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Spirituality, Rhythm, Form
(Subheadings have been added by the translator)

Pater meus usque modo operatur et ego operor '
(St John V. 17)

At the end of 1922, I sent the manuscript of Painting and its Laws, with its subtitle'What should come out of Cubism', to 'La Vie des Lettres et des Arts'. I took the view that my own work and that of my fellow Cubists was important not just for painting, but, even more so, for Man, for human nature as a whole, at all its different levels of reality. This essay, perhaps a little prematurely, attempted a synthesis between, on the one hand, what there was in the disparate aspirations of Cubism that could be clearly understood, and, on the other, a historical, traditional, position that, suddenly, the understanding of these aspirations had brought to light. The study was divided into two parts. The first, briefly sketched, was a historical account of painting from the early Middle Ages up to Cubism; the second was an attempt to lay the groundwork for a plastic technique which stood in opposition to that which is still used at the present time, but elements of which could already be seen, put to work as the underpinning of all the Cubist works.



There was no bias in this essay, much less any desire to defend a cause. Simply the joy one has in proclaiming certain truths that the right circumstances have enabled one to see and touch. One of these truths is that over many centuries civilisations grow under the guidance of a state of mind dominated by RHYTHM, and that afterwards a shorter period, a period of decline, flows by during which the state of mind is dominated by SPACE. All the different manifestations of these periods bear the marks of these two attitudes of mind. I can see them clearly in works of art in different degrees according to the purity of, or the corruption undergone by, its dominating principle - a principle which must finish by being overthrown to give way to its enemy, its opposite. These states of mind succeed each other alternately.

The rhythmic periods overflow with spirituality.

The spatial periods only recognise a rational value in whatever is based on the senses.

The rhythmic, spiritual periods look towards the realisation of form.

The spatial, sense-based periods look towards the imitative and spectacular.

Thus, the former are objective and the latter are subjective.

It is in the light of this truth that we can distinguish the products of the Christian Middle Ages, which illustrate the rhythmic state of mind, from those which mark the period that flows from the Renaissance to the present day, in which the spatial state of mind rules unchallenged. All sorts of errors and confusions will result if we judge the one by methods that are suitable for judging the other. In one of his works on Christian art, Emile Mâle expresses his regret that the Middle Ages did not leave a theoretical formulation of its principles of design so that we could learn how they understood it. But they have left us something much better than that in the works they have passed on to us. If we do not know how to understand them, it is because we are applying unsuitable criteria.

Equally, it is because we applied unsuitable criteria to the works of the Cubists that they appeared to be more disturbing than they really are. Above all, this has prevented us from seeing a modification of the spatial principle which occurred as a result of the introduction of elements which, properly, belong to the rhythmic period. It is so clear that there can be no possible doubt as to what it means. In a more or less short period of time, a rhythmic period is going to open up again, not just in painting but in the whole of Western civilisation, wearied as it is to the point of death with all the fantasies thrown up by the spatial state of mind.

In order to draw clearly the contrast that there is between the distinctive characteristics of these two periods, I advanced the following formula: the rhythmic period considers nature IN ITS LAWS, the spatial period IN ITS EFFECTS. What I understood by 'laws' had nothing to do with those mechanical laws deduced from effects that have been formulated by the rationalistic sciences - laws that can give rise to all sorts of practical applications, but which can never arrive at any real conclusion. I was thinking, rather, of the way in which Nature operates - through the successive living stages, each having its own particular essence, by which forms pass from the seed to their full flowering, and from thence return to their original unity. I did not know at the time that what I was saying was entirely traditional. And I was very happy to learn it later from someone who, unfortunately, is very little known by our specialists in the history of mediaeval architecture or by our professional aesthetes - Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, assistant curator of the Museum of Boston, a truly learned mediaevalist with a profound knowledge of oriental religious philosophy. After reading my book, Form and History, Coomaraswamy, interested, sent me some of his own writings which are most remarkable. One of the first passages that appeared before my eyes was the following:

'In contrast to contemporary western theories. scholastic (5) and oriental artistic thinking requires that art should imitate nature in its mode of operation not in its natural appearances. The things that appear in works of art are what they are by virtue of determining forms or ideas embodied in them, and worthwhile judgements are impossible without an understanding of these fundamental ideas. Christian art and oriental art. in other words, are languages; post-Renaissance art is a spectacle. The aesthetic experience, then, consists of an intellectual and emotional synthesis which derives from the viewer's identification with the content.' (6)

(5) Coomaraswamy was a friend of the English Stonecutter Eric Gill whose own ideas on art were much influenced by the Art and Scholasticism of Jacques Maritain. Both Gill and Coomaraswamy often quote St Thomas Aquinas, the representative figure of scholastic philosophy. Gleizes himself regarded the emergence of scholasticism as a sign that the religious, rhythmic spirit had failed but we will see later in this essay that he believed that on purely artistic matters, Aquinas' views were entirely 'traditional'. See the essay on this site: Albert Gleizes, Ananda Coomaraswamy and 'tradition'.

(6) The quotation is very typical of Coomaraswamy's thought, but I am unable to place it precisely. I have therefore been obliged to translate it from the French.

This encounter naturally encouraged me to continue my researches along the path I had begun to clear - on the one hand using painting as an experimental means; and, on the other, trying to reason things out intellectually, which enabled me to move the debate into a more general field in which the painter was to become the servant of Man. I readily acknowledge that what I was painting at that time was very poor - my means were very limited. I had little chance of attracting the attention of a world that was more and more wandering off in search of purely aesthetic excitements, each day more and more convinced that a work of art could only be the product of individual eccentricity. Moreover, what I said or wrote could only barely be understood even by the best-informed intellectuals, since their opinions were based on all-exclusive formulae derived from a rationalist premise that was never discussed. I was not, then, ignorant of the immediate practical consequences of what I had undertaken. But what I had already glimpsed, across a thousand difficulties, was enough to awaken a faith so strong that I was enabled, unhesitatingly, to go after it.