Essays
Published in 3 different nights, recurring, IMMA, Dublin, ISBN: 978-1-909792-15-9

Reflections on movement as a function of painting

Peter Brooke

In 1921, two young Irishwomen, Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone, knocked on the door of the painter Albert Gleizes and asked to become his pupils.
1 Already studying with Gleizes's friend André Lhote, they had been inspired by reading Gleizes's book, published in 1920, Du Cubisme et les moyens de le comprendre [On Cubism and the means by which it can be understood].2 This 1920 'Du Cubisme' should not be confused with the much better known Du "Cubisme", written jointly by Gleizes and Jean Metzinger in 1912. The 1912 book is very tentative. By 1920, however, Gleizes believed the painters had acquired sufficient experience to draw some definite conclusions. Most startlingly that 'We are approaching a situation identical to that of the ninth century in France.' (p.8)

It was now possible to envisage a painting that 'being based on laws' would again become 'impersonal'. (p.6). Using a phrase which would often be used by Jellett, Gleizes declares: 'Painting is the art of animating a plane surface' (p.18). The plane surface of the painting has two dimensions. To add a fictitious third dimension is to rob it of its nature. After going through a catalogue of all the errors committed by the Cubist painters along the way, he concludes that 'the internal structure of the painting is of the same nature as all natural formations, mineral, vegetable and organic.' (p.32):

'A body, a flower, are organisations that follow the same law as the Universe, and they are, consequently, little universes in their own right.

The painting, conceived following the same law as these organisations, will also be a little universe, acting in accordance with (accordé au) the rhythm of the Universe.

And the man capable of appreciating this (qui saura le goûter) will feel the return of the religious idea which has provoked in the human world (dans l'humain) the appearance of the painted artistic manifestation, this great prayer said with lines, forms and colours.' (pp.41-2).

Doubtless Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone hoped that Gleizes was going to tell them what these 'laws' were and how they could be put into practise. But Gleizes was anything (or at least saw himself as anything) but a teacher. He had from his own childhood a horror of the classroom and he never himself submitted to any formal training as a painter. When he finally agreed to take them on as 'pupils' he insisted that this was to be a process of collective discovery. And it was. We have a rich archive of drawings by Mainie Jellett which shows what a key role she in particular played in what was still a very experimental process.

Gleizes had to admit that despite the apparent confidence of Du Cubisme et les moyens de le comprendre knowledge of the laws was still at a rudimentary stage. He would continue to develop his thinking throughout his life, but the first stage, the first step along the way, was the publication in 1922-1923 of La Peinture et ses lois [Painting and its laws].
3 'I owe it', he later said, to Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone and even today my feeling of gratitude to them shows no sign of leaving me.’4

'Painting and its laws' introduces two terms that would be fundamental to Gleizes's thinking - 'translation' and 'rotation'. They are borrowed from physics. 'Translation' signifies a movement of an object in relation to other objects in space, 'rotation' a movement of an object in relation to itself. The earth revolving round the sun is moving in translation; the earth revolving on its own axis is moving in rotation. The terms are used by Aristotle and they occur frequently in Einstein's Relativity.
5 At the time when Gleizes was writing 'Painting and Its Laws', he was friendly with the physicist Paul Langevin who was one of the leading French exponents of Einstein's ideas. But Gleizes insists that he is not applying ideas derived from contemporary science to painting. Insofar as there are parallels between the work of the scientists and that of the painters it is because they share a common state of mind; in their separate fields, they are both grappling with the same problems. The scientists, dissatisfied with classical mechanics, and the painters, dissatisfied with classical perspective, are both groping towards a new (or towards the recovery of an old) religious consciousness.

But if translation was a movement of objects in relation to other objects, and rotation a movement of an object in relation to itself, what was the 'object' or what were the 'objects' in question? For Gleizes, there was only one object with which the painter had to deal: not the whole multitude of 'subjects' he or she might choose to paint - people, trees, pots and pans, historical events or whatever - but the painting itself or, rather, from the start, prior to the realisation of the painting, the area that was destined to be covered with paint. The characteristics of this space were already given as the necessary starting point of the painter's act. It was a plane surface with particular proportions, normally a rectangle with the single proportion of length and breadth. Everything in the painting had to derive logically from that simple fact if it was to work as a living organism, if everything in it was to be inter-related in a coherent and rational manner. The movements of translation and of rotation were movements of plane shapes bearing an intelligible relationship to the overall plane surface of the painting itself.

Later Gleizes was to feel that he had been mistaken in describing 'translation' as a movement, and indeed in using a language that suggested that the movement was in the painting rather than in the consciousness and in the operations of the eye of the beholder. What he had called translation, he argued, corresponded to the nature of the eye when it is immobilised and at rest. That such an eye might make a series of observations one after the other was not sufficient to put it into movement. The eye watching the series of 'moving pictures' in a film is itself entirely immobile and passive, much as a man sitting in a high speed train is himself entirely immobile and passive. But painting could awaken another property of the eye. The eye was not condemned always to record the movement of things other than itself. It had its own movement. But this capacity of the eye was atrophied for want of use. It was indeed quite useless for the practical purposes of a society which demanded of the eye only a host of observations, as precise as possible. But the eye exercising itself, rejoicing in its own movement, was an aid to contemplation, to the inner activity of the soul, hence the 'rhythmic' nature of the art of all the great religious ages.

Gleizes, then, insisted that, if the painting was to be experienced as a single organism inter-related in all its parts, it had to derive from the overall proportions of the surface to be covered in paint. In practice this meant that, assuming the overall surface to be a rectangle, the 'translation', appealing to the eye at rest, was a simple repetition of those proportions, parallel to the sides of the painting, while the 'rotation' was evoked by tilting the planes, to the right or to the left, in such a way that the eye would, so to speak, imagine that the plane itself was turning, and follow the movement round. Initially, Gleizes, Hone and Jellett, experimented with odd shapes, but they seem to have quickly concluded that the vertical and horizontal of a rectangle were fundamental to asserting the stability, the static quality, of the painting and would have to be asserted even if the overall surface was not itself rectangular.

Gleizes and his pupils made very rapid progress using these means throughout the 1920s, from the early paintings, which are stiff and awkward, to the paintings of the mid-1920s, which are much more supple and varied. There were still, however, fundamental problems that were worrying Gleizes. One was the difficulty of incorporating the curve and the circle into a painting that was derived from an overall rectilinear base; the other was that the theory as outlined in Painting and Its Laws was helpful with regard to questions of formal construction but provided no guidance to the use of colour.

Through working on these problems in the 1930s, Gleizes came to the conclusion that a third condition was necessary for the painting - an overall, simple rhythmic form, the culmination of the translation/rotation, circular or spiralling in nature since, if it does not return on itself it will direct the eye beyond the picture space and the movement will stop. In terms of colour this becomes light, the totality of the colour circle, and thus Gleizes joined up again with the Neo-Impressionist colour theory of the beginning of the twentieth century. But for Gleizes, contrary to the Neo-Impressionists, the totality of colour was not expressed in white, analogous to the white light of Newton's colour theory, but in grey, mid-way between the extremes of white and black, with the extraordinary property of assuming the complementary of any colour with which it comes in contact. The capacity of grey to reconcile what might otherwise have been harsh colour schemes can often be seen in the paintings of Mainie Jellett.

It is with these three conditions - translation (stability/measure/figure) - rotation (cadence) - rhythm (form/light) - that Gleizes believed, Mainie believed, and I believe, that he had recovered the 'laws' whose existence he had proclaimed in Du Cubisme et les moyens de le comprendre, the solid principles that lie behind much pre-Renaissance painting, principles that can form the basis for a rich and varied art of contemplation in our own time, capable of much further development in the future.

1—The definitive account of Mainie Jellett's career is B Arnold, Mainie Jellett and the Modern Movement in Ireland (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991). No equivalent work has yet been done for Evie Hone.
2—A Gleizes, Du Cubisme et des moyens de le comprendre (Paris: Eds "La Cible", 1920).
3—A Gleizes, La Peinture et ses Lois, ce qui devait sortir du Cubisme (Paris, 1924) and in La Vie des Lettres et des Arts, vol xii, n° 5, nd [1922 or 3]. English translation, Painting and Its Laws (London: Francis
Boutle Publishers, 2000).
4—A Gleizes, (1958) 'Hommage à Mainie Jellett' in Mainie Jellett: The Artist’s Vision—Lectures and essays on art with an introduction by Albert Gleizes. Edited by Eileen MacCarvill. (Dundalk : Dundalgan Press, 1958) p. 41.
5—A Einstein, Relativity, the Special and General Theory, a Popular Exposition (London: Methuen & co,1920).