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Gleizes did not regard any of this as really new. The theme of the 'shock of the new' was alien to him. It was bringing to the fore a principle which actually underlay, though it was distorted by, much of the best figurative, post-Renaissance painting. But, more to the point, it was a principle that had been fully manifested, free to act, in other times and other cultures - in particular, with relation to Western Europe, Romanesque art. It characterised, according to Gleizes, a religious experience of the world, a participation in the world, as opposed to a materialist observation of the world. Observation of the world as something external to the observer, and as somehow being 'reality' - more real than the observer - was, for Gleizes, the essence of Humanism:

'Senses on the one hand, observation on the other.  And that is Humanism in a nutshell.  It separates Man away from the world which surrounds him.  Man is reduced to the senses.  The surrounding world exists outside him.  The only thing he can do if he wishes to know it is to observe it, through his senses.  To reason is given the job of untangling the knot of all the complicated relations which are found to exist between the different observations.' (15)

(15) Albert Gleizes: Homocentrisme, Sablons, Moly Sabata, 1937, p.43. My translation (unpublished).

One of the fondest memories of my life is standing in the twilight on a mountainside overlooking the beautiful Vallée du Jabron in the Alpes de Haute Provence and talking with Henri Viaud, founder of the publishing house, Éditions Présence. He had originally started it to publish Gleizes but had subsequently become a pioneer in publishing books by authors such as Henri Le Saux ('Swami Abhisiktananda'), Archimandrite Sophrony, with his account of Saint Silouan of Mount Athos, and the specialist in Iranian Sufism, Henry Corbin. Viaud told me that there had been two major influences on his life - Gleizes, and the Christian philosopher, Nicholas Berdiaev. 'Of course' he said, 'what Gleizes called the object, Berdiaev called the subject; and what Gleizes called the object, Berdiaev called the subject, but they were both saying essentially the same thing.'

Henri Viaud

I'm not sure that they were always saying essentially the same thing but the basic point Viaud was making remains: both of them were asserting human reality (Heidegger's dasein) (16) as the fundamental reality, and the observed world - colour and form - as a function of that human reality. Where Berdiaev saw that as an assertion of the primacy of the 'subject' (you and me in our 'subjective' experience of the world) Gleizes asserted that this was an objective reality, with its own not at all arbitrary laws and principles manifested in the human act - first and foremost the act of the craftsman and farmer - in a practical engagement with the material world, itself a part of that reality and not a 'subject' arbitrarily separated from it. The human act is not an imitation of something other than itself.

(16) 'Réalité humaine' was the term Henry Corbin used to translate dasein in his 1930s translation of Heidegger's What is metaphysics - the first translation of any of Heidegger's writings into French.

I imagine that Rookmaaker, who insisted that every painting needs a subject, who argues that love can only be love of the 'specific', and who was a pioneer in the reaction against so-called 'formalist' art criticism, would have hated that formulation. He would have seen it as a devaluation of the world as created by God. It isn't. It takes nothing from the beauty of the world as we experience it. One could perhaps understand the matter in terms of Herman Dooyeweerd's 'sphere sovereignty'. (17) The beauty of the natural world is one 'sphere', operating within one set of plastic conditions; art is another, operating in a completely different set of plastic conditions. The two complement each other because they are both functions of the human sensibility in its ability to realise colour and form.

(17) eg in Roots of Western Culture, pp.172-3, 'The classical ideal of science does not take into account the order of reality set by God the Creator. In this order we detect the great diversity of aspects, each with its own irreducible nature and law, which proclaims the astonishing richness and harmony of God's creative wisdom' (my emphasis). The concept of 'sphere sovereignty' was originally formulated in the nineteenth century by Groen van Prinsterer, largely as a political concept in opposition to the monopolistic power of the state. It was greatly extended in its scope by Dooyeweerd.

Since Gleizes argued that this state of mind and this painting were religious in nature, the question naturally arises of his relations with the Church. Those who knew him in the pre-war Cubist era say he was strongly anticlerical. (18) He had been involved with an Association Ernest Renan, which had a mission of popularising a secular culture through poetry readings and street theatre. He was a member of the Abbaye de Créteil - an artistic, mostly literary, commune which also included the future novelist Georges Duhamel and was associated with the 'Unanimism' of the then poet and future novelist and playwright, Jules Romains. Romains's Unanimism followed on a vision he had of the interconnection between all things, seeing the world and human affairs as a single living organism. His book of poems, La Vie unanime, published by the Abbaye, was one of the most influential books of his day.

(18) Anne Dangar to Grace Crowley, 11/6/1936, describing a conversation she had with Mme André Lhote: 'She went on to talk of Gleizes. She knew him very intimately before his marriage. She says he was always deadly in earnest, but was then always arguing against religion, and she found it so very interesting that it was his work which had made him change and led him to understand Christianity in such a deep, logical way.’ I consulted the Dangar-Crowley correspondence in Ampuis in France but it has since been transferred to the Grace Crowley papers, State Library of New South Wales.

But perhaps the most important early influence was the poet René Ghil, one time associate of Mallarmé's, whose huge poetic project L'Oeuvre could perhaps be compared with Ezra Pound's Cantos in its ambition and complexity, telling the story of the Universe in terms of the struggle of matter through evolution to attain self consciousness.

All that could be seen as an attempt to realise an all embracing and essentially optimistic world view without having recourse to belief in God. We could suggest that the experience of living with the proto-Dadaism of Duchamp (Gleizes was one of the organisers of the Independents exhibition in New York to which Duchamp submitted his famous urinal) and Picabia persuaded Gleizes of the impossibility of the project - a feeling that Duchamp's 'Ready Mades' were indeed a logical extension of the attempt to achieve meaning through examining the appearances of the external world, through following Cézanne's advice to 'penetrate into what you have in front of you and persevere in expressing yourself as logically as possible.'

Francis Picabia: Portrait of Cézanne, Portrait of Renoir, Portrait of Rembrandt, 1920 with Marcel Duchamp: In advance of the broken arm, 1915

It should be stressed that Duchamp's Large Glass - The Bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even was a serious attempt, pursued over many years, to do just that, to penetrate to the fourth dimension, believed to underpin the appearances of the external world. It was an ambition shared by Jean Metzinger, Gleizes's collaborator in writing what was widely regarded as the Cubist manifesto, Du "Cubisme". Gleizes himself was always sceptical about the project but his own ambition to 'crystallise a thousand sensations in an aesthetic order ... [to] give the equivalent of the enormous 'Broadway' – that fantastic river with a thousand currents going against each other, interweaving, rising up over its banks' was just as quixotic. Duchamp's 'Ready Mades' were a response to failure, a gesture of despair, and in the context of a huge, meaningless and murderous war, Gleizes was finding this despair difficult to resist. The year of his conversion - 1918 - was the only year in his life in which he seems to have done almost no painting.

The actual moment of the conversion has been described with variations directly by Mme Gleizes (Juliette Roche), and, probably indirectly from her, by Walter Firpo, painter and poet, and the Benedictine monk, painter and photographer, Dom Angelico Surchamp. This is a composite version, made up of my favourite parts of the three accounts:

According to Mme Gleizes, she was working tranquilly on a painting of four acrobats when Gleizes burst into her room in a state of great agitation.

(19) Juliette Roche-Gleizes: Mémoires - L'Art dans l'évolution générale, unpublished ms. I possess a photocopy of the original which used to form part of the Gleizes archive in the possession of Henri Viaud. Since Viaud's death the archive has been dispersed. A different collection of Mme Gleizes's memoirs can be consulted in the Gleizes archive, Kandinsky Library, MNAM, Paris.

According to Dom Angelico (20) he then said: 'A terrible thing has happened to me. I have found God. God exists. We cannot do without Him.' (my emphasis - PB)

(20) Dom Angelico Surchamp: 'L'Itinéraire pictural et spirituel d'Albert Gleizes' in Albert Gleizes - Le Cubisme et son dénouement dans la tradition, exhibition catalogue, Lyon, Chapelle du Lycée Ampère, 1947.

According to Walter Firpo, (21) Mme Gleizes 'said in her usual very cool voice: "Well, Albert, don't worry, take a cup of tea and you will soon feel better."'

(21) Walter Firpo: Albert Gleizes - Cubism with a future, Ampuis and Brecon, Association des Amis d'Albert Gleizes, 1996. It can also be found on my older website at

This - the moment when Gleizes felt humanism could only descend into the Nihilism/Absurdism of Duchamp and Picabia - may be a good moment to revisit the views of Gary Lachman and Rookmaaker outlined at the beginning of this essay.