Post-War Cubism in Paris, Part Four

Cubism After Cubism

Part Two: Orphism Between the Wars

At 4:35 a.m on a chill and cloudy day in July, on the 25th day of the year 1909, a daring French aviator Louis Blériot (1872-1936), took off in an airplane of his own making, rising above Calais on the coast and pointed the nose of the aircraft towards England. Below were the cold and choppy waters of the English Channel, above was a sullen sky. This pilot was no ordinary flier; a former seller of headlamps for trucks, he was the head of his own company, Recherches Aeronautiques Louis Bleriot, and had succeeded in constructing the first engine powered monoplane. This plane, the Blériot VII, soared aloft in 1907 and even performed the first U-turn in the air. The plane that headed across the Channel was the “Number XI,” a design of ash, wires, and canvas, lacking instruments, even a compass. The plane, powered by twenty-five mechanical horses, was totally open, the pilot was operating the petals with an injured foot, because as an English magazine explained, “M. Blériot used to tumble with his machine with almost monotonous persistency.” Yet, despite the accident of the day before, the flyer, in pursuit of a £1ooo prize offered by the Daily Mail, seized a brief moment of calm in a windy season, described by the reporter as, “Taking the week-end as a whole, it has been one of the windiest periods of a particularly unsettled summer, and the previous day had in particular seemed hopeless for any cross-Channel flight.” Half way across the Channel, Blériot lost his bearings and kept his course, and traveling at somewhere between forty and fifty miles per hour arrived at a grassy field in Dover less than forty minutes later. As the magazine article summed up an hour of inexactness: “Accounts differ as to the exact moment of departure and descent, and as a matter of fact it is doubtful if any reliable timing was made since M. Blériot started without a watch as well as without a compass.” The man who had been named “le roi de la casse” had succeeded, winning a victory not just for himself but for his airplane company and the idea of flying safely across great and perilous distances. But Blériot gave as well as received of his fame: according to the Zenith watch company, “With his Zenith on his wrist, he took off aboard the Blériot XI, a frail ‘bird’ featuring a wooden frame and parchment-like wings.” Later the aviator said, “I am extremely satisfied with the Zenith watch, which I use regularly, and cannot recommend it highly enough to people in search of precision.” Such is the imprecision of history–watch or no watch–but it is worth nothing that the disputed watch exists today and was a wristwatch, a fashion for men that would become widespread during the Great War. In 1914, Blériot’s would produce the famous S.P.A.D., the fighter plane flown by the French, the Britsh and the Americans.

Promotional Card for Blériot’s Flight

Despite the definitely undashing droopy mustache sported by the pilot, Blériot’s flight across the English Channel in 1909 was the entry of France into the twentieth century and made the nation as important as America in the development of aviation. The French people could add yet another milestone in their march into modernity, first, they had built to Eiffel Tower and then they had conquered the formidable Channel. However, modern art took little note of the airplane except for the Cubist painter Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), the prophet of Orphism and the harbinger of Simultaneity. Delaunay was fascinated with modern life and its machines. Delaunay and his wife Sonia Terk-Delaunay (1885-1979) were associated with the Cubists, a radical art movement, but Cubism was less interested in looking out and responding to the modern urban life swirling around, and was, as a movement, was concerned with the concepts of painting. In other words, Cubism was art about art. Far more than any Cubist, before or after the War, Robert Delaunay used his developing style to attempt to capture twentieth-century life and its modernity. His study of an urban environment transformed by technology and the impact of the machine marked his art before and after the Great War. While the Cubist who were being supported by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso were shut up in their respective studios, making art based upon their atelier experiments. Indeed, whether with the so-called Analytic and Synthetic phases (named years after the War), the subject matter is usually one of interior settings, arranged for portraits and still lives, with the artists rarely venturing outside. The Salon Cubists explored the possibilities of expanding the implications of Paul Cézanne’s late work, continuing the traditions of art, basing their experiments upon historical subject matter. As with Picasso and Braque, the Cubists who exhibited publically were very conservative in their content, a choice that, for the most part, many of these artists continued after the Great War. Indeed, it has been noted that that most daring of artistic experiments, after the War Cubism, retreated and returned to “order.” Meanwhile, Robert Delaunay and Sonia Terk-Delaunay were out and about, exploring Paris and taking note of its events and activities, now a hallmark of a twentieth-century city.

Postcard of Blériot’s famous plane, shown flying over Paris,

Eiffel Tower in the distance, similar to Delaunay’s paintings

For the Delaunays, the question was always how to balance the strong pull of abstraction with the sheer material factuality of what they were representing. Theoretically, Robert Delaunay attempted to explain this shifting of his art between what seemed to be total abstraction and recognizable motifs of modernity with the term “simultaneity” referring to the mind’s ability to observe, remember, and react to stimulation of the sights, sounds, smells and dizzying array of perspectives, swerving from high to low and swaying from side to side. Far from being spare and intellectual in his theories, Delaunay always seemed to have painted with joy and excitement, ebullient in his pleasure in all things modern, and, for him, simultaneity was symbolized by his use of contrasting colors. Simultaneity, he asserted was “…a certain combination of colors, in harmonic contrast with each other, can reproduce the movement of light.” The idea of simultaneity can be seen as the juxtaposition of image of modernity, the Eiffel Tower, the famous plane of Louis Blériot, the Cardiff rugby team, and the Ferris wheel–engineering, flight, and sports–all modern phenomenon brought together by Delaunay. The airplanes and the Eiffel Tower are clearly rendered and easily recognizable, while their swirling propellors are repeated again and again by Delaunay’s favorite motif, the disk or the circle, broken by contrasting colors. These colors, colliding within the swirl, would cause vibrations of human vision, activating the retina, simulating the pulsating speed of modernity itself.

Robert Delaunay. Homage to Blériot (1913)

Robert Delaunay. Equipe de Cardiff (1913)

Delaunay’s ideas for new art was based upon an old and famous book by Michel-Eugène Chevreul, who was the director of the dyeing for Gobelins Manufacture. Published in 1839, historian Georges Roque gives it entire title as: On the law of simultaneous contrast of colors and on its applications to…, followed by an impressive list of all the fields to which this law can be applied, including tapestry, of course, but also painting, carpets, clothing, horticulture, stained glass windows, and so on..Its English title was The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours and their Application to the Arts. In his 2011 article, “Chevreul’s Color Theory and Its Consequences for Artists,” Roque quoted the chemist as writing, “In the case where the eye sees at the same time two contiguous colors, they will appear as dissimilar as possible, both in their optical composition and in the strength of their color..Is in this sense we say: that Red is complementary to Green, and vice versa; That Orange is complementary to Blue, and vice versa, That Greenish-Yellow is complementary to Violet, and vice versa That Indigo is complementary to Orange-Yellow, and vice versa.”

Delaunay, according to Roque, was an avid reader of Chevreul, and, like Delacroix and Seurat and Signac before him, followed his theories closely and made them his own. Delaunay wrote, … the multiple dimensions [of a painting] form groups, which are opposed or neutralized, color being a measure of vibration of such or such intensity, given its neighborhood and its surface, in relation to all the other colors. Such vibration of an orange, placed in the composition next to a yellow— these two colors being placed almost side by side on the color diagram— their vibrations being therefore very close, vibrate very quickly. If, in the composition, there is a violet blue, this violet blue will form a vibration with the yellow orange: a much slower movement..” The artist was aware of Chevreul’s idea of “mixed contrast” or lingering afterimages left by one color upon another. As the scientist explained,
The distinction of simultaneous and successive contrast renders it easy to comprehend a phenomenon which we may call the mixed contrast; because it results from the fact of the eye, having seen for a time a certain colour, acquiring an aptitude to see for another period the complementary of that colour, and also a new colour, presented to it by an exterior object; the sensation then perceived is that which results from this new colour and the complementary of the first..” As Roque wrote, “..the contrast of complementary colors was used by Delaunay as a starting point to structure pure color relationships in his compositions, and as an attempt to infuse his paintings with the actual vibrations light. The optical properties of color vibrations were an excellent way of focusing, no longer on the object but on sensations produced by color vibration in the eye of the beholder. What has been said for Delaunay holds true, too, for color music and the first attempts at abstract color movies. The problems that confronted their creators were similar but included time: how to organize color combinations in order to achieve harmony through time? Here the central concept was that of mixed contrast, which Chevreul defined as follows: The distinction of simultaneous and successive contrast renders it easy to comprehend a phenomenon which we may call the mixed contrast; because it results from the fact of the eye, having seen for a time a certain colour, acquiring an aptitude to see for another period the complementary of that colour, and also a new colour, presented to it by an exterior object; the sensation then perceived is that which results from this new colour and the complementary of the first. Indeed, it was crucial for music color as well as abstract color movies to take into account the afterimages produced by persistence of vision and to use them as a syntactic way of structuring the successive sequence of colors.”

We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection…of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower…To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years…we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal..

As tall and sturdy as the Tower was, it was intended to be torn down after twenty years, in 1909, but its height made it useful as a radio transmission tower, since 1898; and it was judged to be too valuable to be without. Five years later, as the Germans moved closer and closer to Paris during the battle of the Marne, signals sent from the Tower blocked German radios and hindered what had seemed a relentless advance. But, even before the War, young inhabitants of Paris, like Delaunay, the Eiffel Tower was the symbol of Paris as the capital of all things modern. When contrasting the rendition of the Eiffel Tower by Georges Seurat in the year it was completed, 1889, to the series by Delaunay from 1909 to 1912, it is clear that Seurat regarded the structure from respectful distance, rendering it static and frozen in its prison of points, while Delaunay, who studied the Tower for years, though of the monument to a revolution to be in constant motion.

Georges Seurat. Eiffel Tower (1889) Robert Delaunay. Eiffel Tower (1909) Red Eiffel Tower (1911)

Delaunay’s relationship to Eiffel’s achievement began in 1909 with a Cézannesquelike version of Seurat’s distant observation, but as his ideas concerning Cubism and simultaneity evolved, the artist activated the experience of the viewer when confronted with such a building. The Tower is viewed from above below, in sunshine and in shadow, from an open window to a view towards the expanse of the Champ-de-Mars. The Red Tower, as Delaunay called the steel structure, shared the sky with the aviator Louis Blériot, in Homage to Blériot in 1914, served as a backdrop to the poet Philippe Souplaut in 1922. The 1924 version of the Tower is more stable and is far away from Cubism but the vantage point, the bird’s eye view, is the artist’s attempt to wrestle with the inhuman scale of the steel erection.

In 2015 the Centre Pompidou presented the exhibition, Robert Delaunay: “Rythmes sans fin,” one hundred years after the artist established his signature image, circles of color, throbbing and pulsating, according to the scientific theories of Chevreul. As will be discussed in the next post, the post-war paintings of Robert Delaunay were quite large, large for the 1930s, amplifying and expanding the studies of color he did on a smaller scale before the War. The circular motif, a recurring theme throughout his career, was not, as is often assumed, an abstract composition but a study of the effect of electric lights installed in Paris–an event explored in the concluding chapter on this artist.

Robert Delaunay. Manège de cochons (1922)

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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Photographing Poverty in Nineteenth Century America

Jacob Riis and the Other Half

During a period of open borders, the Age of Mass Migration, which extended from 1850 to 1913, brought thirty million individuals, men, women, children, and families to the New World. They came in ships that were built increasingly larger as shipping companies raced to make money from emigrants desperate for a new start. While the Asians headed for California, Europeans landed in New York. From 1886 on their first sight of the new home was the Statue of Liberty, rising from Liberty Island. A gift from the people of France to the people of America, the colossal female symbol was designed by sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1843-1904) with Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) as the “internal engineer.” To this work of art with impeccable aesthetic credentials was added a long and uplifting name, The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World (La Liberté éclairant le monde).

This famous statue was so fitting for its purpose and came to embody the hope and faith that drove so many millions across the Atlantic Ocean that it seemed appropriate to add a written message to reinforce the visual inspiration of Lad Liberty. Written by Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) in 1882 and installed on the pedestal in 1903, the brief poem read,

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, with conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame, “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

That America could absorb such huge numbers of so many European nations in such a short time was an extraordinary achievement. Contrary to fears and urban legend, the emigrants were assimilated in one or two generations and melted into the American mainstream. But the journey of the twelve million who arrived at Ellis Island was a difficult one, involving terrible housing, exploitive labor situations, crime and illness, extreme poverty and the failure of governmental institutions to take responsibility for the newcomers. So great was the suffering of these early arrivals that the cumulative mass of misery gave birth the to first major Progressive movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. Working in New York at the same time as Edward Curtis was photographing Native tribes in the West, Jacob Riis (1849-1914) was an early believer in the adage, “the whole world is watching,” meaning if you used the camera of show the truth change would come. Unlike Curtis who was criticized posthumously for his refusal to document the true misery of the Native Americans on reservations, Riis, an emigrant himself from Denmark, was dedicated to showing the unpleasant truths of a city overwhelmed by millions of people, who arrived without language, without jobs, without education into a situation where the only help forthcoming was from friends and neighbors.


Jacob Riis. Five Cents Lodging, Bayard Street (1889)

When he arrived in America in 1870, Riis possessed the ability to speak English, which put his prospects for employment ahead of those who could were not English-speakers, but he, like many immigrants who had no relatives elsewhere in the United States, was trapped in New York, competing with thousands of others for menial and temporary jobs. For years he drifted, hungry and homesick and alone, until in 1873 he trained in telegraphy and a year later was hired as a reporter. Due to his literary ability as a writer, his rise was nothing short of remarkable, from a hungry and wandering itinerate laborer to an emigrant who wrote editorials for the South Brooklyn News, paper he purchased in 1875. By 1877, he had married his childhood sweetheart from Denmark, quit newspaper business, learned photography and finally found a home as a police reporter on the New York Tribune. Although he was never political in the traditional sense, Riis was a dedicated reformer and never hesitated to use his editorializing pen to both describe and comment upon life in the American city of New York, life among the high and the low. A Protestant to the bone, he firmly believed not just in the ultimate value of hard work but also in the possibility of awakening the social consciousness of landlords and factory owners to to good for their tenants and laborers. His rather naïve unpolitical optimism was astonishing given that Riis worked out of the Mulberry Street police station, located in the midst of the worst slums in the world. Here, at Mulberry Bend and Bone Alley, the location of notorious neighborhoods, such as Bandit’s Roost and Five Points.


Jacob Riis. Bandit’s Roost. 59 1/2 Mulberry Street (1890)

In his 2001 review of The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum by Tyler Anbinder, Kevin Baker described the origin of Five Points. Once the site was a lake called “the Collect” but by 1800, this five acre lake was ringed by tanneries and slaughterhouses. There refuse spewed and the odors rose rank into the air. So horrible was this “lake” that in 1825 it was filled in, obliterated, built over by a neighborhood called Five Points. It took only ten years for this site to revert to its original condition, this time as “America’s First Slum,” full of bars and bordellos and much visited by tourists. During the Irish Famine of the 1840s, Five Points received the first of many ethnic influxes of immigrants, becoming a melting pot, with a different ethnic gang to every block. To this day, in more peaceful times, Little Italy is still in the middle of Chinatown. Eighty years after the Collect was covered up, Jacob Riis took it upon himself to reveal to the affluent people of New York, the true conditions surrounding his headquarters, Mulberry Bend of Five Points. As Riis wrote later in his seminal 1890 work, How the Other Half Lives, “The whole district is a maze of narrow, often unsuspected passage ways—necessarily, for there is scarce a lot that has not two, three, or four tenements upon it, swarming with unwholesome crowds.” He vividly describe the “bend” itself: “Where Mulberry Street crooks like an elbow within hail of the old depravity of the Five Points, is “the Bend,” foul core of New York’s slums.” This is the career of the self-taugh photographer began, in the heart of foulness, and this is the site of investigative journalism.


Jacob Riis wrote of these homeless boys or “street arabs:”

“Whence this army of homeless boys? is a question often asked. The answer is supplied by the procession of mothers that go out and in at Police Headquarters the year round, inquiring for missing boys, often not until they have been gone for weeks and months, and then sometimes rather as a matter of decent form than from any real interest in the lad’s fate.”

These appalling social conditions were not accidental but purposeful through a profitable union of industrialists who were anxious to take advantage of the unending tide of cheap labor and politicians who benefited from abetting the financially powerful. Absentee landlords ruled supreme over this lucrative territory, buildings earned nothing but revenue because the tenants could not demand improvements or upkeep. The so-called “rear” apartments or the interior units were completely enclosed and a cooperative court of law ruled that the inhabitants had no legal right to air or light. All of the political and social and economic powers worked in concert to keep the suppressed newcomers in living conditions so terrible that they would not rebel or protest because, packed in a small area often swept by epidemics, they were so preoccupied with mere survival. Jacob Riis became a voice to speak for those who were not yet citizens, who could not speak English, who had no financial resources, no education, no home and only a desire for a better future through hard work. Traditionally, governments had relied upon the good will of citizens to help the poor but by the end of the nineteenth century, the population of the slums of New York was one million human beings, suffering and dying of very work and unhealthy living and working conditions–a situation far beyond any private efforts to alleviate. Utilizing relatively new technology, fast film and the flashbulb, better known as the magnesium-cartridge pistol lamp, Riis captured in an instant the misery that lived a half life in alleyways and cellars and in tiny dank rooms. From 1888 on, Riis used the novelty of “magic lantern” to show slides to his viewers who considered such vivid representations of poverty to be the equivalent of visiting the alleyway of “Bandits’ Roost” in person. His first audience were the members of his camera club, who had little first hand experience of the slums, much less of life at the Mulberry Street police station.

As the authors of Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the Century New York (2007), Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom pointed out the police stations in the slum territories did more than keep the peace, they acted as social services in an area where there was no there government presence. As Daniel Czitrom wrote, “Indeed Gilded Age police work meant a great deal more than the prevention and solving of crimes. Policemen of the day were very visible public agents, particularly for the poor, the recent immigrants, and the city’s huge ‘floating’ population. They routinely provided lodging and sometimes food for the indigent, helped lost children find their parents, aided accident victims, transported the sick to hospitals, stopped runaway horses, fished unidentified bodies out of the harbor, and removed dead animals from the streets.” As Tom Buk-Swienty noted in his 2008 book, The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America, that it was also the task of the police to dispose of the annual harvest of one hundred bodies of infants found in the streets, find orphanages for the five hundred abandoned infants. Most of these children would die.

The documentary photographs of Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives were marked by his own experience of landing in New York with less that fifty dollars, carrying no luggage, and being thrown into an unfamiliar environment. He knew what it was like to live in the shadows of looming tenement buildings, bordered by shacks and squalor, places where the basic ingredients for a healthy life, fresh air and sunshine, rarely visited, alleyways where children huddle together for warmth, tiny apartments where up to a dozen people existed and did piece work for factories. One wonders especially at the photographs of the children taken by Riis–were they abandoned by their parents, pushed out of their families? The girls seem to have been allowed to stay with the family, caring for the endless stream of newborns as “little mothers,” allowing their own mothers to work as full time laborers. As Riis wrote in his 1892 wrenching book, The Children of the Poor, on “The most pitiful victim of city life is not the slum child who dies, but the slum child who lives..Every time a child dies, the nation loses a prospective citizen, but in every slum child who lives the nation has a probable consumptive and possible criminal.” These desperately poor people lived in daily filth, “victims,” Riis called them, of a larger society that literally never saw them.


Jacob Riis. Knee-pants” at forty five cents a dozen—A Ludlow Street Sweater’s Shop (1890)

What made Riis different from the other writers and journalists who wrote of the immigrants was his point of view–he humanized the same people others referred to as “dirty” and “ignorant” and forced his audiences to bear witness to victims of governmental inaction. Among the gentry and well-heeled middle class, the common view of the poor was that they had brought their condition upon themselves. But Riis set out to change minds and hearts, writing seven books and giving countless lectures. Although he considered his photographs as visual aids to his mission, it is these images that became famous. Today his characterizations of various ethnicities, while typical of his time, would be considered patronizing, condescending, and offensive, but the raw untutored images have remained relevant. A capitalist who believed in the power of business as transformative, Riis had little faith in government intervention. But the photographer can be credited, at least in part, for impacting the progressive movement, for he worked with Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1895, was the president of the Board of Police Commissioners and spear-headed reforms in New York City. “I have read your book, and I have come to help,” Roosevelt said. It was Riis who took the future president on a tour of the slums of New York. Jacob Riis would end his lecture with the question “What will you do?” It was Roosevelt who provided the answers.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]