- Albert Gleizes: For and Against the Twentieth CenturyBy Peter Brooke
- Albert Gleizes: 1881-1953By Michel Massenet
- Albert Gleizes: The Birth and Future of CubismBy Pierre Alibert
Progression of Art
In this early work, the twenty-one-year-old Gleizes had seemingly taken on board some of the influence of Impressionism. We see this in his brushwork and also in his choice of a single-perspective viewpoint; Gleizes places us in the midst of the foreground, at a safe distance from the pathway that centrally winds down. Yet at the same time there is a preference here for asymmetry and a compositional irregularity which lends his picture a naturalistic feel that ties it to the realistic traditions of landscape painting. The fluctuating sky, with clouds scudding and bellying on a windswept and bright autumnal day, sees Gleizes's exploring the effects of light, but this is countered by the repoussoir ("pushing back") effect of the group of trees on the right that unbalances the composition by edging the scene to the left out into the further distance.
The thick impasto of the foreground vegetation is quickly applied giving the image a tactile, material, grounding. We do see in the distance an impressionistic quality where the sky meets the land, and the elements seem to blend, but this effect also accurately represents the climatic tumult of a windy day. While the painting itself now seems rather conventional, Gleizes's "crooked" landscape signals a burgeoning artistic ambition for creating an individual vision. This is most evident in the trees that show a strong feeling of the importance of line, and in the sky with its rich in painterly qualities. These would both become recognizable tendencies in Gleizes's later work.
Oil on canvas - Fondation Gleizes, Paris
Bords de la Marne (Banks of the Marne)
This image might be considered one of Gleizes's best proto-Cubist works. It seems at first to reveal a growing concern with Fauvism and the paintings of André Derain or Henri Matisse. In this respect, Gleizes's sky, a bright crimson that is pock-marked with purples and blues, can be read as a vigorous expression of the artist's subjectivity. The opportunity to render his sky in sweeping brushstrokes is complimented by a young painter who announces himself in the bold purple diagonal band that jets ever upward to the right. This sky can be seen thus as an early attempt by Gleizes to announce himself.
In the Fauvist style, the impasto layering seems to thwart the orderly and conventional recession of the walkway into the picture space, particularly where it meets the boathouse; it almost stands up before the viewers' eyes. The shape of the great tree at the head of the receding trees, meanwhile, seems an unnatural topiary and anticipates Gleizes's Cubist work. His tree is drained of colour but this "muting" allows the artist to concentrate on other matters: specifically a concern with abstract forms and naturalistic tones. The curator Daniel Robbins wrote, that in his pre-Cubist "treatment of inclusive landscapes" Gleizes was trying to "solve the problem of balancing many simultaneous visions on a painted surface" and that he "mitigated the distortion of distance by linear perspective, by flattening the picture plane". When placed within arc of his career, the painting sits as early evidence of the artist's intuitive sense of compositional poise and expression that would soon come to dominate his creative thinking.
Oil on canvas - Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon
La Femme aux Phlox (Woman with Phlox)
La Femme aux Phlox stands as a revolutionary moment in Gleizes' art. A seated woman stares down intently reading and is flanked by two vases of flowers. After having seen Henri Le Fauconnier's Pierre Jean Jouve of 1909, Gleizes's artistic direction changed. Le Fauconnier's portrait flattened forms and compressed the picture space but Gleizes has moved beyond his inspiration with the help of examples by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. But in contrast to Braque and Picasso, whose Analytical Cubism was all but obliterating coherent representation in favor of picture fragmentation, Gleizes's forms are distinctly and immediately recognizable here. He uses the visible world and its objects as a foundation for the elaboration on his new obsession with form. The sleeve of the woman's garment, for example, is exploited as an exercise in volume using strong lines and contrasting tones. The vase to the left has a dense sculptural appearance, as is the woman's head that is the embodiment of her intense concentration.
Gleizes does not hesitate to introduce spatial depth to his nascent style: the woman's raised right arm itself recedes in space and prompts the viewer to look behind her to what seems to be a window. In tension with his spatial depth here is perhaps a contraction of time, as the folds of the woman's reading material suggests the movement of the turning of pages - a fusing of past and present via a physical expansion of the flat Cubist form. Robbins wrote, "Continuing his new interest in the figure, Gleizes strove to manipulate a genre subject with the same sobriety and broad scale that had always informed his landscapes [and that] exterior nature is here brought into a room and the distant vista seen through the window is formally resolved with a corresponding interior shape".
Oil on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Les Baigneuses (The Bathers)
It is instructive to place this painting alongside Paul Cézanne's Les Grandes Baigneuses of 1906, of which Gleizes said, "He who understands Cézanne, is close to Cubism". Left unfinished in 1906 (the year of his death) Cézanne's Les Grandes Baigneuses speaks of a harmonious summer's idyll in a triangular composition framed by trees and echoed by the arrangement and physical disposition of the female bathers. Gleizes's composition is much more expansive, with his female bathers in several groupings or alone, and arranged across the fore-to-middle ground. This technique can be related to the Cubist concern with a pictorial density that covers every area of the painting; a technique that allows the viewer to be overwhelmed by a world of intense sensations. In each part of this work we see the forms of figures, of trees, embankment and distant city all jostling for their place in the Gleizes's tableau.
This picture is more expansive than the Cézanne, visually, but also socially. In the earlier work the idyll is confined to the secluded foreground with the social world relegated to the distant background. Gleizes's picture, on the other hand, introduces the bathers as part of modern industrial world. We can almost hear the faint conversations of their groups just as we can almost hear the water dripping from the sponge of the upright central bather, with its visual analogue of striated lines. But the wider industrial world is introduced through the schematic plumes of smoke emitted from the factories which are seen in the gap in the trees in the background. Gleizes's bathers may be at leisure but the toil of city life looms large.
The figures are heavily stylized with Cubist shapes and are not individuated, or perhaps only individuated by their actions and disjunctive sizes. The disjunction of scale creates multiple perspectives, even within the confines of the foreground, with each figure or grouping performing an individual narrative or gesture. This suggests multiple perspectives in space but also incongruent conceptions of time. At this time, Gleizes was becoming heavily influenced by the idea of simultaneity in the philosophy of Henri Bergson and we can see here a flux of activity, sights, imagined sounds all rising together within something still and permanent (a painting).
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
Composition for "Jazz"
After his discharge from the army in 1915, Gleizes moved to New York where his work took on the frenetic inspirations of life in that city, like the skyline, its advertising signs and, in this example, jazz music. In Composition for "Jazz" we can make out the rudimentary elements of two performers both of whom are adorned in extravagant headdress while holding their instruments. The nearest player to the left has his or her shoulders made unnaturally angular and the hand on their instrument, a brief combination of a straight line and a curve, is all-but completely abstract - perhaps calling to mind the figure of a musical note. Behind, the second player seems to be holding a double bass, its colour a rhyme with the white guitar.
The two instruments are aligned, crossing each other at a dynamic angle. This could indicate the free-form lines of melody and rhythm through which the genre of jazz thrives. Yet there are unifying elements in the picture too, which itself bears a musical structure. The guitar's fretboard stretches over the double bass creating a harmony of performance; both the musical performance and the performance of Gleizes's brushwork on one canvas. From the central crucible of the action in the picture - which is more a depiction of concerted action than of the actors - rippling colours and angled shapes emanate outwards. In particular, at the heads of the instruments (the brown streak just over the bassist's head and the cloud of gold at the head of the guitar) seem to be a visual simile for the ethereal nature of music and the inner experience of its pulsating (or "dancing") colors.
Oil on cardboard - Solomon R. Guggenheim
Femme au gant noir (Woman with Black Glove)
Following on from Picasso's Arlequin, and Juan Gris' Arlequin à la guitare, which were both painted in 1917, Gleizes produced this work in a similar style three years later. By comparison with his earlier Composition for "Jazz", the figure of the woman is much easier to pick out (than the jazz musicians). The woman here is looking upward with her geometrically regular head in fields of yellow, black and terracotta red. The black seems to form an arch around the figure, which points to a traditional framing of the portrait. Although the figure is immediately recognizable, the picture departs from a realistic portrait. It does not provide a mimicry of nature but seems to convey an essential aesthetic quality (the use of pure lines and stark tones) and perhaps a human idealization - in other words, it is rather a portrait of woman than a portrait of a particular woman.
The figure, in its spartanly drawn angles, seems to be the site of a competition between self-containment and unity on one hand, and division on the other. She is sliced by shapes of yellow and black that are juxtaposed rather than gradated. The titular black glove stands out on a grey background field in the shape of a scissor. This could be a painterly pun referencing the process of Synthetic Cubism (Picasso and Braque were fond of using puns in their work) which made use of painting, collage and extraneous objects. With his strict devotion to painting, one might argue, with equal conviction, that Gleizes was either a radical or a conformist. In either case, the painting is evidence of Gleizes's growing preoccupation with the two-dimensions of the canvas which was a clear departure from his earlier works which tended to incorporate panoramic perspectives. Femme au gant noir does emphasise the flatness of the canvas but also demonstrates, through the artist's dynamic use of angles, an engagement with the illusion of spatial depth. There is a dialogue emerging here between the limits of the medium of painting and the fullness of space.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Australia, Parkes, Australian Capital Territory
Composition bleu et jaune (Composition in Blue and Yellow)
By 1921, just a year after Femme au gant noir, Gleizes was probing a rather unconventional geometric abstraction in this large canvas. Almost nothing from the external world is visible here as we see angular forms arranged in a space.
Perhaps we can detect a relationship between figure and ground established by both the forms and colours. The dark of the black, and the deep blues, seem to body out, and suggest matter and things of the world; we can detect, perhaps, a basic gable end of a house with an oculus window towards the top and another receding rectangular window at the bottom. But, more than the "figure" of the painting doubling as a building, the shapes and colours are revealing as the remnants of the process of "building" the artwork. The gold and oranges of the piece can suggest the immateriality of light and could, by extension, be an effusion of Gleizes's push for an aesthetic spirituality. Gleizes sought to synthesize the visible with the aesthetic and the spiritual, and it seems here that that spiritual affect has distorted the visible into the apprehension of the "real", as he termed it.
Yet, in a more traditional vein, the artist has still preserved the perpendicular status of the figure in space, as if it were a portrait. Certainly, there is a Cubist deconstruction of the "figure" but, taken as an interconnection of forms, or rather a complex form itself, it is suggestive of a figure or object standing in a light-filled space of indeterminate proportions.
Oil on canvas
Figure en gloire (Figure in Glory)
Tradition and innovation again mingle in this mature work. We have a female figure, whose head is recognizable as such, surrounded by Gleizes's signature arcs and angled lines. The composition is doubly framed, on the outside by straight lines that are an internal echo of the shape of the board, and on the inside, by an ellipse of gradated colours from black to gold. The elliptical frame recalls a High Renaissance tondo such as those favored by Raphael. This could lead us to associate the female figure with a Madonna or perhaps a saint in rapture.
The expression of the colored and toned face is readable as an ecstasy of spiritual significance. The precise drawing of the face, framed by the blue square intensifies the emotion; as the surrounding colours and angles, while perceivable as the folds of drapery, seem to shift. The blue and beige of the face with its heavily stylized shapes make it less a face than a vessel for the communication of awe. As we know, Gleizes had by this time steeped himself in theological study and had become fascinated by the experience of pure affect. This picture exemplifies a step away from the synthesis of the visible and the "real" beneath it (as he had sought to formulate it). The haloed head of the figure, as the only recognizable "object" from the external world, is more a manifestation of pious elation and the picture as a whole a permeation of the material by the spiritual.
Gouache on board - Centre d'Art Espace Van Gogh, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
Pour Contemplation (For Contemplation)
Pour Contemplation was painted as a part of a series entitled Supports de Contemplation (Aids to Contemplation). Shorn of all the social relevance we could detect in his early works, the picture still does not abandon the physical. Its concentric and peaceable curves appear as an apparition of a female form of both physical presence and metaphysical significance. In the knowledge of Gleizes's initiation into the Catholic Church just three years later, we can see here the form of an icon of the Virgin Mother. The figure is still featureless, though, and therefore elicits a certain projection on the part of the viewer.
As always, Gleizes is experimenting formally but he also maintained in his writings the productive confluence of the eye, the emotions and the laws of the universe. The eye travels into the picture's realm and the rationality of the forms is at ease with the ebb and flow of its wider world. Perhaps there is a landscape beyond the "head" of the figure. The black rectangles - Gleizes's characteristic rotations - seem to confer rational certainty. Yet within this there is indeterminate quality. For example, the rectangles could form a tangible pathway from the figure to the viewer as the universal "word of God" but they could also pave a way for the spectator to this ethereal plain through an act of faith. Gleizes has finally crossed from a philosophically informed spirituality to a total renewal of the Christian piety.
Oil on canvas - Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon