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The Epic ­
From immobile form to mobile form


The first manifestations of Cubism took people by surprise because their minds, ill-adapted as they are to the idea of movement, are never able, on the basis of what is in front of them, to envisage what is to come.

Already for quite some time, the idea of form that had been adopted at the time of the Renaissance had become more than doubtful. During the nineteenth century, Christian art had been rediscovered by a team of erudite and enterprising scholars. The appearance of such a strong and respectable ally in opposition to the absolutes of Latin culture was, at the very least, interesting; but, most important, it was bound to evoke an idea of form quite different from the one which this official, Latin authority supported.

The results were quickly to be seen in the work of those who were active in the eminently practical field of the Fine Arts. The romanticism of a Delacroix, the realism of a Courbet, the Impressionists, giving up everything in favour of immediate sensation - these were so many consequences of the thesis advanced by historians who were proclaiming the independence and greatness of the principles used by Christians in the plastic arts. In opposition to the immobile means of expression that the Academy was teaching, these painters threw down like a challenge a mobile expression; to volumes situated in space they preferred the living dynamism of coloured form in evolution. In their own field, they hacked away at the foundations of the official world that surrounded them, but they did not yet know that, to build, other means than those which they had at their disposal would be necessary. So, their job was simply to shake the central pillars of the old house without being able to throw them down - so true it is that change is a long, slow process of transformation in the memory.



Cézanne, formed under the influence of the Impressionists and of Manet, had a great wealth of experience on which he could draw; and that is why he had the courage to attempt, to dare, the strange, hybrid structure of his work in which the Renaissance idea of an immobile, imitative form seeks to be reconciled, to live together, with the need that was being felt more and more urgently for an idea of form that would be mobile and would possess its own, concrete reality. The contradictions that are fundamental to his work are themselves the reason for its popularity; everyone can find in it what they want. No-one has yet either wanted or been able to see that Cézanne is no more well-disposed to the Renaissance than he is to all those still incoherent aspirations that have been thrown together under the name of 'Romanticism'. His position is the position of a man who hesitates, caught between his habits and something that tempts him but which has not yet become an imperative necessity. His own generation saw in him nothing other than impotence because they saw him naïvely; they were barely aware of the temptations to which he was subject. But the following generation, themselves quite hopelessly divided, caught between what had been made of them by an old cast of mind that had lost all creative power, and a vague longing for a renewed cast of mind - they raised the painter of Aix up to the pinnacle of greatness, simply because he had been unable himself to come to any decision. The worst contradictions pass unnoticed as if he had the infallibility of a god. The god Cézanne received at one and the same time the homage of the classicist, who could see in him only the imitative and perspective elements, and, equally, the homage of the revolutionaries because they could see in him a will towards construction, a rebellion against imitation, an attempt, still timid but clearly manifest, to raise the geometrical plane up to the vertical - that is to say, virtually, a refusal of the perspective system. The Cubists could not fail to see these tendencies in Cézanne's work; so they took him up, as did many others, but each of them for reasons of his own (1).

(1) Cézanne's 'state of indecision' is discussed in much greater detail in Gleizes' essay Painting and Representational Perspective, written shortly after the present essay (though it was published before it)

Between Cézanne and the Cubists must be placed that group of painters who were called the Fauves : Matisse, Derain, Friesz. Cézanne was not the only one who worked on them; they also underwent the influence of Van Gogh and Gauguin, who were not so far removed as people have later liked to pretend from the working out of the new thought. I have stated on several occasions that men such as Sérusier, Maurice Denis, Seurat, Cross, Odilon Redon were, in their different ways, pioneers, without knowing it, of the order that is in the process of being established (2). Can anyone be so simple-minded as to imagine that one man is sufficient to achieve a re-orientation as difficult and as complex as that which is required by the state of painting at the present time? Such an idea goes against all the experience of our history. Every important change is the result of many efforts, of people working together, of people working simultaneously, of people working one following the other. To achieve it, there is no need for any of those spontaneous, crazed geniuses that have been taken up by the world of fashion; there is a need for men of intelligence and ability who know how to sacrifice the little affairs of their momentary, personal vanity for an end that is far removed from them and requires a service that is entirely disinterested.

(2) Paul Sérusier did, as it happens, claim on one occasion that he was the 'Father of Cubism'. I give some sympathetic consideration to his claim in my 'Afterword' to Desiderius Lenz: The Aesthetic of Beuron, Francis Boutle Publishers, 2002. 

Convinced as I am of the human importance of what has been called Cubism, I have always tried to search out its true causes in the collaboration, whether conscious or not, of a group, and I know that the last word has not yet been spoken - that for a long time yet the track, which has still barely been indicated, will need the work that other generations will bring to it before, finally, it becomes a great road, rendered banal and uninteresting through being used too much.



The belief that only what was developed during the Renaissance could have any value has also been threatened by that taste for archaeology which is so pronounced at the present time and through which the work of emancipation begun by the romantic scholars has been continued. At the official level, certain ages of human history were simply declared to be rudimentary, primitive, full of good intentions, but absolutely lacking in any quality that could possibly deserve to be held up as an example. This was not just a result of the opinion that had been imposed with regard to the Renaissance; it was also a result of the idea of continual progress, of historical materialism and of an idea of prehistory which claimed to be able to unravel the secret of our origins. It was really a result of the self-satisfaction we all felt because we had confused civilisation with technology, with the development of machines and the resulting proliferation of an inferior, demoralising product. Even today we still hear people who blame artists for what they call 'archaic' influences while the most frivolous pastiches of the so-called civilised ages are seen as normal. Independent-minded painters saw the matter differently.

They were in a position to be more daring than their elders of the nineteenth century. These had admired the character of Christian forms dating from the period before the Renaissance - a synthesis of Mediterranean and Nordic qualities realised on Celtic soil. But the painters could now go even further back into the human past. They could begin to see the incomparable treasures which the inventory of history being undertaken at the present time was revealing to them. So, leaving the Christian world, they discovered other worlds and were inspired by works of art that were every bit as beautiful as those that belong to their own past. They used the external appearances of these works of art that were still unfamiliar to the majority of their contemporaries and in this way they acquired, without too much effort, a reputation as explorers of new territory. The world of fashion got itself involved, seeing in this work of uncovering the ancient springs of life, a means of effecting a series of changes of image. So, in the public exhibitions that have taken place over the past twenty-five years, we have seen a succession of works after the Egyptian manner, the Hindu manner, the Chinese, Red Indian, Negro manners. Superficial as they are, these manifestations were not entirely useless. They are preparing the way for the coming of that cast of mind which is going to replace the cast of mind in which we are all of us destined to die; and it is thus that, following the rhythm of life, a new cycle will begin.

In its beginnings, Cubism, too, shared this enthusiasm for everything that was 'archaic' or 'primitive'. It felt early on that its principles could not be found in the rules that had been developed in Greece in the age of Pericles, nor in those that had been discovered by the 'Masters of the Renaissance'. It turned rather to those works which brought a blush to the cheeks of the spirit of civilisation. After seeing them, and liking them, Cubism was not ashamed to, itself, assume appearances which the world about it considered to be monstrous. So, for some, it was through the old image-makers of the period before the thirteenth century and, for others, it was through negro sculpture, that their work was able to acquire such a very profoundly human character.

That was where all the researches began - in that transformation of the old way of looking at things. The Cubists were not the only ones who found those ages that had been denigrated by the academies passionately moving, since this passion is still the distinct, distinguishing characteristic of our whole generation. We are often unjust in the attitudes we adopt towards the Romantics, but nothing can change the fact that it is because of them that we know something other than what the official teaching, soaked in the slogans of the Renaissance, was capable of giving us.

There you have a brief indication of the antecedents of Cubism. In its origins it was readily confused with the general tendencies of its generation, but the moment is not far off when it will assume the leadership, when it will go beyond the level of mere appearances and will oblige what is still just an intellectual admiration for past ages to turn into a practical knowledge of principles that cannot be changed. It will act not just on painters, sculptors and architects, but on the world as a whole at the widest and most general level.