The Last of Cubism: French Artists at the World’s Fair, 1937, Part Three

French Artists at the World’s Fair

The Last of Cubism, Part Three

For Robert and Sonia Delaunay, the opportunity to decorate two buildings, one dedicated to airplanes and the other featuring trains, was too good to refuse. Both artists had long been painting modern life and both lived immersed in technology—Robert in his Talbot—and in cutting edge fashions–Sonia’s “simultaneous” dresses–so that doing murals on modern transportation–trains and airplanes–the pavilions for the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life in 1937 would be extensions of the lives they were already leading. By the late 1930s, the painting of Robert Delaunay had stiffened and thickened, lacking the translucence of color they had possessed before the War. The designs for the two buildings were the final expression of Orphism, distilled into a formula, hardened into a composition of colored discs as a signature motif. The circular forms that had once referred to the halos of light surrounding the new electric lamps for the streets of Paris could be translated into the rushing wheels of a locomotive or the swirling propellers of an airplane. The earlier works of both artists, Robert’s 1914 painting Homage to Bleriot and Sonia’s 1913, La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, an account of a journey on a train by poet Blaise Cendrars, designed by Terk-Delaunay.

The particular buildings for the Fair, Palais des Chemin de Fer and the Palais de l’Air, designed by architect Félix Aublet, which were decorated by the Delaunays became the swan song for the couple’s collaboration and, not incidentally, for Orphism and for Cubism itself. For years, Robert Delaunay had been isolated by choice, allowing Sonia to take the lead, but the chance to do murals on such a grand scale tempted him to make his presence known to the public once more. As his friend and art historian Jean Cassou explained, “In this spirit of intuitive and amorous synthesis of Orphic cubism, Delaunay always aspired to accomplish vast works which would express some great idea collective. His isolation in our age stems from the fact that he escaped the temptation of the easel painting in order to learn of possible techniques that would reconcile painting and architecture.”

The maquette for the entrance to le Palais des chemins, representing clouds of smoke and the layout of tracks, by Robert Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay. Voyages lointains (1937) also for the Palais des chemins

Delaunay had a long friendship with Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy and had seen the Parisian debut of the latter’s famous Licht-Raum Modulator, an amazing apparatus that was a beautiful machine casting light and forming shadows. The artist was interested in collaborating with architects because he had been impatient for years with easel painting. In fact, The City of Paris of 1910-1912, shown in the Salon des Indépendants in 1912, was four meters long. Then, when he was invited by the well-known architect, Robert Mallet-Stevens, to produce a mural for the building Society of Decorative Artists for the famed Art Deco exhibition of 1925, Delaunay painted The City of Paris, the Woman and the Tower. This mural was an answer and a sequel to the earlier The City of Paris, and once more he had been called upon to do murals for an international fair. Murals in a building would give him the opportunity to increase the size of his paintings to the monumental, enveloping the viewer with discs of color.

Robert Delaunay. The City of Paris, the Woman and the Tower (1925)

This triptych was one of the last major figurative works by Robert Delaunay. By the 1930s, he had made the definitive move to total abstraction and he produced a series of paintings called Rhythms, consisting of colored discs. He translated these paintings to “wall coverings,” geometric designs featuring circular shapes applied directly onto the wall itself. The pigment substitutes, such as plaster and casein or plaster laced with sawdust or textured cement, produced raised surfaces of designs that could withstand exterior climate changes. The Reliefs were shown in a Parisian gallery in 1935 and it was at this exhibition that Delaunay met Félix Aublet, who was looking to employ unemployed artists for the upcoming world’s fair. Two years later, Delaunay had, not a wall, but the interior of an entire building to plan and decorate.

Palais de l’air with the murals visible on the back wall in 1937

Exterior of the Palais de l’air in 1937

According to the Centre Pompidou, which organized a retrospective for Delaunay in 2015 (with occasional translation assists from the author) “The Air Palace, located on the Esplanade des Invalides, with an area of approximately 6300 m2, is contrary to the Palais railway, a building designed for exhibition. All metal, it consists of two curiously heterogeneous parts: a transparent tapered lobby and a long opaque gallery, covered with cement slabs..The upper segment was 25 m by 36 m wide, the dome, which overlooks the lobby, is entirely covered with Rhodoïd, transparent material and multicolored, which are associated light projections. In the middle of colored ellipses that recall the rings of Saturn and airplane flight paths, a bridge hanging in the attic allows the public to discover, an airplane suspended in the from the ceiling, in the air, as it were. At night, the transparent walls of the hall allowed a view, from the outside, of this extraordinary cosmic composition, while the fires of three rotating lights come intensify chromatic vibration of color. Under this facility, designed by Delaunay and Aublet, two other aircraft and the latest engine models are exposed on the ground.”

Sonia Delaunay. Murals for the Palais de l’air (1937)

Robert Delaunay. Hélice et Rythme (1937)

For the married couple, the murals were a dazzling achievement. The success of the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life is perhaps more in its place in history as one last bit of international cooperation than in any coherent manifestations of the themes. For many of the artists whose work appeared in the pavilions and palaces, it would be their last mature work before the Second World War, after which they would disappear from history. Artists like Fernand Léger would live another twenty years, long enough to see French art eclipsed by American art. Historians tend to prefer to discuss easel painting and often ignore the entire oeuvre of an artist. And yet the 1930s was a Golden Age for mural painting. It is rare to find an account of Paris between the Wars that goes beyond Surrealism, but many artists were drawn to the alternative of Social Realism which was diametrically opposed to the flight from reality and the journey into the unconscious taken by the Surrealists. Again, art history has shied away from political art and Surrealism, with its apparent lack of politics was more comfortable, because the politics of Surrealism–and Surrealism was political–were easier to ignore than with Social Realism. Diego Rivera left Cubism in pursuit of an art that expressed its own age and its needs in an era of social struggles and class divides. The Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union, expressed in the Pavilion, had stirred sympathies for the working classes and a desire for a more egalitarian justice.

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Fernand Léger. Le Transport des Forces. Palais de la Découverte (1937)

Joies essentielles, plaisirs nouveaux. Pavillon de l’Agriculture, Paris, Exposition Internationale (1937)

Fernand Léger, trapped between the avant-garde Surrealists, who were on the wane, and the concrete abstraction of Le Corbusier, sought a New Realism that would express its own time, the modern age of the thirties, in a readable–realism–fashion without being didactic and while retaining recognizable avant-garde features. Léger said, “It’s easier to look backward, to imitate what is already done, than to create something new.” Like the Delaunays, he sought connection with modernity. The murals he did for the pavilions at the 1937 Fair showed the impact of the current debate over the role of the artist in a society increasingly dedicated to listening to the needs and demands of the working class. In France, a new government had been elected in 1936 and the forty hour work week and paid holidays became part of a worker’s right. Léger, politically inclined towards supporting the proletariat, insisted that photomontages were an avant-garde solution to Socialist Realism and its didacticism. In Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art Between the Wars, Paul Wood pointed to Léger’s use of photomontage in his murals in his work for the fair as indicative of the ongoing debate of what art should be in an age of social urgency, trapped between Communism and Fascism. To anyone used to Dada photomontage, the use of mass media in a mural scale is a contradiction in terms and there is no doubt that Léger’s sincere idea was a clumsy mural, a bad solution. Like the position of the French government–in between–the struggle of French art to find the secure footing it had once enjoyed. Something had happened since the great fair of 1925 and the murals, commissioned by a government embarrassed that, in the supposed capital of the art world, their artists needed employment. And yet the argument–realism or abstraction? and if realism, what kind?–was suspended when the Second World War ended the debate, leaving important questions dangling in the margins.

The late or post-Cubists works of Robert Delaunay are rarely discussed within art history and only recently has the career of Sonia Delaunay been reconsidered. Of Robert, one must read between the lines and consider the possibility that being thought of as a “deserter” because he refused to serve in the military during the Great War might have hampered his post-war career in Paris. But the lively social life of the Delaunays suggests that the career of Robert might have stalled on its own, while Sonia continued to thrive and grow as an artist. The work he did for the Fair of 1937 was among his finest and would, sadly, constitute the end of his career. In a year, Robert became ill with what was diagnosed with cancer and he struggled for three more years to survive. However, the Nazis marched into Paris and immediately the life of Sonia who was Jewish was in danger. The couple fled south to Vichy territory where they found safety. In 1941, Robert Delaunay died of cancer, leaving a wife who would outlive him some thirty years and a son, Charles, who would become a world recognized jazz expert.

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The Delaunays, Robert and Sonia, Between the Wars

The Delaunays and Modern Life

Paris Between the Wars,

In 1889, the year that France celebrated the centenary of the Revolution, is best known for the shock of the new tower rising from the Champs de Mars, the Eiffel Tower, but that year was also the year that the first steps were taken to electrify Paris. Today Paris is known as “the city of light,” but as the nation of France approached the twentieth century, it was suddenly realized that the capital city was falling behind other European nations in adopting the latest in lighting technology–electricity. Writing in 1911, A. N. Holcombe noted that not until the Opéra Comique burned down did the officials awaken to continuing danger of using gas for public buildings. The article of 1911, “The Electric Lighting System of Paris,” is as boring and straightforward as the title, detailing the long process of installing a new means of illuminating the city, from putting “underground conduits and wiring” in place to deciding what fixed price should be charged and determining how the private companies undertaking the enterprise should be compensated in relation to the capital investments made by the state. By 1907, the year of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the public had accepted the switch (so to speak) from gas to electric and the demand for installation far exceeded the speed of the companies, which, being private, needed more investment funds. The tangled tale involved how the government should deal with private for-profit companies serving the public and how both entities should deal with labor.

Sonia Delaunay. Electric Prisms (1914)

A. N. Holcombe’s article in the Political Science Quarterly noted that when all the companies were merged into one company, the Paris Electricity Supply Company, capitalized by the city was given an exclusive contract that would begin in 1914 and extend to 1940. The city-owned the plant(s) and the company was given access to “the exclusive use of the property.” What is interesting about this article, now over one hundred years old, is that, in its own dry fashion, illustrates how new and novel public electric lighting would have been in the Paris of Robert Delaunay and Sonia Terk-Delaunay, artists who were dazzled and enchanted by this burst of modernity. In the evenings before the Great War, the newly married couple would stroll down the Boulevard St Michel where the new lights were providing a sharp brilliance, blindingly radiant in comparison to the mellow glow of gas. She remembered, “Halos were making colors and shadows turn and vibrate around us, as if unidentified objects were falling from the sky, friendly and crazy.”

Sonia Delaunay. Electric Prisms (1913)

In her interesting article on the impact of electric lights on artists, Christine Poggi wrote that when the street lights were installed on the Boulevard St. Michel were installed just before 1913 both Delaunays made sketches of the people of Paris, drawn to the novel sight, congregating under the bright lights. “The new arc lights can be viewed as one of the modernizing effects of Haussmannization, in which expansive new boulevards, among them the Boulevard St. Michel, cut through the narrow streets of old Paris, opening them to greater circulation and the production of new forms of visuality and spectacle. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch observes, arc lights were like small sums with a spectrum similar to that of daylight. In contrast to the gas lamps they replaced, they were extraordinarily bright and could not be looked at directly. As a result, they had to be fixed much higher on posts, where they were out of view. For those entering one of the places illuminated by arc lights from a dim, gas-lit side street, the transition could be dramatic. Delaunay’s memoir evoke her experience of the modernity of the site, the brilliant color and disorienting spatial effects created by the arc lights inducing a sense of ‘madness.'”

I liked electricity. Public lighting was a novelty. At night, during our walks, we entered the era of light, arm-in-arm. Rendez-vous at the St. Michel fountain. The municipality had substitued electric lamps for the old gas lights. The “Boul Mich,” highway to a new world fascinated me. We would go and admire the neighborhood show. The halos amde the colors and shadows swirl and vibrate around us as if unidentified objects were falling from the sky, beckoning our madness.

But, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the blossoming of electric street lights, marching from neighborhood to boulevard, was not the only modern innovation that captured their attention. Elsewhere, far away, an extraordinary railway–the Trans-Siberian Railway–was being completed in Eastern Russia. Alarmed by the moves by China to build a railroad up to the Eastern borders of Russia, Tsar Alexander III began the project–intended to protect the Russian Empire from any Chinese incursion–in 1890. The father wrote to his son, “I desire you to lay the first stone at Vladivostok for the construction of the Ussuri line, forming part of the Siberian Railway, which is to be carried at the cost of the state and under direction of the government. Your participation in the achievement of this work will be a testimony to My ardent desire to facilitate the communications between Siberia and the other countries of the empire, and to manifest My extreme anxiety to secure the peaceful prosperity of this country.” His heir Nicholas I finished the “Great Siberian Way”, as it was called, twelve years later, and the completion of this major route of trade and transportation was arguably the finest of his few achievements. The Railway stretched from Moscow to Vladivostok but it was built on the cheap and during the 1903 war with Japan, the rails failed and the system sagged and collapsed with the Empire itself. In a little-known footnote to history, just before the Russian Revolution installed a Soviet system of a worker controlled Communist state, it was the most capitalistic nation in the world, the United States of America that sent in workers and engineers in 1917 to help the fledgling Provisional Government to repair the Railway and re-built all 5,772 miles correctly. Even today, the prospect of riding nearly six thousand miles on a famous railroad is tempting and in the early twentieth century, the journey was a luxurious one–if one had the money. Certainly, the feat of modern engineering fired the imagination of the Russian poet Blaise Cendrars, who wrote Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France, a long folded expanse of text designed and decorated by his friend Sonia Terk-Delaunay. Produced through a combination of Linotype printing and the use of colored stencils (pochoir), this is a truly remarkable poem because its sheer size and length mimics the long railway itself. Because we usually see this “poem” as a small colorful illustration in a book, the explanation of the Tate Museum about the impressive size of this work of art is helpful:

(The poem was) produced in Paris in 1913 and published by Cendrars’s own self-financed publishing house, Éditions des Hommes Nouveaux (New Man Publishing). The text and artwork was printed on a single sheet of paper, folded accordion-style to form the twenty-two panels. When unfolded it is two metres tall. The original print run was intended to be 150 copies, which, if laid end to end, would be the same height as the Eiffel Tower, however only sixty editions were printed. Due to its large scale, Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway only functions as a readable book when it is fully open. Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway stages the unification of text and image and is a key example of the ‘simultaneisme’ (simultaneous theory) developed by Delaunay with her husband, fellow artist Robert Delaunay…Delaunay’s artwork was not an illustration of Cendrars’s narrative, but a visual equivalent, intended to be seen in unison. She transcribed the poem in colours, as she heard it being read out..

In this wonderful stream of consciousness poem, the narrator travels which his companion, Jehanne, described “a young proletarian,” who keeps asking: “Blaise, tell me, are we far from Montmartre?” And the poet answers: “For pity’s sake, come here and I’ll tell you a story Come into my bed/Come to my heart/I’m going to tell you a story..” In the Delaunay couple, we have two artists who celebrate the modern innovations of the new century with their art. In fact, in this poem, Cendrars, who lived in Paris, wrote of the impact of electric lights. “Is raining electric globes/Montrouge Gare de l’Est Métro Nord-Sud ferries on the Seine world/Everything is halo/Depth.” The text was done in four different typographies with upper and lower case, in four colors–green, blue, red and orange. The design keeps the story unfolding, leading from “page” to “page” as sixteen-year-old Blaise tells the story of his experiences in 1905 on the Railway.

Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrers.

Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France (1913)

In her article, “Mass, Pack, and Mob,” Poggi made the interesting observation that, after the War, “this quasi-abstract approach to depicting the city, and of the masses that inhabit it, would come to seem outdated, even decadent.” Post-war artists, she observed were interested in the “politically organized crowd” in contrast to “modern spectacle and entertainment.” But the Delaunays were not in Paris after the War. They had fled to Spain and from there to Portugal where they lived the war years. The Revolution put an end to Sonia’s Russian income, and she, the practical one in the family, opened a chain of shops, from Bilbao, Madrid and Barcelona, which sold her fabrics and her fashions, all designed by her, using patterns and colors inspired by her paintings. The couple stayed in the Iberian Peninsula for seven years before they returned to Paris. By the mid-twenties, Paris was in the midst of Les Années folles and the pre-war rivalry Robert had felt for Pablo Picasso was long ago and far away, in another time. According to Histoires de Paris,

Dès son arrivée dans la capitale, l’écrivain américain Henry Miller écrira : « La première chose qu’on remarque, à Paris, c’est que le sexe est dans l’air. Où qu’on aille, quoi qu’on fasse, on trouve d’ordinaire une femme à côté de soi. Les femmes sont partout, comme les fleurs.

For Sonia, these flower-like women were her target audience and she began her business anew in a city mad for new fashions. Unlike Robert, who had to reestablish himself, she had a place in the post-war world through her designs. As her biographer, Axel Madsen, wrote,

Sonia’s flair for adventuresome decorating, theater costume and book design, led her to adapt her bold color compositions, geometric designs, and swirling patterns to abstract dress designs. The result was a style that was different, a fashion that was decidedly avant-garde. This kind of haute couture could only be worn–and appreciated–by women who wanted to be noticed. Her clientele, therefore, included women who were known for their character and eccentricity, actresses and rich foreigners. To wear SoniaDelaunay was not, like wearing Chanel, to adopt a “look.” It was to make a statement.

Sonia was the main source of income for the couple who held court in their Paris apartment which was both decorated by painted poems by their friends and visited by the new Surrealist community. But their evenings and their dinner parties were not exclusively French. The Delaunays, in contrast to the rest of Paris, were happy to entertain Germans, including the Bauhaus architects. For Robert, the Bauhaus idea of joining art and industry was simpatico and for Sonia, the poems on the walls made their way into her architectonic dresses. In his book, Sonia Delaunay: Artist of the Lost Generation, Madsen reported on how the couple went from being hounded by bill collectors to being well-to-do, once they were established. They owned a dashing car, a Talbot, and were among the first artists in the 1920s to possess a telephone and own a radio. But this was on her earnings.

Sonia Terk-Delaunay’s designs for cars and clothes

In 1925, Art Deco was introduced to the French and to the world in an exhibition, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, from which the new Style Moderne took its name. Art Deco, the preferred name, was introduced later, but in 1925, it became clear that the Cubism that had dominated before the War had become an applied art, incorporated into design after the War. Given the male-dominated character of the group, the fact that Sonia Terk-Delaunay took the heady concepts of Orphism and Simultaneity and made these terms buzz words for fashion. There was a simultaneous car, a simultaneous dress, coat, shoes and so on, popularizing Cubism at its most scientific and most esoteric, making the style into a luxury consumer good.

Simultaneous Dresses in 1925

It was the 1925 exhibition that made her reputation while Robert was still trying to find his artistic feet. Apparently, Robert’s first post-war exhibition in 1922 at the Galerie Paul Guillaume was not successful, but he began a new series on the Eiffel Tower. Two years later, Delaunay returned to another pre-war theme, athletics, in his Runner paintings, which were far more conservative than the earlier paintings he did before the War. It seems that Robert, who was never inclined towards hard work, preferred to drive his fancy Talbot and entertain his friends to contributing to the family income. When the Delaunays needed money, he would make or sell art, and the paintings of the twenties and thirties were reiterations on his previous themes.

Robert Delaunay. Runners (1924-26)

However, in 1937, Robert Delaunay, in collaboration with his now famous wife, Sonia, got a chance to shine, one more time. He was invited to do the murals for the Palais des Chemins de Fer and Palais de l’Air at the Paris World’s Fair. Here the preoccupations of decades for the couple–the fast trains, the Trans-Siberian Railway and the glamor of air travel, going back to Louis Blériot–came to fruition. The World’s Fair was a futile gesture of hope in a Europe sinking back into another world war. The next and last post on the partnership between the leading art couple between the wars will concentrate on their murals in the Pavillon de l’aviation in Paris.

Robert Delaunay. Disques reliefs (1936)

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

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

Thank you.

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Orphism and Simultaneity

ORPHISM: ART AS MUSIC

Art and Time

The last great body of art that reflected the pomp and circumstance of measureless and atemporal time was the nostalgic view of Paris created by the photographer of Old Paris, Eugène Atget. Paris lies before his camera, silently brooding over its history, hiding the secrets and lies of its vanished inhabitants behind closed doors. Atget’s Paris is an archaeological exhibition into a vanished civilization mysteriously devoid of activity and yet replete with memory. In contrast to a time when the pace of change was slow, gradual and imperceptible, change occurred every day in the Twentieth Century. The concept of endless and rapid change can be said to have the prevailing characteristic of the new century. A child of the Twentieth Century, who was also an important photographer by the time he was twelve,Jacques-Henri Lartigue, photographed a world of flight and speed that defied the boundaries of space and time. While Atget refused to photograph New Paris–everything from the Second Empire on–Lartigue was characteristic of the artists born into the new century who responded to this new machine age with a variety of reactions, most of which were admiring and accepting.

The artists pondered the very meaning of machines–rational, scientific, abstract, inhuman and unsentimental, they copied the very look of machines with a machine aesthetic that was shiny, stripped down, slick, unadorned and plain, functional and elegant. They examined the functions of the machine, its penchant for repetition, and its role in the process of the assembly line into a series of parts and functions. And they speculated on the implications of a machine culture in all its dehumanization, in its impact upon human beings, newly alienated and without wholeness. Art and artists begin to show a new concern for the means, the process, and the production of art, rather than with the ends or the finished artistic product.

Art and Simultaneity

During this pre-War period, “isms” were springing up overnight in a bewildering variety. Part of this was an attempt on the part of art critics to put names to variations on Cubism, part was a response of the artists themselves to distinguish themselves from their fellows, with whom they might disagree. “Orphism” was a name coined by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire on the occasion of the Section d’Or exhibition of 1912. The reference to Orpheus is a reference to the pure form of music—a way of making art, which did not rely upon conventions of imitation of objects in the real world. As Pure Painting, Orphism could be as pure and as abstract and as non-referential as music. However, the Orphist artists often referred to an object. Husband and wife, Robert and Sonia Terk-Delaunay and Francis Picabia always had some kind of tangible thing at the heart of their conception.

Only “Frank” Kupka conceived of his forms as being strictly non-representational, standing for spiritual ideas. In his interest in the spiritual, Kupka was similar to Kandinsky in the reason for his abstractions. Orphism was about states of mind and states of consciousness and states of being. These artists, who sometimes included Fernand Léger, were convinced that Modern Life had produced a modern consciousness. This idea of a change in culture producing a change in consciousness is central to Orphism. Modern consciousness responded to the vibrant excitement of the modern city. Modern consciousness, aware of constant change and flux, sensitive to a speeded up existence, had learned intuitively how to grasp many things simultaneously.

As they would be for Futurism, dynamism and simultaneity are key concepts for Orphism. The symbol or sign of this modern life was, for the Orphists, light itself: light which absorbed everything; light into which one could be absorbed. Life was in movement and flux and in light itself. The artist could express this new consciousness, this new form of seeing, which was simultaneous and dynamic, ever moving and ever flowing, by throwing him/herself into the act of pure painting. Although the painting produced by this act often seemed purely decorative, the artists saw their works as having a far deeper meaning. Deeply influenced by the philosophical ideas of the philosopher, Henri Bergson, these artists considered the act of seeing to be the generating force of consciousness or elan vital itself. Seeing, for the Orphists, was consciousness itself.

These ideas about mind and matter have a variety of sources. The poetry of the Nineteenth Century poet, Stephane (Étienne) Mallarmé (1842-1898), was concerned with the inner workings of the mind and stressed the mental activity of creation. Of interest to the Cubists of this period was Mallarmé’s use of words on the pure white page, words that were positioned, rather than written in an open field, words that suggested movement rather than narrating an event. The words of Mallarmé were to be looked at and followed by the eyes as they marched up and down and across the pages in his ground-breaking poem, Un coup de dès. A precursor to concrete poetry, the poetry of Mallarmé was a creative extension of Symbolist poetry, allowing greater freedom for the reader whose eyes and mind was activated by the rolling words, bounding across the white pages.

The idea of a visually activated picture plane that engaged the eyes in a physical fashion, not allowing vision to pause and rest, became important to the Cubist artists. Like modern life, art had to move. Although the Orphists used words on the picture plane, their central concern was the representation of light, which is the essential aspect of la vie moderne. Under the impact of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, the Orphists broke the objects into small planes, fracturing the materiality with the dynamic action of light. Space and matter interacted in the mind, which associated the things of the world. The desire to go beyond the objective world (unlike Picasso and Braque) owed a great deal to the philosopher, Henri Bergson who emphasized constant change and process of time.

This is the concept of simultanism: all things are simultaneously present to the consciousness which is mobile, transforming past and present through memory. One’s present consciousness is an interpenetrating state of being. This being is indivisible and is the result of the flux of the whole. The interplay between the object and the environment is artistically conceived as a actual movement in space, for perception changes as movement changes the shape of the object as light dematerializes the object. There are two types of motion: centripetal in which the object moves in on itself as an internalized mass and an outward movement that, according to Bergson, prevents the phenomenon of an isolated object. There are only intimations or simultaneous movements within a continuous field.

Orphism was not an ideologically consistent movement, such as Futurism with its many manifestos. Orphism was, instead, a temporary coincidence of tendencies, which lead to or suggested non-figuration. Movement and light destroyed the materiality of bodies. These ideas of light, modern life and modern consciousness rested upon a variety of influences and older ideas. There was a resurgence of interest in Neo-Impressionism in 1911, largely due to the publication of a book by Paul Signac on color from the time of Delacroix to Seurat. Equally important for Orphist ideas of color was Fauvism, especially Matisse’s now published, Notes d’un peintre of 1908. Of course, the idea of light being colored and of color being light can also be traced back to the Impressionists. The Orphists tended to look less at natural light and more at artificial light. Robert and Sonia Delaunay, especially, were fascinated by the colored halos of light emanating from the newly installed electric streetlights in Paris. Colored disks became a major and permanent theme in his work and the work of Russian expatriate Sonia Terk-Delaunay who also painted the excitement of the balls in Paris.

The visual vocabulary of Cubism enabled the Orphist artists to see ways of breaking objects into small planes, denoting the dynamic action of light. The Cubist vocabulary also allowed them to associate objects brought together in the mind and to present these objects, fragmented, and juxtaposed, in non-traditional ways. The idea that the mind takes in many things simultaneously, conveyed on the canvas as a rather prismatic and fractured image, is of course indebted to Henri Bergson in whom the Futurists who were also interested. To Bergson, all is simultaneously present in the mind, to the consciousness, which is mobile. One’s present consciousness is a state of being constantly in flux, but indivisible with the whole. Experience is perpetual, not broken into discrete units. While the Orphists produced totally abstract works of brilliant color out of these philosophical concepts, their Russian colleague, Marc Chagall, used his love of Russian folk art and his nostalgia for his home town of Vitebsk to create a world of memory and light and color, illustrating a new universe with its own laws and its own fairy tale rules in I and the Village (1911).

For a time Cubists, Futurists, Orphists and avant-garde artists, such as Chagall that defy classification, exchanged ideas and visions in pre-War Paris. Ardengo Scoffici, the editor of La Voce, and Lacerba, could chat with Guillaume Apollinaire, who would spend time with the fellow poet, Blaise Cendrars and the Italian art critic and editor of Montjoie!, Riciotto Canudo. The French artist, Robert Delaunay and his Russian wife and artistic colleague, Sonia Terk-Delaunay, were marital proof of the famed Moscow-Paris railway and artistic link between the two capitals. Gino Severini, the Parisian born Italian Futurist, would have known the concept of élan vital of Bergson who believed the future would be formed by action (Creative Evolution, 1907). For Bergson, the universality of art was the vitality of creativity and his ideas would take on a new and unexpected life within Futurism.

Despite the similarity of the ideas and sources shared by the Orphists and the Futurists, the two groups diverged on the question of politics. Orphism was a radical art movement only, while Futurism was also a radical political movement. Orphism used ideas of Divisionism for the explorations of color theory. For the Futurists, Divisionism was far more than a painting technique or a theory of color; Divisionism was modern life itself: life, which was in flux, in motion…divided within itself, in effect, allowing a constant Bergsonian “interpenetration” of mind and matter. For the Futurists, Divisionism was radical and revolutionary. Divisionism was the 20th century incarnate.

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The Cubists: Artists and Writers

THE CUBISTS AND THEIR CIRCLE

Today Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) are considered to be the “True Cubists,” to borrow a phrase from art historian, Edward Fry. But at the time Cubism was famous or infamous with the Parisian public, from 1910 to 1914, “Cubism” meant the Salon Cubists. To the art audience, the “Cubists” were those artists who showed and exhibited publicly in the large Salon exhibitions in Paris and in other European capitals. Because these were the artists who exhibited, those were the artists and the art works referred to when the art reviews were published in the mainstream press.

To the writers in the know and to the avant-garde artists, Picasso was the acknowledged leader of Cubism and possible source of inspiration for the Salon Cubists, with Braque being a shadowy figure, mentioned only occasionally by the art press. Protected by their art dealer, the German expatriate, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979), Braque and Picasso were supported financially and were able to work out their own version of “Cubism” in the privacy of their individual studios and display the results privately in Kahnweiler’s unadvertised gallery, far from the madding crowds of the Salons.

Who were the Salon Cubists? These artists, some sculptors but mostly painters, were a varied and complex group, strongly influenced byPaul Cézanne and dedicated to producing an avant-garde art which also maintained the French tradition of structure, clarity, logic, balance and classicism, as seen in French art from Poussin to Chardin. These artists were not really interested in so-called “primitive art,” nor do they go through the phases or periods of Cubism as Picasso and Braque did. They cannot be said to have had an Analytic Period or a Synthetic Period, and these artists did not have a great interest in collage, developed by the “true Cubists.” Thoroughly conventional and bourgeois, they lived in the suburbs around Paris, Purteaux and Corbevoie. Only Jean Metzinger (1883-1956) lived in the more bohemian environs of Montmartre, near Picasso and Braque.

The extent of the interchanges and mutual influence between the Salon Cubists and the “True Cubists” is difficult to determine. Albert Gleizes (1881-1953), Metzinger’s co-author of Du Cubisme, published 1912, did not meet Picasso until 1911, for example. By then, public or Salon Cubism was well underway. Nevertheless, it is good to remember that avant-garde art, by this time, had become an international phenomenon and avant-garde was exhibited and exchanged globally. These artists were in close touch with the Futurist artists and Russian art collectors were in contact with Picasso and Braque. French art traveled to other capitals in Europe and the Futurists chose to make their biggest splash in Paris. The 1913 Armory Show in New York rocked New York City, rattling the sensibilities of the provincials. Despite the rapid diffusion of ideas and styles, groups of artists and individual artists, can be clearly distinguished, for each maintained his/her national or personal characteristics.

The Artists

The Salon Cubists included Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, who based their version of Cubism upon the ideas of Cézanne, which the authors of Du Cubisme understood as examining that which was seen through multiple points in time and space. Like the Cubists who showed in the Salons, they were not adverse to color. In fact, the so-called Orphists, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Terk-Delaunay, Frank Kupka, and, sometimes Francis Picabia based their brightly colored art on the notion that color, like music, could transcend into abstraction.

The grouping of the Salon Cubists, such as, Andre Lhote, Auguste Hebrin, Louis Marcoussis, and Roger de la Fresnaye (1885-1925) and Marie Laurencin, etc. into sub groups was imaginary and artificial, the product of the art critic, Guillaume Apollinarie. Fernand Léger showed publicly for a time and then, with the Spanish follower of Picasso, Juan Gris, later became part of Kahnweiler’s group of Cubists. Completing the Cubists who showed in the Salons were the Duchamp Family, the painter, Jacques Villon, the sculptor, Raymond Duchamp-Villon (who died in the Great War) and Marcel Duchamp, who stopped painting in 1913, and the painter, Suzanne Duchamp.

Historians will later accord Léger and Gris a place of prominence in Cubism, largely due to Kahnweiler’s historical account of “his true Cubists” in Der Weg zum Kübismus. (The Rise of Cubism, 1915). It should be noted that Kahnweiler was reluctant to include “his” artists with the Salon Cubists and was very negative towards the very word, “Cubism.” During the peak years of Cubism, 1910-1914, the number of “Cubists” was substantial; after the Great War, the artists were ranked as “major” or “minor.” This ranking was done after the fact by the first historians of Cubism who were art dealers supporting the artists in their stables.

Art Critics

Like the art world itself, the circles of art writers was divided among the conservative and the radical and those in between. During the early Twentieth Century, the close ties between avant-garde artists and writers, forged in the previous century, persisted. And, as before, the art critics were also serious poets and novelists in their own right. The artists and writers were a close-knit community and the writers supported “their” artists in newspapers and journals. Often the writer would publish art reviews in mainstream newspapers with a general art audience and then write more substantive commentary for the journals, often short-lived petites revues.

Adventurous small publishers were willing to take a chance and even produce books on controversial art. It is important to note that the contents of these early writings, published before the Great War, were usually generalized, referring mostly to the Salon Cubists. After the War, these books were re-read and interpreted from the standpoint of a post-War re-evaluation of the Cubist artists. Readers tended to assume, incorrectly, that the writers were discussing Picasso and Braque, but these primary sources need to be read carefully, for those two artists were seldom directly discussed.

“Cubism” usually designated the public Salon manifestations of Cubist art, created by the Salon Cubists. Those who supported Cubism and who wrote important early books on these artists include the poets, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Salmon, and Maurice Raynal. The well-known critic-biographer, André Warnod, also weighed in, writing in Comedia. Other critics, such as Louis Vauxcelles and Arsène Alexandre, spoke against Cubism but were important supporters of Post-Impressionists, a group of artists still relatively unknown to the art audience, and favored art from non-Western countries. The main site of Cubism in America, where avant-garde art had a small audience and collector base, was the vanguard gallery owned by the photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. The legendary 291 hosted the cutting edge art from Paris and the gallery’s publication, Camera Work, published some of the first writings of Gertrude Stein, discussing Matisse.

Shortly before Apollinaire published The Cubist Painters in 1913, Gelizes and Metzinger published On Cubism in 1912. André Salmon, the poet-critic who had written of the mysterious painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and was a strong supporter of Picasso, wrote Young French Painting, also in 1913. In her 2006 book on Cubism, Anne Ganteführer-Trier, stated that Picasso was concerned that Salmon was neglectful of Braque. “He treats you with great injustice,” Picasso wrote to his partner. Perhaps of less interest to Picasso was the book written in 1914 by the American author, Arthur Jerome Eddy, Cubism and Post-Impressionism. With the exception of the writings of Apollinaire, who reproduced black and white photographs of Cubist collages in his book, Les Soirées de Paris, written in the same year, the sources of the ideas of Cubism would have almost certainly come from the Salon Cubists.

If one accepts that the main source of writings on Cubism were the Salon Cubists, then the lack of writing on the collages is explained. Apollinaire commented without explanation, that Picasso dissected like a “surgeon,” almost certainly a reference to the constructions. Most of the writing on Cubism centered on the multiplicity of viewpoints, the destruction of classical Renaissance perspective and the resulting fragmentation of forms. There were erudite references to poorly understood ideas that were floating about Montmartre, such as the Fourth Dimension or the dimension of time, but these appropriations were used, as Maurice Raynal later disclosed, less to explain Cubism and more to sell the new style as a serious movement in modernism.

The Salon Cubists: “The Cubist Heroes”

The Salon Cubists-to-be looked at Paul Cézanne, now widely available in various gallery retrospectives, especially those at the Salon d’automne in 1904 and 1906. It would not be an exaggeration to state that these exhibitions changed the direction of French avant-garde art, putting and end to Fauvism and making the beginning of Cubism. Cézanne’s attempt to go beyond the limitations of one-point perspective in depth, invented during the Renaissance. The result was what appeared to be distortions of space and form in his paintings, which provided much food for thought. Cézanne had also suggested that nature could be reduced to basic shapes—the cone, the cylinder and the sphere, thus introducing a certain basic geometry as the basis for creating form. But, far from being a disrupter of tradition, Cézanne’s investigations were a sincere and life long effort on his part to turn Impressionism into something solid, something fit for museums.

Avant-garde artists were searching for a new means of expression in a new age. This search was thwarted by the Academy, the art schools, which taught an official and accepted and acceptable art and insisted on continuing tradition. To the avant-garde artists, the academic formulas were now worn out and should be shed. But it is important to make a distinction between overworked visual conventions and a respect for past art. The Salon Cubists seem to have shared Cézanne’s need to innovate and to search for new answers, but they shared his adherence to the classical French tradition. For Cézanne, the classical meant the clean and simple structure of Poussin, and he objected to the supposed lack of composition rigor in Impressionism. Like Cézanne, the Salon Cubists always looked back to the masters of French painting.

Like Cézanne, the Salon Cubists turned their backs on the Impressionists but for different reasons. The Cubists objected to the passivity of the Impressionists who, they charged were too simple minded, too optically orientated. There was more to nature than merely recording the shifts of light and the changes of color—there was structure and form and solidity that were, paradoxically, broken by the mobility of vision. However, as was mentioned previously, the Salon Cubists did not follow the logic of Cézanne into the dissolution of form itself. The art of Cézanne provided a kind of stylistic armature, a sort of grid or network from which the Salon Cubists could “hang” or organize their subjects.

The results of their studies became visible from 1910 on when the Salon Cubists began appearing publicly as a group, hung in particular rooms of the major avant-garde salons, the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne. Some had been working independently until then and became aware of each other in the Salon context. By October 1912, these Salon Cubists had their own exhibition, called the Section d’Or exhibition at the La Boétie Gallery. Although this was the year Picasso and Braque, working privately, developed Synthetic Cubism, the Salon Cubists continued their version of Cubism as an extension of Cézanne. The public considered with art very radical and shocking and, because of public ridicule and critical opposition, these were the artists who became the true “heroes” of Cubism. However, art history would, after the Great War, re-name them the “minor Cubists,” a categorization that must have come as a great shock to the veterans of one of the great avant-garde skirmishs.

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

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

[email protected]