily to understand what I was doing myself before I could explain it to others. Out of the practice I had to produce the theory. It was a particularly hard pregnancy, wonderfully exciting but exhausting. By the end of it, I knew clearly what I was doing - I was able to follow the stages of my own esemplastic (5) act. Consequently, it became possible to pass this act in its principle on to others. At the same time, my intellectual understanding had caught up with my experience.

(5)  I sometimes translate Gleizes' word plastique by Coleridge's word 'esemplastic' (from the Greek eis en plattein -'to shape into one'), partly to avoid the modern connotations of the word 'plastic', but also to affirm a continuity, which I believe to be valuable, with Coleridge's line of thought. I regret that the word 'esemplastic' has not passed into general use.

The lack of synchronisation between them had ceased. At least for the moment.


Between 1922 and 1934 I tried to get as much as I could out of my 'new plastic mechanism', which may be summed up in the phrase - 'movements of translation and rotation combined together'.

'Spatial and rhythmic plastic system obtained by the combination of simultaneous movements of the rotation and translation of the plane and of movements of translation of the plane from side to side'
Illustration from Painting and its Laws (p.192 of the English translation).

At first I only used colour in relations that were harmonious, one beside the other, without any attempt at a movement of succession between them. There was a particular moment - in 1923 - when I tried to make this sort of esemplastic organisation more complex. Up until then I had only used it very simply, in a single element. But now I tried to group several elements together, leaving them individually autonomous but interlinked, one with the other. (6)

(6) The preparatory drawings of Mainie Jellett - - are particularly relevant to this period in Gleizes's development. They seem to have been working together so closely that in some cases it is unclear if a particular construction has been developed by Gleizes or by Jellett.

The first of these efforts were distributed about the canvas rather at random and I was very dissatisfied with them. I quickly understood that if I was to succeed, I would have to accept a discipline. I adopted a principle of compartmentalisation, with the relations and proportions organised in harmony with the initial ratio of length and breadth given by the overall area to be painted. It was thus that I made a series of paintings, some very big in size, which I called, as appropriate - Painting with two, three, four, seven elements. Most of these works were based only on geometrical themes. Some of them, however, by several indications more or less emphasised, evoked through suggestion a figure, or groups of figures.


Albert Gleizes: 4 Elements, 1924. Gouache 26.5x21.5cm. Present whereabouts unknown.
CR 1186