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Non-Figurative art. From the painter as an observer to painting as an act

I have published nothing for more than ten years.  That does not mean that I have not worked and have not thought about what I was doing.  Far from it.  More than ever, I am convinced of the legitimacy and timeliness of what has been called 'non-figurative painting' - a term that can be used without too much possibility of misconception so long as by 'non-figuration' is meant the absence of a subject presented as a spectacle.  But I still find myself experiencing a certain disquiet about the over hasty infatuation which I see - among certain painters as well as among a particular kind of public - for everything in which every trace of the figurative image has been suppressed.  Not that I cannot explain or understand it.  In a world which has gone to ruin, whose values are no longer capable of offering any sort of security, it is not surprising that a mere desire to feel that we are still alive should lead us to the extreme limits of the possible; hence, for some, there is a tendency for painting to go back to the humanist mode, while, for others, the tendency is to take up anything that has a superficial appearance of novelty.  Both of them are bound to end up in the same state of poverty.  We cannot deliberately go back in time, and we cannot go forward merely by exacerbating confusion and anarchy.  

Humanism was more than just the means by which a particular type of image could be conceived.  It was founded on a whole way of thinking  which, in its time, excited passionate commitment.  That is what lay behind the manifestations with which it has endowed the world.  Our so-called classical painters, inspired, more or less, by the work of these great ancestors, are no longer able to think in a way that corresponds to what it is that they are attempting to do, and that is why all they can realise is an act of deceit, a deceit that can only work for those who wish to be deceived.  But, at the same time, a renewed way of thinking - and that is the primary support necessary for all serious innovation - cannot be brought into existence merely by suppressing the identity of the image and replacing it with nothing other than the fantasies of a particular individual.

So, I can easily understand the suspicion which is felt by certain prudent and cautious minds when faced with the growing torrent of amorphous paintings.  I can understand it all the better since, from the very first day when I began to suspect that painting was capable of justifying itself nakedly, without copying anything outside itself, I was quick to add that, to get there, time was necessary: 'one cannot raise an art all at once to the level of a pure effusion.'  That was in 1912, (1) and here we are in 1948.  Thirty six years have passed, and I know how they have been filled.  With a painter's work, beginning in the studio but sustained afterwards by a constant necessity of self-examination, of understanding what had been done.  Hence the various books I have published which mark the stages of my life - clarifications made at certain moments, that were necessary in order to co-ordinate my paintings with the development of my thought.  Not for anything in the world was I content with the approximate, the more-or-less, to sacrifice to aesthetics a reality that seemed to me to be more and more certain, which distanced me from the uncertainties of the age in which I was obliged to live, and brought me closer to Man - not to humanist man, but to the man whom I have called 'homocentrist'.  A total reversal of the position of the one in relation to the other.  The man who observes becomes the man who acts.  The ground I explored after the event, on the basis of my practical work as a painter, allowed me to confirm certain things and laid me under an obligation of humility.  Thanks to what I was thus able to see, I had a better grasp of the profound meaning behind the words: 'there is nothing new under the sun. '  Like the revolutions of the sun which bring back life to the same parts of the world in a regular succession, the same regular series of states of mind, rising or falling, are revealed through periodical revolutions in the life of men.  The sun never goes back on itself, but, once it has fallen, it again begins its ascent.  It is only in the external appearances of the realities it reveals that any change has taken place.

(1)   Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger: Du “Cubisme”, Ed Figuière, 1912.

To renounce that figuration which is based on the appearances of the sensible world, to renounce the figuration which was characteristic of Humanism at its zenith, but whose possibilities have now all been expressed - that, at least, indicates the existence of a certain state of intuition.  It is better than pretending that we can climb back up the slope to revive the great classics, or devoting one's talent to pointless variations on archaeological themes, which only serve to camouflage a very deep feeling of despair.  But intuition of itself can never come to a resolution, even if it is able to offer, momentarily, a glimpse of the end that ought to be pursued.  What we need is the steady, patient state of mind of a person with a job to do.  Where are the specifications of the job to be found?  Where, equally, can we find the first principles of the technique that such a state of mind requires?  I hope to give some idea of them in the course of this essay.  

Whatever doubts we may have about this violent irruption of painting that claims to be non-figurative, whatever its real value - and I am the first to question it - may be, the hard fact is there, and it is impossible not to be struck by it. (2)  It corresponds - rather obscurely, I admit - to something which, in itself, is perfectly valid: a categorical rejection of the cast of mind that produced Naturalism and Humanism.  We cannot escape from the problem merely by questioning the sincerity of the artists who make up this disparate mass, nor by wondering if many of the young painters who have adopted this mode of expressing themselves have not done so as the result of a lack of talent.  Such doubts may not, truth to tell, be completely groundless, but what is important is to recognise that, in the crudest possible way, what is being revealed is a need for radical change in painting which has now become irresistible, a courageous refusal of ways of seeing that are no longer possible.  In this respect, these young painters share needs that are felt throughout the whole of the society in which they were born, a society which can no longer be satisfied with compromise or with going back to the past; a society which longs for a new order whose nature it is not yet able to see. (3)

(2)   ‘People can say whatever they like but that exists’  was Bonnard’s comment after visiting the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in 1946. Frédo Sidès cannot be enough congratulated, nor those who helped him enough thanked for having brought this Salon into existence. But what will be its future?  Is it not destined to open the doors to all the heresies?

(3)  Certain circles have not been afraid to assert that the arts should not concern themselves with social matters. To say that is to misrepresent their meaning in history. The arts always reflect the state of mind of the world about them,  by  expressing it, or by opposing it, or, which is the best, by being ahead of it. It is nowadays impossible for anyone with any degree of freedom of judgement not to notice this. There are tendencies which want to go back to the past, there are those, opportunist, that correspond to what the age may require of them, and there are also those who announce the coming of a new man-painter in a world in which the spirit of tradition has been rediscovered.

The dice have been thrown.  This is not just the turning of another page in the 'History of Art'.  It is something other than what is implied by the title of the salon in which these scattered aspirations have been brought together: 'Les Réalités Nouvelles'.  It is the renewal of Man, after he has been reduced to dust; it is the affirmation of a man who, still unaware of what he is doing, is once again taking the reality of his own existence into account and asserting it, for good or ill, as a painter, in the first feeble efforts of a work which needs to be solidly rooted in a good soil if it is to grow.

It is quite natural that those of the older painters, the forerunners, who are still alive, should feel a little uneasy about this awakening and about the excitement it has generated.  It is their duty, more than ever, to do what they can to ensure that out of this incoherence some sort of order might appear, and that, out of all the excitement, an interest that is rational and durable may be born.  They need, first of all, to examine themselves with perfect honesty and then to pass on to the younger generations the lessons they have learned from their own experience.  In this way, the troublesome elements which always appear even among the purest of movements, will disappear of their own accord, since they cannot endure the trials which their disciplines impose if they are to arrive at a goal which is still a long way off.  Those who stay the course will be those who recognise, honestly, that they have much to learn about themselves, both as men and as painters - the two being complementaries that cannot be separated one from the other.                                                                                               

Everyone has need of an authority.  It is better that it should be an authority of principles and of natural laws rather than of simple conventions or models to be copied.  With the first, one is free, and the work, once it is realised, stands on its own merits; with the second, one is the slave of the arbitrary and the victim of monopoly.  While what is natural is based on permanent principles, the conventional falls victim to the versatility of fashion.  Everything has to be taken up again from the beginning;  many are those who feel it and there is no lack of good will.  I have often had occasion to observe it through the correspondence which comes to me from more or less all directions, through the visits I receive, through the talks I am asked to give . . .  The destiny of the painter is certainly linked to that of Man and, if the one refuses to know himself, I wonder how he will ever come to know the other.  

It is in the interests of this coming together of man and painter that I have written the pages that follow, to which I have thought it useful to add several studies that are older in time but still relevant.