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Albert Gleizes - Biography and Legacy

French Painter, Educator, Activist, and Theorist

Born: December 8, 1881 - Paris, France
Died: June 23, 1953 - Avignon, France

Biography of Albert Gleizes


Albert was the son of a successful fabric merchant, Sylvan Gleizes (himself a keen amateur painter). His maternal uncle was Léon Commerre, an academic painter who won the Prix de Rome in 1875, while his father's brother, Robert Gleizes, was a successful collector-dealer specializing in eighteenth century paintings. The Gleizes' lived a comfortable life in Courbevoie in the Paris suburbs. Albert was very close to his two sisters, Suzanne and Mireille (he had an elder brother who sadly died in infancy), and they frequently appeared in his first paintings. Albert did not take to academic life and often played truant from his bourgeois school in Rue Chaptal, preferring to spend his days writing poetry in the grounds of the cemetery of Montmartre. According to the curator Daniel Robbins, when Albert's "authoritarian father discovered what was going on, he promptly put Albert to work in his design shop where he could personally supervise and discipline him". Gleizes willingly conceded later that "the necessary precision demanded by design was important to his artistic training".

Early Training and Work

In 1901 Gleizes was subscripted into military service, though he had already stated his desire to become a painter. This might have met with the approval of his father had he expressed a preference for academic training, but he was already demonstrating a rebellious streak through his allegiance to modernism. He began to paint seriously while serving in northern France and initially followed in the style of the Impressionists. He exhibited his first significant work, a landscape titled La Seine à Asnières (1901), at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1902. In 1904 he exhibited two further paintings at the Salon d'Automne, an annual exhibition designed specifically to promote the work of independent artists. Having completed his military service, Gleizes cofounded the Association Ernest-Renan; an enterprise through which he organized arts events such as exhibitions and poetry readings. The organization was anti-militarist and sought to provide culture in order to spread the ideas of pacifism at a time of heightened international tension.

While in the military, Gleizes made a close friend of the future poet Rene Arcos. The two men had developed an interest in symbolist poetry and the politics of democratic socialism. Both men believed fervently in the principle of a universal brotherhood fostered without the need for organized religion. Robbins suggests that until 1905, "Gleizes appears to have had little direct awareness of activity in the art world [and] even less contact with other painters". He admired the paintings of Pissarro, Seurat and Gauguin but these connections to his own work seemed rather "vicarious" when compared to "young painters like Braque and Picasso [and] even Metzinger and Delaunay [who were already] engaged in a struggle for recognition". Robbins adds that these young artists "learned the channels for success, the structure of relationships and contacts, the development of the gallery-centered art market, and they observed with interest the growth of various personalities and schools. The unsophisticated Gleizes [on the other hand] regarded the city as a bourgeois creation, a detestable place designed to trap artists as it trapped workers into a thousand evils, the worst of which would have been the corruption conferred by bourgeois approval".

Members of the <i>Abbaye de Créteil</i> group. Gleizes is third from right. The Abbaye group was a utopian community based on the vision of the French author Rabelais' <i>Abbaye de Thélème</i> in <i>Gargantua</i>. It was a proving ground for Gleizes's practice which would incorporate the epic symbolism of the Abbaye poets.

Having completed their military service, Gleizes and Arcos became active in promoting utopian socialist politics and, in 1906, with the financial aid of Henri Martin Barzun, they established the Abbaye de Créteil, a phalanstery on the outskirts of Paris. Its members included the Symbolist poets Georges Duhamel, Charles Vildrac and Jules Romains and the community supported itself by publishing the writing of their members and others affiliated with the group. Robbins writes, "The Abbaye, whose fame circulated even in Moscow, attracted many artists. Marinetti and Brâncuși were visitors there and young writers like Roger Allard (one of the first to defend Cubism), Pierre Jean Jouve, and Paul Castiaux are typical of the artists who wanted to have the Abbaye publish their works. Nevertheless, after only two years, the Abbaye was forced to close, mainly because of material hardship. There simply was not enough money to keep going".

Through his involvement with the Symbolists, Gleizes's socio-political concerns were underscored by a deep sense of "symbolic reality". A newly galvanized Gleizes moved subsequently to Rue de Delta where he joined the society of Amedeo Modigliani and other avant-gardists. It was at this time that he dispensed with Impressionism, dropped his dalliances with Fauvism, and started to develop what would become his signature strong-linear style. In 1908 he produced Jour de marché à Bagnère-de-Bigorre, what Gleizes's biographer, Peter Brooke identified as his first "proto-Cubist" work.

In 1909 Gleizes met painter Henri Le Fauconnier (a former student at the Academie Julian and a friend of Maurice Denis and Les Nabis) whose portrait of the poet Pierre Jean Jouve proved a revelation. Inspired by Le Fauconnier, a painter who was himself now working in the stylistic manner of Cubism's pioneers, Picasso and Braque, Gleizes adapted his style accordingly. Painted in 1909, his full-body portrait of Arcos, striding across a broad landscape, was Gleizes's first full experimentation with Cubism. He had adopted its preference for simplified forms, strong lines, and a restrained use of colour; a style that Robbins summarized as a "volumetric approach to Cubism" that featured a "successful union of a broad field of vision with a flat picture plane".

In 1910 both artists continued to concentrate on the human figure with Le Fauconnier producing a portrait of the poet Paul Castiaux, and Gleizes, a portrait of his uncle, Robert Gleizes. In the same year, the two men joined a group of artists who pledged earnest allegiance to the Cubist cause though they collectively baulked at Picasso and Braque's inflexible formalist rules that (as they saw it) limited Cubism's potential. Robbins noted that, for his part, Gleizes never set out (like Picasso and Braque) to "analyse and describe visual reality". For Gleizes still lifes - or rather "neutral objects from daily life" - could never "satisfy his complex idealistic concepts of true reality" and that Gleizes "always stressed subjects of vast scale and of provocative social and cultural meaning [and regarding] the painting as the area where mental awareness and the real space of the world could not only meet but also be resolved".

Mature Period

Gleizes, Le Fauconnier, Jean Metzinger, Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger committed to the investigation of form rather than follow the Post-Impressionist preference for flights of colour and symbolism. The group made history in 1911 when they exhibited in the infamous "Salle 41" ("Room 41") at the Salon des Indépendants. Their Cubist experiments, featuring four pieces by Gleizes, including La Femme aux Phlox (Woman with Phlox) (1910), drew large crowds, but a fiercely negative response from critics, including a review by Louis Vauxcelles who dismissed the group as "ignorant geometers, reducing the human form [...] to pallid cubes". The exhibition even garnered a response from the French Parliament that condemned Cubism as a "barbaric art". Speaking of La Femme aux Phlox specifically, meanwhile, the critic Jean Claude lamented: "A talented artist, Albert Gleizes, allowed himself to try a triangulist representation of the human figure. This is sad, deeply".

It is true that the five men were responding to the challenge to Post Impressionism already laid down by Picasso and Braque, but it was Gleizes and his partners who deserve the credit for introducing Cubism to the French public. The group was in fact able to count the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire amongst their few professional allies after he praised them for hastening "la déroute de l'impressionisme" (the derailment of Impressionism). Indeed, Apollinaire's enthusiasm was such he became affiliated with Gleizes and his Cubist circle of friends.

Henri Bergson's theories had a deep impact on Gleizes' own theory and practice. The concept of simultaneity led Gleizes in his experiments in relative motion and translation-rotation.

In 1911 Gleizes met Picasso for the first time. Their meeting went a long way to confirming his rising star within the new Cubist movement which had been announced following the "Salle 41" controversy. Over the following two years his interest in the philosophical foundations of Cubist art developed and he soon fell under the influence of the popular French philosopher Henri Bergson.

Bergson had presented the idea of simultaneity, a science-based theory that proposed that two conflicting features - the permanent and the transitory - could coexist simultaneously. This idea proved inspirational for Gleizes who saw a way of applying it to Cubist painting. Gleizes declared that Cubism, unlike other "static" art, was "a normal evolution of an art that was mobile like life itself". Not content with addressing himself to strictly formal concerns, Gleizes started to explore ways of combining social and spiritual themes in a way that chimed with the likes of Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. In Gleizes's view, art would help re-form the world according to the sensations of the individual; and in this utopian vision, color and form were, as they were for Cézanne before him, a unifying, rather than conflicting, force. The first results were works that captured movement from a multiple viewpoints, notably the vast Le Dépiquage des Moissons (The Harvesters) (1912).

In 1912, Gleizes joined Groupe de Puteaux, a cadre of artists working in a more broadly defined mode of Cubism than the one being proposed by Picasso and Braque. The Puteaux group, established by Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, met at Villon's house in Puteaux (on the outskirts of Paris) and occasionally at Gleizes's house in Paris. In the fall of 1912, the Puteaux group put on an impressive exhibition, "Section d'Or" ("Golden Section"), at the Galerie la Boétie in Paris. The name was suggested by Villon who was keenly pursuing an interest in mathematical proportions, and especially the ancient concept of the golden section (section d'or), as a way of perfecting the Cubist concern with geometric forms. For his part, Gleizes exhibited two pieces Women in a Kitchen (1911) and The Harvesters (1912). Robbins referred to the latter as "the masterpiece of the Section d'Or" that was "not merely an anecdote in a scene [but rather] "a multiple panorama celebrating the worker, his material life and his collective activity in securing that life on a permanently changing land. Gleizes confronts us not with one action or place, but with many: not with one time, but with past and future as well as present".

Such was the impact of the Section d'Or exhibition, it gave rise to a loose new association of artists that would involve the likes of Juan Gris, Robert Delaunay, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Roger de La Fresnaye, Fernand Léger, Anndré Lhote, Louis Marcoussis and André Dunoyer de Segonzac.

<i>Du Cubisme</i> (1912) was the first serious analysis of Cubism. It was the culmination of Gleizes's and Metzinger's experiments in non-conventional forms of geometry.

Du Cubisme was an essay cowritten by Gleizes and Metzinger that was published in book form in 1912. It made a significant impact on the art world and was translated into several languages. The text was augmented by reproductions of works by eleven artists - Gleizes, Metzinger, Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Léger, Duchamp, Gris, Picabia, André Derain and Marie Laurencin - all of whom had, to one degree or other, influenced or embraced Cubism. It is considered the first formal treatise on Cubist aesthetics (a revised edition was published in 1947 included a forward and epilogue in which the authors' explained their motivations for writing the original essay) and according to its authors it was intended to explain the influences and philosophy that defined the movement. Gleizes and Metzinger also argued the point that it was (or should be) the artist, rather than the critic, dealer or historian, who was best placed to articulate Cubism's precise goals.

In 1913 Gleizes took part in the famous Cubist exhibitions at the Armory Show in New York, the first overseas foray for the movement. It was in New York that Gleizes met his future wife, Juliette Roche. With the outbreak of the First World War in the following year, Gleizes enlisted as an entertainment organizer and worked in the role of impresario. While stationed in Toul, he painted Portrait of an Army Doctor (1914-15), a commissioned work for a doctor named Lambert who had made it possible for Gleizes to paint while enlisted. According to Gleizes, Lambert had been upset with the semi-abstract image and accepted a small gouache study by way of compensation. With the help of Juliette's father, a high-ranking government official, Gleizes was discharged from the army in 1915 and the couple moved to New York. Works such as Composition for "Jazz" (1915) and Broadway (1915) followed marking the artist move more and more towards total abstraction.

In 1916 the couple traveled to Barcelona where he held his first solo exhibition. But in the period leading up to his return to France in 1919, Gleizes began to allow religious ideas, and specifically the conflicts of conscience between a modern artist and a man of faith, to enter his thinking. In 1918 he reportedly announced to his wife: "A terrible thing has happened to me: I believe I am finding God". Following his epiphany, he decried what he saw as the arid aestheticism of Picasso and Braque's Cubism and declared that Cubism ought to advance down a more spiritual path.

Late Period

<i>Ecuyère</i> (1920-23). This is a work typical of Gleizes' art of the early 1920s in its expansive colorism and formal density, the first of which elements had developed beyond the Cubism of Picasso and Braque.

Having returned to Paris, Gleizes discovered to his consternation that Cubism had lost its ascendency and was giving way to the more "irreverent" movements, namely, Dada and Surrealism. Following an unsuccessful attempt to revive Section d'Or with a traveling exhibition in 1920, Gleizes slowly retreated from the public glare of the Parisian art scene, but he continued to paint and write in the name of the Cubist project. In 1920 he published Du Cubisme et des moyens de le comprendre ("Cubism and the Means to Understand It") and, in 1924, La Peinture et ses lois ("The Laws of Painting"). Gleizes continued to argue for the principles of Cubism and dismissed the illusionism of single perspective art as the enemy of true pictorial expression, arguing instead for what he called the "translation" and "rotation" of volumetric forms in space. In his practice, meanwhile, the 1920s was a period in which Gleizes produced what has been described as "post-Cubist" work - but "post" only in the sense that he was producing a highly abstract form of Cubism, as evidenced in works such as Ecuyère (1920-3).

Gleizes himself asserted that the function of art should never succumb to imitation, and that its "truth" comes from "individual sensibility and taste". He spoke of the many planes of a Cubist artwork as a "rhythmic organism" and that the true artwork was one that was "brought to life" through natural and aesthetic forms combining to make the image "spiritually human". But his fresh impetus did little to revive the fortunes of the movement that had been all but assigned to history. Robbins wrote, "Unlike Picasso [Gleizes] had neither participated in Surrealism nor returned to reality. Nor did he practice that most rational and ordered art, Neo-Plasticism. Although in many ways his theories were close to those developed by Piet Mondrian, his paintings never submitted to the discipline of primary colors and the right angle; they did not look Neo-Plastic" Robbins concluded that Gleizes "had never ceased to call himself a Cubist [and] a Cubist he remained [for the rest of his career]".

Juliette's father had died in 1923, leaving her a large portfolio of properties. Gleizes began to spend time at the house at Serrières where he became more immersed in theology thanks to an impressive library inherited from Juliette's great uncle, a former Bishop in the Diocese of Gap. In 1926 Gleizes father, Sylvain, passed away, and soon after he was involved in a serious car crash which left him hospitalized for two weeks. The couple sought to end their run of bad fortune with the purchase of Nostradamus's former estate in St. Rémy de Provence.

In 1927 the Gleizes' founded Moly-Sabata, an agrarian-based artists' commune in Sablons, a village close to Lyon. Moly-Sabata created a kind of community utopia that encouraged individuals to express themselves artistically, but also to share their ideas based on Gleizes's own conviction that art should strive for an absolute truth and, within the confines of Moly-Sabata at least, seek perfection in artisanal works. Life in the commune was often likened to a primitive monastic existence and, as a way of opposing the bourgeois art of the Salon, residents refused to engage with "social exhibitions" and were encouraged to "spread their truth" via purely oral and written means. (Between 1927-30, the retreat was managed by the painter/sculptor Robert Pouyaud, and between 1930-51, by the Australian painter and ceramist Anne Danger. It continues to thrive as an artists' residency to this day under the auspices of Albert Gleizes Foundation.)

In 1930 Gleizes published Vie et mort de l'occident Chrétien (Life and Death of the Christian West), in which he denounced the Industrial revolution on the grounds that it was incompatible with the Christian faith. He also traveled extensively during that time, promoting his theories of art in Poland, England, and Germany, even delivering a lecture at the Bauhaus where it was known that Kandinsky was in attendance. He helped organize anti-war meetings with the Unions intellectuelles françaises and, in 1932, he published Vers une conscience plastique: la forme et l'histoire (Toward a Plastic Consciousness: Form and History) in which he broadened his sphere of intellectual enquiry to include an examination of Celtic, Asian, and Romanesque art.

World fair postcard. 1937. The mural commission for the World Fair of 1937 was evidence of Gleizes's growing international reputation as an artist and educator.

Around the same time, Gleizes joined Abstraction Creation, a group dedicated to an art of pure geometric abstraction in the vein of De Stijl and Suprematism. He collaborated with Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger and Léopold Survage, on Cubist murals for the 1937 World's Fair in Paris, and the following year (in order to raise funds to buy Moly-Sabata outright), he sold several paintings to the American art collector Solomon R. Guggenheim. On the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War, Gleizes started a second artists' commune, called Les Méjades, near the St. Rémy-de-Provence. Gleizes himself remained in France during the war and continued to work on a number of projects.

Having been confirmed by the Catholic Church in 1941, Gleizes began writing his memoirs (published in part as Souvenirs: Le Cubisme, 1908-14 in 1957) and produced a series of paintings on meditation called "Supports de Contemplation" (the shortages brought on by the Nazi occupation necessitated his painting on burlap). He followed in 1943 with a large triptych that encompassed: The Crucifixion, Christ in Glory and The Transfiguration. Gleizes's last works included a series of 57 original etchings for a new edition of the 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal's famous defence of the Christian religion, Pensées (1950), and a fresco, The Eucharist (1952), for the chapel at the new Jesuit seminary of the Fontaines community in Chantilly. Gleizes passed away in Provence in 1953 at the age of 71 following complications from a routine operation.

The Legacy of Albert Gleizes

Gleizes was never a party to the fame bestowed upon Picasso and Braque, but within the Cubist movement, he left his mark as probably its most serious and committed innovator. As a member of the Salon Cubists, he was in part responsible for announcing the movement to the European and American public, but it was through his application of mathematical and philosophical principles that he created a truly idiosyncratic vision that pushed Cubism to its furthest reaches. Indeed, his personal vision, which in the inter-war years saw him embrace metaphysics, breathed new life into a movement that to most modernists, in their incessant search for "the new", was a relic of an old avant-garde. As Robbins observed, Gleizes was one of the few Cubists "with a wholly individual style"; an artist, moreover, who "never repeated his earlier styles, never remained stationary, but always grew more intense [and] more passionate".

Given the ascendancy of others within the movement, it is for his theoretical analysis of Cubism that Gleizes confirmed his niche within 20th century French art. Du Cubisme amounted to the first philosophical and aesthetic justification for the Cubist project but it was only the first of numerous books and articles that investigated the formal, physical, and later, metaphysical possibilities for Cubist art. This led Robbins to the view that Gleizes was "perhaps the only painter of [the twentieth] century to have consciously struggled between the demands of reason and faith, in a reasonable - indeed a brilliant - manner and finally to have come down on the side of faith". He concluded that Gleizes's was "an abstract art of deep significance and meaning, paradoxically human even in his very search for absolute order and truth".

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Content compiled and written by Shane Lewis

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd

"Albert Gleizes Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Shane Lewis
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
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First published on 12 Dec 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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