There is nothing like the passage of time to cover rebellion with the warm patina of capitalism. Cubism, once unacceptable to the conventional art audience, Cubism glowed with the baptism of “history.” Due to its intellectualism and because of the tireless efforts of its interpreters to link it to French tradition, Cubism was now worthy of being historicized. The exhibitions at the respective Rosenberg galleries were often accompanied by small catalogues that had the accumulated effect of accruing both financial and symbolic capital to the artists and to the movement. Thus, was Cubism moved from the ranks of the disruptive “isms” to the status of “important” art, readying itself for the art historians.
But like many of the artists showed by Rosenberg at L’Effort moderne, history has not been kind to the Salon Cubists, who have been neglected in favor of an emphasis on Picasso. But this gallery and those artists were very important in the establishment of an important place in history for Cubism. Rosenberg’s publication contained, alongside of his writings on Cubism, articles on Ingres and Poussin and ancient art, juxtaposed to the avant-garde art of his artists, sanctifying Cubism through association. As early as 1919, art critic Maurice Raynal wrote “Some Aims of Cubism” in which he linked Cubism to history through its structure, a sort of instinctual classicism. Rosenberg himself reiterated this point in his publication, “Cubism and Tradition,” using his expertise in historical art to national qualities—rationality and logic and an intellectual exploration of clarity for which the French were famous. It is also possible that in the wake of a devastating war that “order” in the French fashion was a call to nationalism, and it is also possible that, undermining these serious writings, that Picasso’s rather silly take on classical art was more a droll statement of wit than a genuine return to order. There is a dual outcome for post-war Cubism. On one hand, after the war Cubism was rendered respectable through a classicizing discourse and on the other hand, post-war Cubism experienced a genuine creative renaissance in the experimental world of applied design.
Over the decades, art historical interest in post-war Cubism has been inconsistent, and Fernand Léger emerged as one of the leading lights. But there is an exception to this historical outcome of benign neglect and, ironically, one of the few post-war artists still well-known today is a woman. The great Cubist artist and designer, Sonia Terk-Delaunay (1885-1979), lived in both worlds, the world of painting and the world of applied design, found both new fame and new opportunities after the Great War. Before the War, she and her husband, Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) and the Czech artist, František Kupka (1871-1957) were part of an outgrowth of mainstream Cubism called Orphism. Although art critic and poet Guillaume Apollinaire discussed the significance of Orphism, it was Delaunay himself who was the chief theorist, seeking to distance his art from that of Picasso and Braque. In 1912, Delaunay wrote an important article for the Berlin journal published out of Herwarth Walden’s gallery Der Strum, titled, “On the Construction of Reality in Pure Painting.” The essay read in part:
“Realism is the eternal quality in art; without it there can be no permanent beauty, because it is the very essence of beauty. Let us seek purity of means in painting, the clearest expression of beauty. In impressionism – and I include in that term all the tendencies that reacted to it: neo-impressionism, precubism, cubism, neocubism, in other words, everything that represents technique and scientific procedure – we find ourselves face to face with nature, far from all the correctness of ‘styles,’ whether Italian, Gothic, African, or any other. From this point of view, impressionism is undeniably a victory, but an incomplete one. The first stammer of souls brimming over in the face of nature, and still somewhat stunned by this great reality. Their enthusiasm has done away with all the false ideas and archaic procedures of traditional painting (draftsmanship, geometry, perspective) and has dealt a deathblow to the neoclassical, pseudo-intellectual, and moribund academy.This movement of liberation began with the impressionists. They had had precursors: El Greco, a few English painters, and our own revolutionary Delacroix. It was a great period of preparation in the search for the only reality: ‘light,’ which finally brought all these experiments and reactions together in impressionism. One of the major problems of modern painting today is still the way in which light that is necessary to all vital expressions of beauty functions. It was Seurat who discovered the ‘contrast of complementaries’ in light. .Seurat was the first theoretician of light. Contrast became a means of expression. His premature death broke the continuity of his discoveries. Among the impressionists, he may be considered the one who attained the ultimate in means of expression. His creation remains the discovery of the contrast of complementary colors. (Optical blending by means of dots, used by Seurat and his associates, was only a technique; it did not yet have the importance of contrasts used as a means of construction in order to arrive at pure expression.) He used this first means to arrive at a specific representation of nature. His paintings are kinds of fleeting images. Simultaneous contrast was not discovered, that is to say, achieved, by the most daring impressionists; yet it is the only basis of pure expression in painting today. Simultaneous contrast ensures the dynamism of colors and their construction in the painting; it is the most powerful means to express reality. Means of expression must not be personal; on the contrary, they must be Within the comprehension of every intuition of the beautiful, and an artist’s metier must be of the same nature as his creative conception. The simultaneity of colors through simultaneous contrasts and through all the (uneven) quantities that emanate from the colors, in accordance with the way they are expressed in the movement represented – that is the only reality one can construct through painting. We are no longer dealing here either with effects (neo-impressionism within impressionism), or with objects (cubism within impressionism), or with images (the physics of cubism within impressionism). We are attaining a purely expressive art, one that excludes all the styles of the past (archaic, geometric) and is becoming a plastic art with only one purpose: to inspire human nature toward beauty. Light is not a method, it slides toward us, it is communicated to us by our sensibility. Without the perception of light– the eye – there can be no movement. In fact, it is our eyes that transmit the sensations perceived in nature to our soul. Our eyes are the receptacles of the present and, therefore, of our sensibility. Without sensibility, that is, without light, we can do nothing. Consequently, our soul finds its most perfect sensation of life in harmony, and this harmony results only from the simultaneity with which the quantities and conditions of light reach the soul (the supreme sense) by the intermediary of the eyes. And the soul judges the forms of the image of nature by comparison with nature itself – a pure criticism – and it governs the creator. The creator takes note of everything that exists in the universe through entity, succession, imagination, and simultaneity. Nature, therefore, engenders the science of painting. The first paintings were simply a line encircling the shadow of a man made by the sun on the surface of the earth. But how far removed we are, with our contemporary means, from these effigies – we who possess light (light colors, dark colors, their complementaries, their intervals, and their simultaneity) and all the quantities of colors emanating from the intellect to create harmony. Harmony is sensibility ordered by the creator, who must try to render the greatest degree of realistic expression, or what might be called the subject; the subject is harmonic proportion, and this proportion is composed of various simultaneous elements in a single action. The subject is eternal in the work of art, and it must be apparent to the initiated in all its order, all its science. Without the subject, there are no possibilities. This does not, however, mean a literary and, therefore, anecdotic subject; the subject of painting is exclusively plastic, and it results from vision. It must be the pure expression of human nature. The eternal subject is to be found in nature itself; the inspiration and clear vision characteristic of the wise man, who discovers the most beautiful and powerful boundaries..”
Robert Delaunay introduced strong color and the contemporary and recognizable subject matter of modernity, as a study of modern painting that would be “le peinture pure,” the equal to nature and as readable as nature. In other words, the best way to react to the current technology is to create an autonomy for painting that is both physical and plastic and pure or objective, like nature, standing apart from other objects. The Delaunays and Kupka edged very close to abstraction in their pre-war work, and, after the War, the paintings of the former Orphists favored design over narrative, strong pattern over representation. Describing color as the “skin of the world,” Terk-Delaunay understood the concept of simultaneity—color as having an independence from form and becoming form in and of itself, color and form existing simultaneously. The years before the Great War were the high water mark for Robert Delaunay.