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Capacities of the eye

I haven't written at such length on the Cubist experience simply for the pleasure of praising the cause to which I am, personally, committed.  Nor is that my reason for concluding that it is Cubism that has given us the possibility of realising the object-painting in a rational manner, independent of the classical subject, which had taken the place of the object-painting and thus rendered its realisation impossible.  To say this is to do no more than to recognise a fact which has to be acknowledged by anyone with good sense and an honest judgment.  And this same good sense and honest judgment will also insist that Cubism cannot be dissociated from its forerunners and its teachers, of whom the earliest were certainly Delacroix and Baudelaire, prophets and, already, legislators.

It is, then, about 1920 that the two first principles of the construction of the painting-object - translation and rotation - were formulated in a rigorous way.  These are the two properties of the eye, of sight, projected into the painter's work.  They are the work of the eye par excellence.  It seems amazing that it should have taken so much time and effort to discover, or, rather, to rediscover, things so simple and obvious.  That was the necessary consequence of the Humanist state of mind.  It had the effect of propelling Man out of himself.  It misled him to the point at which he could imagine that what he observes is quite independent of his own responsibility as an observer.  The 'principle of causality' tricked the reason - the true operation of our reason - through the appearance of a causation that was entirely mechanical in nature.  It thus prevented it from seeing that the relations of cause and effect are simultaneous.  Starting on the plane of the supernatural, they remain consistent right down to the humblest manifestation of the natural plane, a plane that is quite distinct from the plane of subjective naturalism.  So, the simplest situations have become impossible and, even when we have been forced by our own experience to make certain precise statements that are of the order of the object, our reason is so intimidated by its old routine that we have to try to explain what we have found by clinging tenaciously to this inadequate ground of rationalism which is not at all suitable and which prevents us from having a clear vision of the real meaning and direction of the thing that we have touched upon.

'Movements' of translation

'Movements' of 'rotation'

Illustrations from Gleizes: La Peinture et ses lois, 1922
(the 'scare quotes' are given because of the criticism Gleizes makes of this particular understanding of translation and rotation in Man become painter. In his new understanding the translation is not a movement and the inclination of the plane to right and to left isn't rotation)

That was the case in 1920 with regard to these translations and rotations, which were quite true in themselves but which it never occurred to any of us to relate to their real cause - the human eye.  When I re-read what I wrote about this at the time in my study Painting and Its Laws: What Should Come out of Cubism, I remain astonished at my blindness.  The explanations I gave of them were dominated by that sort of intellectual affectation which can overwhelm and paralyse a person, even if he hasn't been broken into it by a particular type of education.  It took me years to get rid of it, to disentangle myself, and of course that has greatly lengthened the time it took for these two principles, whose true origin I still could not see, to realise their worth.  I had no idea what they were.  They remained the fruits of observation.  They had nothing to do with me.  I was not their cause, and my researches remained external to myself.  In practising them, I realised the object in a summary fashion, but I thought of it in terms that were more appropriate to the subject.  Contradictions that I can distinguish very clearly now, but which hindered me for a long time, because I had no idea of their existence.  

I think that if only we could become conscious of our own presence in the work we do, we would then be able to criticise the cacophony of groups that are presently rallying round the war-cry 'Down with the subject!' in a way that would be useful, and pertinent.  The reasons for this disorder would then be apparent.  It is, essentially, determined by the absence of any connection between, on the one hand, the intention - which is to get rid of the subject, a concept which in turn implies that the end to be achieved is the object - and, on the other, the object as it is, in its reality.  They cannot see that this reality is located in the reality of the painter and, consequently, in the reality of Man.  And that is what gives rise to those unsuitable terminologies and to that subjectivism which is still at work, even though everyone is deceived into thinking it has gone away.  All that has happened is that painting has become a matter of individualities and nothing else, whereas the spectacles offered by the Renaissance were limited, through the application of very strict rules, to a subjectivism which everyone could share in common, the subjectivism of the spectator, the observer.  

That is the difference, a difference in presentation, not in principles.  Just as the physicist, dazzled by his atoms and sub-atoms, thinks that, because he has changed the scale of his work, things happen differently than they do at the normal level, so the 'non-figurative', 'abstract', 'non-objective' painter believes, quite sincerely, that, because he has given up the representations that everyone can understand, he has accomplished a revolution and changed the course of events.  Our present-day intellectualism, which has very little to do with the Intellect, consists in building up theories and inconsistent hypotheses, which have no basis in what is real, solid, objective in the proper sense of the word.  And it is for that reason that we can conclude without fear of contradiction that we have now reached the extreme limit of our degradation, as much in the sciences as in the arts.  Subjectivism wanders further and further off into the desert, and thus it loses all possibility of recovering the object of the work of the intellect, the source of that knowledge which derives from experience and whose categorical principle is, first and foremost, Man.  

For the painter, this experience is the experience of painting, and it cannot be anything else so long as the painter himself is nothing else.  And, as the painter is a particular category [qualification] of Man, it follows naturally that the mere fact of belonging to this category does not of itself have the effect of abolishing the fundamental properties of Man, who is its first support.  It is, then, important to recognise this reality and not to deform its nature.  It is not a word, it is a being.  Man is not a passive observer.  He is an active creator of himself; it is by his nature that he exists, and not by a series of suggestions that come from the world that surrounds him, from that naturalism that offers him only signs of a reality which he can never discover unless he first discover himself.  Humanism adorned itself with a very seductive title.  The active being gave way to the observer, and nature was hidden by naturalism; signs became indisputable facts, subjects were considered as objects.  

The signs were subjected to calculation and analysis with a view to grasping the secret that, precisely, would lead to that being the desire for which the Humanist still felt.  An exhausting, fruitless disintegration.  Whatever we do, we can never come close to infinity.  On the contrary, if we don't resist the temptation, and if we let ourselves be drawn towards it, we approach ever closer and closer to the void.  As much through the multiplicity of practical applications as through the theories developed in the laboratory.  

So that its spectacles could be conveyed, communicated or, in a word, seen, the Renaissance was obliged to search for the mechanism of transmission, of communication, of visibility in the natural mechanism of sight, once it has been reduced to the immobility of a spectator.  Perspective has no other source than the human eye in a particular position, adapted to certain conditions which have been adopted purposefully and with deliberation.  To think about perspective as if it were a thing in itself, separate from its cause, is to indulge in intellectualism and to wander off course for no good reason.  Perspective, then, is the fixed framework.  The picture derives its variety from the figures that we see in it, but these are simply different ways in which the fixed framework is applied.  They are, so to speak, accidental.  If we forget the frame and its dependence on the operations of our sight, if we think of these pictorial accidents as being unquestionable facts, thus rendering them independent of what determines them, then we shall advance, unawares, into a cul de sac.  Intellectualism dreams, it invents, it imagines, it attributes laws to nature, then it declares these laws to be invalid, it changes them, it suggests hypotheses, it never doubts that these laws and these hypotheses are real properties of the Universe, and then, suddenly, one fine day, it finds itself in front of a wall, with all possibilities of movement stopped, through the enormity of having forgotten that the whole edifice was only built up on the basis of a man whose senses - those marvellous means he has been given - have been reduced to inaction.  Subjective perspective, which finishes up in the uncertainty of subjectivism in general.

When he denies the subject, does this mean that the painter wishes to renounce himself?  Does he think the problems to which such a denial gives rise can be rendered easy merely by avoiding them and by changing the nature of his materials?  Those are some of the questions we find ourselves having to ask when we look at the works that are presented under the name 'non-figurative'.  Everyone has a right to their own opinion.  But, as for us, we wish to remain painters.  It is, then, about painting as an object that we speak, and, in all the efforts we have made, we have had no aim other than to arrive at a recognition of the living laws by which it is determined.  It is characterised by drawing and colour [dessin et couleur en sont les qualificatifs].  Drawing and colour have nothing to do with perspective.  Their whole area of operation has to do with the eye.  They cannot possibly exist independently of vision.  Vision is not a passive eye, tied to perspective.  It is active sight.  It makes form and it makes light through the harmonious relations of lines and colours and through the direction to which they give rise, a direction that is of the nature of song, of melody, and which facilitates the meditation and the contemplation of the man who sees, and for whom painting is one of the many and varied expressions of his incarnate reality.

Translation and rotation are the two properties of sight in its living reality.  We must, then, learn to integrate them into our drawing and our colour, to train ourselves to explore their relations, to assimilate their rules, to the point at which they become automatic, so that we no longer have to think about them.  

Finally, we must learn to sing, to arouse in those who are of the same nature as ourselves, that meditation and that contemplation which are true poetry, which awakens the being to himself, object of his object.  The painter returning to painting is man-subject returning to man-object, learning to know himself at his different levels of reality - of the nature of the senses, entering into activity, of the nature of Form.  Let perfection be the end proposed at each of these three different levels.  Through beauty and through its effect on the soul, Orpheus charmed the animals, but that was not the end of it.  It was the lowest level of a process of ascension that was fulfilled in the transcendence of a nature immanent at all its levels.  The animals are the senses; above them there is action, direction; and above that again, there is the fulfilment, in ineffable light.  Throughout, knowledge of the Order.  Which presupposes knowledge of one's craft.  

Delacroix and Baudelaire showed us the way.  After them came painters who continued the explorations which they had begun and who brought to light materials that we must learn to understand; that is what is durable in the heritage that has been passed on to us and for which we must be grateful.  I have tried to indicate their principle lines, which belong strictly to painting and are most specifically of interest to those who are actively engaged in the craft.  

To be descended from a great line is a fine title to nobility, and nobility has its obligations.  I fear that the brains of our time are so muddled by the aberration of individualism that it has become a superstition and we have to defend ourselves against it.  Before they have learned the first principles of their craft, the young painters nowadays talk about their personality, they think only of their sensibility, and they claim to be forearmed against all influence.  But this does not keep them from falling victim to the letter and remaining quite ignorant of the spirit, for there is nothing new under the sun and everything that can be done more or less has been done.  That is why no-one can say: everything begins with me.  In spite of their proclamations to the contrary, we can see that every one of these painters has been touched by all sorts of influences.  No-one can start from zero.  Of course, hardly anyone nowadays speaks in favour of the imitation of external appearances, yet this is still what is most typical of our time.  And that is why so many of these works have been left unfinished.  All that they have been able to seize, hastily, from the pioneers, has been a formula to cover something for which no formula exists - the element in the appearance of the paintings that is distinctive and individual.  Would it not have been better, since the need to be taught is inescapable, to search to learn something about what is the common foundation of every painted work - the traditional principles of the craft, principles that belong to those who have enough sense to judge that they exist, and who are willing to unite their own nature as Man to their nature as painter?  

In saying that painting is a craft, I know very well that I risk raising a thousand cries of protest.  There is no lack of dupes in our age in which every man has achieved his freedom at the moment of his birth.  'It is an art!', they will say.  And art obeys no laws other than those of the sensibility and of the personality.  And God knows just how far they have had to go in order to find this personality.  In the subconscious, and through the intervention of mediums!  As always, even in our errors, we are never the first; there are always forerunners.  These are the people whom Moliere ridiculed in the eighteenth century, when he made them say: 'People of quality know everything without ever having learnt anything' ! Moliere, who had the vision of a seer, was not just attacking a particular social class.  He was able to identify certain tendencies of his own time which, since then, have become ever more marked until, now, they are out of control completely.  In fact, this heresy is no more than the natural result of the Renaissance point of view, which carried the seeds of that of the present day.  To the general point of view succeeded the individual point of view, and this point of view is subordinate only to itself and is therefore beyond all criticism.  It is this which justifies itself with reference to the sensibility - we still need to refer to something, however feeble it might be.  It is this which, using the sensibility as a cover, has reduced the personality to nothing more than a pernicious, excessive, awareness of 'Me!'.  Immediately we ask the question why, since they boast of their isolation and their solitude, these painters should want, through their exhibitions, to establish any sort of contact with the rest of the world at all.  It can only be through a misunderstanding, or on the strength of those marks of a common good which their work still bears in spite of themselves - marks which are all that remain of a craft that has been cut off from its inheritance.  

It is better honestly to acknowledge that craftsmanship is quite indispensable, and that it is only through the mastery of a craft that our sensibility and personality can be exalted.  And we should have sufficient of a critical spirit to be able, from the outset, to avoid mistaking what that craft is.  The instruction given in the schools, whether official or independent, has nothing to do with craft, which, in principle, can only be taught through the living experience of the workshop.  Just as the craft of the musician cannot be learnt through the commentaries published in opera librettos, so nothing can be learnt about painting from illustrated commentaries on naked women, or on any other so-called pictorial motif.  Painting is painting, and painting is its own true teaching.  This teaching passes its materials and its syntax, the function and the arrangement of lines and colours, on to the apprentice.  It is a teaching that is simple and direct, and which aims immediately at the end that is to be achieved.  This has been distorted by the Humanist attitude, which has sent the object-painting off in the wrong direction, questing after the subject, the naked woman or any of the other so-called pictorial motifs.  

Since that time, painting has been taught in the way it is still being taught in the Official and Independent academies.  It can hardly be denied that the talent for imitation has been taught and has been developed magnificently; it has given us masterpieces of genre painting, and a marvellous variety of treatment and interpretation.  But we owe to it also, and this is more questionable, the different ideologies promoted by aestheticism - which, etymologically, has to do with irritability - an aestheticism based on physical, psychological and sentimental beauty.  All of which can be summed up in the image of the shadow cast by the prey.  We can see nowadays where all that has led, now that our hearts and our minds are weary with the subjects of the Golden Age, and individualism has taught us to prefer to the quality of the work the torments and affectations of the painter, which reflect exactly the disorder of Man lost in the denial of himself.  

Logically, then, the attitude of mind implied in the banning of the subject is the attitude of mind of the painter in painting, a recognition that he knows nothing, and that he needs to learn.  There is no way of overcoming this lack of knowledge other than to turn to the craft, the true craft that has its laws and its rules which are acquired and thanks to which personal values can express themselves freely, without our either being aware of the fact or talking about it.  The laws and rules of a craft are not numerous, they do not require any intellectual effort, they are accessible to all.  But, if they are to bear flowers and fruit, they require work, even self-denial, patience in following them, continuous effort, and a mind sufficiently disinterested to engage in rigorous self-criticism.  And, obviously, talent.  A true artist is never satisfied with what he does, even if he has won the approval of those around him.  All his life, he will advance towards his own self-perfection as a man and as a painter, through work pursued, day after day, under the stimulation of a love that can never be satisfied.  The contract he entered into on the day on which he told himself 'I will be a painter' is irrevocable.  No-one can release him, for he has made a commitment to perfection, and it is to this perfection alone, immanent and transcendent, that he is accountable.  It is to the glory of this perfection that his work is dedicated.  

It is this objective craft, a craft which is not at the mercy of particular moods and fantasies, that will eventually silence the regrettable cacophony which we hear among those groups that have been brought together round the quite justifiable cry, 'Down with the subject!.  The works that have been shown, and the explanations that have been given by those who are responsible, demonstrate that, so far, hardly anyone has any clear notion how the subject is to be replaced.  As we have already said, the object-painting escapes them, and the pavilion of non-figurative art is still mistakenly adorned with subjective opinions, exaggerated to the point that they become no more than a sort of spontaneous graffiti.  For all their good intentions and all their sound intuitions, the critical comments that have been passed on these works from outside are no better calculated to encourage order, least of all, a turning towards that order whose foundation is the craft.  A complete, not a faltering, craft, bringing drawing and colour together in an intimate union.  Pretty colours on evanescent structures are only dust thrown in the eyes; the pleasurable sensation they give at first sight does not last, and it is a void for the soul.  It is the same if the nature of drawing is misunderstood, if we replace the classical, figurative drawing with some sort of elementary geometry, or with chaotic improvisations, stripped of all organic logic.  The spirit has nothing to do with it, all we have is the intellect, tormented by the remains of intellectualism.