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ALBERT GLEIZES AND CUBISM

Now, keeping that in mind, I want to pass on to Albert Gleizes.(3)

(3)  Most of what follows on Gleizes can be found in my book Albert Gleizes - For and Against the Twentieth Century, Yale University Press, 2001

Despite my own best efforts of the past thirty five years Gleizes is still not as well known as he deserves to be so I have to begin with a few words of introduction situating him, in particular in relation to the history of Cubism. And in the first instance insisting that Cubism was not something 'invented' by Picasso and/or Braque. The word 'Cubism', like the term 'Impressionism', was originally conceived as a term of ridicule and after some ten years of being abused and ridiculed as a 'Cubist' it came as something of a surprise to Gleizes to be told that he wasn't a 'true Cubist', meaning that he wasn't Picasso or Braque.

In fact - this is not the main subject of my talk so I shall be speaking in very schematic terms without much in the way of supporting argument or evidence - what we call 'Cubism' was the result of a coming together of two distinct tendencies, one might say two different worlds of thought. The difference between them can perhaps usefully expressed in terms of a highly symbolic confrontation that occurred in the late nineteenth century between the poets Stephane Mallarmé and René Ghil.

Ghil is almost forgotten now but there was a time when his importance was widely recognised. He was part of Mallarmé's circle and his first book was published with a preface by Mallarmé. The story has it that Mallarmé said to him: 'Eden exists! We must believe in Eden!' Ghil replied 'No Master, Eden does not exist' and left him, never to return.(4)

(4)  The story of Ghil and Mallarmé appears with variations in a number of books on Mallarmé notably Louis Wirth Marvick: Mallarmé and the sublime, State University of New York Press, 1986 p.90, and Rosemary Lloyd: Mallarmé: The Poet and his circle, Cornell University Press, 2005, p.194. Lloyd suggests that the incident occurred before Mallarmé wrote a preface for Ghil's Traité du verbe, so that it did not mark a break in their friendship. I have it from Juliette Roche Gleizes: 'Mémoires - Le dadaïsme, 2e partie', unpublished, undated ms, possibly written in the early 1960s. She says he left the room and never saw Mallarmé again. There has been a recent attempt to revive interest in Ghil in France led by the poet Jean-Pierre Bobillot. See René Ghil: Le Voeu de Vivre et autres poèmes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2004. Note also René Ghil: Légende d'âmes et de sangs, Bassac, Plein Chant, 1995.

What does that mean? By 'Eden', Mallarmé had in mind the Earthly Paradise, a world in which beautiful people move beautifully through a beautiful landscape, Arcadia, the world of nymphs and fauns, of pagan mythology, a world that is allowed a violent side in, say, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. It is the world of Mallarmé's own L'Après-Midi d'un faune. In painting we might think of Gauguin in Tahiti, of Matisse's dancers of the Fauves. It is a sensual, quasi erotic world. Some people might baulk at my suggesting that Picasso belongs to this world but even if he mocks it, or attacks it, even at times seems to tear it to pieces, he is always, I would maintain, haunted by it. It is his sphere of reference, regarding as he did its master, Matisse, as his most important competitor in his very competitive attitude to other artists.

What then did Ghil mean when he said 'Eden does not exist'? Ghil's poetry is difficult to understand though it is magnificent when read aloud, highly musical in its abundance of rhythms and internal rhymes. His theory of poetry was almost abstract, stressing the quality of the words independent of their meaning. But thematically he was writing on a huge scale. His subject was the Universe and his frame of reference was astrophysics, geology, Darwinian evolution, human history on a large scale. He could be characterised as a 'realist', even as a 'materialist', understanding the history as a great, one might say 'spiritual' adventure - the struggle of matter to acquire self consciousness, a poetic expression of the quite exciting and intellectual stimulating worldview we find in the writings of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett (they tell us what we have to believe if we don't believe in God).

Gleizes first attracted attention as a member of an artist's commune established in 1906 in Créteil, then a village near Paris. Among the members of what was called the 'Abbaye de Créteil' (the 'Abbaye' had no religious connotation. It was a reference to Rabelais' entirely secular Abbaye de Thélème) were the poets Georges Duhamel (later to be well known as a novelist) and Gleizes's particular friend René Arcos, both of whom could be described at the time as followers of Ghil. Although he never lived in the Abbaye, Jules Romains was loosely associated with it. Later well known as a novelist and playwright he founded what might be called a school of poetry under the name 'Unanimism' which I would regard as a more approachable version of what Ghil was doing - a huge universal synthesis of the world as it is actually experienced, a wholesale rejection of the ideal of Eden, of the earthly, sensual Paradise, of primeval innocence. 

The painters associated with Gleizes in the Cubist period - particularly Henri Le Fauconnier, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, perhaps less so Jean Metzinger - had it in common that they wanted big, realist subjects. Gleizes is perhaps best known as the author, together with Metzinger, of what was widely, indeed internationally known as the manifesto of Cubism - Du "Cubisme", published at the end of 1912. It begins by inscribing Cubism in the 'realist' tradition of French art: 'To understand the importance of Cubism, we must go back to Gustave Courbet.' But Courbet is criticised because:

'Not knowing that if one true relationship [rapport] is to be discovered, a thousand appearances have to be sacrificed, he accepted, without any intellectual judgment [contrôle] anything that was communicated to him by the retina of his eye. He had no notion of the fact that it is only through the operation of thought that the visible world becomes the real world, and that the objects that strike us most forcefully are not always those that are the most rich in truths of a plastic nature [en vérités plastiques].


GLEIZES AND GOD

All this might appear irrelevant to the subject of this talk which concerns Gleizes at a later period and the relations between Gleizes and the people round him with the Roman Catholic Church. But I think it is important to see the angle he is coming from. It most certainly wasn't any dreamy aesthetic mysticism. He had, so far as I know, no connection with the church or affection for it - people who knew him in the Cubist period say he was very anticlerical and indeed his anticlericalism continued into the 1920s after he had declared his belief in God. When his pupil, Evie Hone, entered a monastery in 1925 he declared that the monasteries were 'empty shells abandoned by the spirit.' He did however have a longstanding admiration for the mediaeval church. In his essay Cubism and Tradition, published in 1913, he claimed that Cubism, together with modern architecture, especially industrial architecture, was renewing with the constructive spirit that had built the mediaeval cathedrals.

Two aspects of the thought as we have seen it so far could be said to have prepared the way for his religious conversion - the first his desire for a large world view embracing the totality of things - the Universe. The second, in agreement with the 'Unanimism' of Jules Romains - seeing everything in the Universe as interrelated, interdependent, a single vast organism.

Gleizes's recognition of the existence of God occurred in 1918, in New York, where he was closely associated with his friends from the Cubist period in Paris, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, founders of 'New York Dada'. Gleizes was deeply upset at the direction Picabia and Duchamp were taking and. after an initial admiration for the architectural genius of the New York skyscrapers, he was overcome with horror at the superhuman scale and ultimate inhumanity of the great city. He had been conscripted at the beginning of the 1914 war and been billeted in the military hospital of Toul where he witnessed the condition of the wounded returning from the battlefield. It left him a lifelong pacifist. In New York he had campaigned against US entry into the war and then witnessed the process by which the US was worked up into war fever once the decision to go to war was taken. He saw the Dadaism of his friends as a surrender to despair and the feeling that life was meaningless which he too was experiencing. It was in these circumstances that he told his wife: 'Something terrible has happened to me. I have found God. God exists. We cannot do without him.' According to the story as told by his later friend and associate Walter Firpo, the very worldly Mme Gleizes replied: 'Never mind Albert. Have a cup of tea and you will soon feel better.'

It occurs to me that there is a similarity between Gleizes's declaration of belief in God and Mallarmé's declaration of belief in Eden. If God does not exist, if the earthly Paradise does not exist, life becomes meaningless.

Gleizes's religious conversion coincided with and was closely related to a radical change in his approach to painting. Put very briefly he would soon abandon the 'big subject' - the town, the skyscrapers, the port - as a means of expressing a vision of the universe. It was now through the mechanism of the painting, the principles on which it was constructed, that he hoped to enter into harmony with he way the Universe and he natural world were constructed. Much later he would be fond of quoting Thomas Aquinas: 'The artist does not imitate nature in its appearances but in its mode of operation.'

         

        Gleizes: Port of New York, 1917                                              Non-representational painting, 1921 


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