Friday, March 23, 2018

Cubism [Du “Cubisme”] by Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger

First brief manifesto of the revolutionary art movement
Portrait of Albert Gleizes
by Jean Metzinger
Originally published in 1912 under the French title Du “Cubisme”, this brief treatise by painters Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger was the first manifesto of the Cubist painting movement to be published in book form. While Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque are recognized as the founders of cubism, and fellow painters Juan Gris or Fernand Léger might spring to mind as exemplars of the movement, Gleizes and Metzinger were two notable members of the Salon Cubists group who organized the Salon de la Section d’Or, an exhibition for showcasing Cubist paintings in opposition to the established academic salons. Though artists and critics had previously published articles on Cubism in art and literary magazines, this was the first attempt by members of the movement to release a self-contained tract on the subject.

The English edition of 1913, simply entitled Cubism, consists of about 64 pages of text followed by 26 reproductions of paintings. These illustrations are printed in black and white in the poor halftone printing technology of the time. The value of the illustrations today is negligible, given that all these artworks are likely now available to freely view in color on the internet, so the main attraction here is the text. Even the selection of illustrations is questionable, however, since Picasso, Braque, and Gris are only represented by one painting each, while the authors and their friend Léger each get to display five examples of their work. The other artists represented are Paul Cézanne (as a forebearer), Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, André Derain, and Marie Laurencin.

Despite its level of abstraction, Cubism was considered a form of realism because it investigated the nature of reality, as opposed to Romanticism or Symbolism, which dealt with emotions, dreams, and the imagination. As realists, Gleizes and Metzinger cite the art of Gustave Courbet as a major influence for his breaking away from academic conventions, though they disagree with his representational method of depicting the world. Edouard Manet is likewise halfheartedly acknowledged as a kindred spirit. Not surprisingly, Cézanne is put forth as the Cubists’ primary progenitor for his pictorial analyses of form and space. Gleizes and Metzinger view the Impressionists as a sort of sister movement, as both schools of painting attempt to go beyond camera-image realism by applying scientific methods to painting, yet they condescendingly view Impressionism as Cubism’s inferior sibling. While the impressionists concentrate their efforts on duplicating how the eye perceives color, the Cubists engage in the more intellectual pursuit of exploring how the mind comprehends and constructs ideas of form and space. The Impressionists still operate under the illusion that they are depicting the world “as it is,” while the Cubists, reflecting the relativity of Albert Einstein and the philosophy of Henri Bergson, question the absolute perceptibility of nature by the senses and emphasize the mind’s ability to construct reality as it sees fit.

When it comes to the actual discussion of painting techniques and the treatment of form within the picture plane, Gleizes and Metzinger are less clear in their prescriptions. Like many a manifesto, the tone of the writing is more confrontational than explanatory. In the interest of staking their claim, they seem as much interested in excluding artists from their movement rather than gathering recruits. If you want to know what Cubism was all about, you’d probably be better off reading a recent retrospective by an art historian, but as a historical document Du “Cubisme” is an invaluable artifact of how the early Cubists viewed their movement and its aims. Art history buffs who love a good manifesto should certainly give it a look.
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