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Thursday, 9 July 2009

Airbrushed from Art History (10)

The third circle of influence which emerged from the French Catholic Revival was that which developed around the cubist Albert Gleizes.

Bruce Arnold writes in Mainie Jellett and the Modern Movement in Ireland that:

Gleizes was well known as one of the pioneers of Cubism. The paintings of Gleizes, Metzinger, Le Fauconnier, Delaunay and Léger had created a sensation at the Salon des Indépendents in 1911, comparable to the sensation caused by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring performed in Paris two years later. This was before the general public became aware of Picasso and Braque, whose work was only well known to a small circle of private collectors. Although he is often dismissed as a minor follower of Picasso and Braque, Gleizes claimed that it was only in the autumn of 1911, after his own reputation as a Cubist was securely established, that he first saw their work ...

Together with Jean Metzinger ... Gleizes published the first major explanation and defence of Cubism – Du Cubisme – in 1912. He spent most of the war period in New York where he was closely associated with Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia ... It was in New York ... that he discovered the belief in God that was to play such an important part in his subsequent thinking, though it was not until 1942 that he finally became a practising Roman Catholic ... Gleizes returned to Paris in 1919 and in 1920 he attempted a synthesis of the Cubist experience up to that point in his Du Cubisme et les moyens de le comprendre.”

Shortly after, two Irish Protestant artists, Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone, asked Gleizes to become their teacher, although he had not to that point had any pupils. Arnold writes that, “Anne Dangar, a later pupil of Gleizes and friend of Mainie’s, ... says that Mainie and Evie had seen Gleizes most recent paintings prior to meeting him, and that ‘they had a construction which reminded them of the Irish books of the seventh century in the University of Dublin’.”

Gleizes “was moving towards a way of dividing the surface of the painting and putting it into movement without organically changing its nature, without creating the illusion of a third dimension. For this to be possible, a system of deriving the forms and colours of the painting from the inherent qualities of the surface itself had to be devised. To begin with, the only shape that was inherent was that of the canvas itself, the rectangle. But by moving the rectangle to the left or right, or up and down, and perhaps more importantly by oscillating it around its own axis, two distinct and basic concepts emerged – translation and rotation.” As he explained this to Jellett and Hone, Gleizes felt that “his two Irish pupils ... exacted from him the most powerful lesson any teacher gives, which is self-knowledge ... and he admitted that this may not have been possible without their calm yet relentless insistence. ”

Gleizes set out these new ideas in the book La Peinture et ses lois where he argued that:

“the new painting is at least in part a return to earlier principles of painting – principles that were widespread before the introduction of the perspective mechanism and which achieved one of their highest realisations in the painting, sculpture and architecture of the Romanesque period ...

Gleizes’ view of history was ... cyclical. He argued that Europe had passed through a cycle when its spiritual life was based on religious principles – the relations between man and God – but that since the thirteenth century a new, materialist, cycle had begun when all our attention and highest endeavours were turned towards the appearances of the external world about us. Painting began to observe the illusion of external space; ‘science’, understood in terms of the observation and analysis of matter, became increasingly important. The new needs felt by the Cubists, Gleizes argued, indicated that man was beginning to return to a religious cycle. The Romanesque period, whose importance Gleizes had already stressed in his essay, 'Le Cubisme et la tradition', published in 1913, was to become very fashionable among French non-representational painters of the 1930s and 1940s, though the paintings of Alfred Manessier, Maurice Estève and Jean Bazaine are still very different from those of Gleizes.”

Jellett and Hone remained pupils and a circle of artists gradually developed around Gleizes – including Robert Pouyaud, and Anne Dangar, among others. Pouyaud expressed the sense that these artists had of full absorption in Gleizes’ pictorial and spiritual system when he wrote in his 1924 memoir:

“As a result of our long discussions, our discoveries, our advances and mistakes, the doctrine of Albert Gleizes was clarified. It implications in the social domain are well-known: decentralization, return to the earth, a healthy life far from the towns, the rediscovery of natural rhythm, the rediscovery of the microcosmic function of humanity. At that time, all of these ideas went unheeded in the world about us, and we knew that we would have to live on the periphery of this society that Albert Gleizes used to condemn so virulently.”

In 1927, Bruce Adams writes in Rustic Cubism: Anne Dangar and the Art Colony at Moly-Sabata, Pouyaud sought Gleizes’ assistance to start a “normal life” on the land. Gleizes was “already considering the need for a spiritually satisfying retreat for his followers” and in October 1927 secured Moly Sabata, a disused old building at Sablons, for which the Pouyauds left Paris on 1st November in order to establish an artists’ commune. Soon, the Pouyauds were joined by the writer François Manevy and his wife, composer and violinist César Geoffrey and his wife, Mido, a pianist, and Anne Dangar, an Australian artist seeking tuition from Gleizes. The commune existed by means of agriculture and art (initially pochoirs – stencil prints – of Gleizes’ paintings and, later, Dangar’s development as a potter) and established a quasi-monastic Rule of Moly-Sabata which determined the daily division of labour among its members.

Communal life at Moly Sabata was, however, far from paradisal and in 1930 both the Pouyauds and Manevys left Moly Sabata making Dangar, by default, the primary source of support – through pochoirs and her pottery – for the commune as a whole. Adams’ book, Rustic Cubism, documents Dangar’s dedication “to the colony’s aims by working in the region’s village potteries, combining their vernacular elements with Gleizes’ design methods to arrive at a type of rustic Cubism.” Adams places Dangar “at the heart of Moly-Sabata’s alternative art movement” and argues that her work there was ultimately rewarded as “her pieces can today be found in the Musée Décoratifs in Paris, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche in Faenza, the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and many other museums.”

Arnold argues that:

“Jellett revolutionized art in Ireland in the twentieth century. She became the central figure of the modern movement in Ireland and dedicated her life to promoting and developing a vital and positive attitude to art during the country’s difficult period of isolation and political instability.
... she became one of the chief exponents of an art concentrating on rhythm and movement, colour and form. Although her art was misunderstood and ridiculed for many years, she regularly exhibited in Dublin, London and Paris years before the work of such artists as [Ben] Nicholson and [Barbara] Hepworth was recognized in London. She was also a founder member of the group of avant-garde artists, Abstraction-Création.”

Arnold writes that with Gleizes “Mainie was able to develop a painting comparable in its intellectual complexity and human, spiritual, depth to the masterpieces of Celtic art.”

Hone, although loyal to and supportive of Jellett, “shunned the public eye and played no significant role in the leadership and education of a public trying to understand what modern art was about.” In 1933 she joined An Túr Gloine, a stained glass workshop set up by Sarah Purser, and later that year produced her first public work, three panels incorporated into a single window for Saint Naithi’s Church in Dundrum, County Durham. This initial commission was followed by many others, including windows at Blackrock College Chapel, King’s Hospital Chapel, Eton College Chapel, and Kingscourt Church, County Cavan. Peter Harbison writes, in The Crucifixion in Irish Art, that she became, with Harry Clarke, “one of the most outstanding Christian artists of her generation in Ireland and, indeed, in Europe.”

“She toured widely in Ireland, sketching a number of old stone carvings that, along with the art of Rouault, were to find echoes in her subsequent work.” Arnold notes her as saying “that stained glass demanded ‘an altogether different approach’ [which] she summarised ... in Matisse’s words: ‘Stained glass is coloured light, it is a luminous orchestra. There is no need of stories. If stained glass becomes again a symphony of colours it can find its place in any architecture’.”

Gleizes, as noted by Peter Brooke in his Afterword to The Aesthetic of Beuron and other writings, came to see his search for values, both in painting and society, as a return to “the spirit of the Benedictine order ‘which filled the greatest of the Christian centuries, from the fifth to the thirteenth’.” Gleizes argued that in the thirteenth century, the Benedictines had given way to the Dominicans and “a different spirit had entered the Church and into Western civilisation as a whole.” Gleizes viewed the Thomism of the Dominicans as representing “the intellectual values of the urban university” in contrast to the order of St Benedict which is “exclusively based on theology and for that reason preserving the order of life, at the scale of the individual, work with the hands as the necessary complement to intellectual work, authority of the agricultural countryside and restoration of monastic schools where culture and technique are clearly defined in the two categories of the trivium and the quadrivium.”

Yet, as has been noted in the ninth post of this series, many intellectuals at this time, “who had some intuitive feeling of the need for religion,” were turning to the teachings of the thirteenth century, to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Arnold notes that, by the 1930s Gleizes “was becoming increasingly aware of a marked tendency to underplay or ignore his contribution to the history of modern art.” Gleizes had remained developing Cubism as a movement when the interest of art critics and historians was in a succession of modern movements rather than the development of any one movement to its fullest potential and was also out of kilter with developments in the French Catholic Revival by emphasising the Benedictine rather than the Dominican tradition. Brooke writes that, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, “the conflict Gleizes saw between this Augustinian spirit and the Thomist spirit took the very acute form of a public quarrel between Gleizes and Fr Pie-Raymond Régamy, a Dominican, director of the journal Art Sacré, and leading champion of the efforts to engage leading modern artists in the service of the Church.”

The Thomism of Régamy draws a sharp distinction between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’ which leaves artists free to develop their personal expression of the spiritual to the maximum of their powers and leads Régamy to argue that the Church should commission “the best artists of our time” asking them to “treat those subjects which best correspond to their temperament.” The early Augustinianism of Gleizes, however, stresses the continuity between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ leading to a search for “objective laws that are appropriate to liturgical art.”

Both positions will be explored more fully in subsequent posts in this series although it should be noted that neither of the circles of influence or the ideas around Régamy (together with his colleague Fr Marie-Alan Couturier) and Gleizes have provided a sufficient foundation on which subsequent artists, art critics or theologians could build a substantial body of art commissions, theories or works.


Francis Poulenc: Salve Regina.

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