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(a) Nietzsche v. Kant 

The comparison between On "Cubism" and The Rise of Cubism was the subject of an interesting essay by John Nash: The Nature of Cubism. Nash is still primarily interested in the work of Picasso and Braque and has no apparent interest in the paintings of Gleizes and Metzinger. But he argues that, as a guide to the intentions of Picasso and Braque, On "Cubism" is better than The Rise of Cubism. Principally he sees The Rise of Cubism as influenced by Kant and On "Cubism" as influenced by Nietzsche. The 'Neo-Kantian' argument he attributes to Kahnweiler is that the painter is trying to use geometrical elements which exist 'a priori' in the mind in order to arrive at the objective truth of the 'thing in itself'. The Nietzschean argument of Gleizes and Metzinger is that the world in itself is unknowable and can only be interpreted subjectively. The artist is a Superman whose subjective interpretation is so compelling that the common herd are obliged to follow it. He teaches them how to see - or, rather, how he sees - but he himself knows that what he has taught them is inadequate and no sooner does the crowd conform to his vision than he has to move on to another vision, constantly transgressing the principles, or conventions, he has himself established. 

We have already seen that this Nietzschean argument is indeed present in On "Cubism" and Gleizes quotes Nietzsche in his essay on Metzinger. I think, however, that there is more of Nietzsche in Kahnweiler than Nash allows; and perhaps more of Kant in Gleizes and Metzinger. Indeed, although Kahnweiler did everything he could to undermine the influence of Gleizes and Metzinger (23) his thinking may have had more in common with them, and especially Metzinger, than one might expect.

23   See e.g. Assouline: An artful life, pp. 172, 384, 453.


(b) The total image 

'In a Preface to the Aesthetic Confessions (which includes a French translation of The Rise) written in 1958  he says: 

'If I ask myself to day what it was that Cubism introduced that was new, I find only one thing to say: thanks to the invention of signs that represent [figurent] the external world it has provided plastic art with the possibility of passing on to the spectator the artist's visual experiences without any illusionist imitation. It has recognised that all plastic art is nothing other than a writing whose signs are read by the spectator and not a reflection of nature.' (p.10) 

This could almost have been written by Metzinger and strongly recalls the 'plastic signs' of Metzinger's 1910 A Note on Painting. We are also (though there is no possibility that Kahnweiler could have read it) reminded of Metzinger's remarks in Cubism Was Born

'I wanted an art that was faithful to itself [loyal] and would have nothing to do with the business of creating illusions. I dreamed of painting glasses from which no-one would ever think of drinking, beaches that would be quite unsuitable for bathing, nudes who would be definitively chaste. I wanted an art which in the first place would appear as a representation of the impossible. It should be said that such an art would be neither more false nor more true than classical art ...' 

This impression is reinforced if we look at Metzinger's essay, Cubist Technique, published in Prague in 1913. Although it does not seem to have been published in France it is still quite possible that Kahnweiler knew it. It was published as part of a dispute in Prague between a group represented by the art critic Vincenc Krámař, who saw the Salon Cubists as inferior imitators of the perfected art of Picasso and Braque; and another, which included Čapek and the very interesting Bohumil Kubišta, who argued that all the Cubists, including the Salon Cubists and Picasso and Braque, were part of a process that was only at its beginning and still had a long way to go. Krámař was an important collector of Picasso and Braque and closely associated with Kahnweiler and may well have kept him informed of Metzinger's essay. (24)

24   Lahoda: 'Cubist Imperialism'.

Metzinger's very first phrase - 'Painting in the first instance consists in representing volume on a surface and in stimulating an illusion of depth with the help of the other two spatial dimensions' - is strongly reminiscent of what is virtually a leitmotif in Kahnweiler's writings on Cubism. For example in his book on Juan Gris, when he says of Seurat that 'he tackled one of the fundamental problems of painting, the representation on the two dimensional canvas of bodies which have three by means other than imitation' (p.170) and again, attacking Peter Lenz and the School of Beuron: 'they did not suspect the true problem which appeared to Cézanne to be primordial, namely the representation on the canvas with its two dimensions of solids which have three of them' (p.186) 

Parallels could be multiplied but we may also note Metzinger's description of how the Cubist painter isolates different characteristics and qualities of the object and presents them separately as pieces of information about the object which the spectator reassembles in the mind. That is not found so clearly expressed in On "Cubism" but it is very close to the description of Cubist working methods in The Rise of Cubism

Although On "Cubism"'s 'Nietzschean' artist as Superman argument is not expressed in The Rise we do find it in Kahnweiler's My Galleries and Painters. He tells us that he first felt his vocation to be a gallery owner when he saw a crowd gesticulating angrily at a painting by Monet in the window of a Paris gallery. He understood that the essential task of the artist was always to see the world anew. Consequently, if it is to be a real living force art must always start by causing offence. Before its conventions have become generally accepted the artist will have moved on. Which is, of course, pure On "Cubism". 

It also implies an essentially figurative art. On "Cubism" argued that the artist teaches us how to look at the world, and in The Rise we read: 

'The unconscious work we accomplish in the presence of all the objects of the world of bodies to 'recognise' their form and make of it for ourselves an exact image, the Cubist picture makes it easier for us by revealing to us the relations these bodies have with the original forms.' (p.38) (25)

25   In Kahnweiler's much later book on Gris we have this, which is highly reminiscent of the theory of perception given in On "Cubism":  'art, creator of the visible world' (p.179).

The 'original forms' being the elementary geometrical forms which, Kahnweiler suggests, following Kant, exist a priori (prior to our experience of the external world) in our consciousness. 

(c)  Philosophical idealism: Kant and Schopenhauer 

There is a brief discussion of Kahnweiler's debt to Kant in the biography, An artful life by Pierre Assouline. Assouline admits that Kahnweiler liked to refer to Kant, 'filling his conversations and articles full of allusions to the universal nature of the "sense of beauty", defining the Beautiful as in principle subjective and disinterested, without end and without concept, implicitly referring to that Critique of Judgement (1790) of Immanuel Kant, so decisive for the history of aesthetics ...' - all of which actually sounds more like Gleizes and Metzinger than Kahnweiler in whose writings the idea of Beauty is notable by its absence. We may also note the way in which Du "Cubisme', like the Critique of Judgement but unlike Kahnweiler invokes the idea of Taste, with a capital 'T', insisting on its disinterested character. 

But Assouline continues: 

'In this process, the reading of books such as The World as Will and Representation or On Sight and Colours plays an essential role in his evolution. For him, they are above all from a philosopher [ils sont avant tout d'un philosophe], Arthur Schopenhauer, of whom Wagner said he was the first to think the thoughts of Kant through to the end ... Kahnweiler, strongly impregnated with the Representation of the world, places Schopenhauer on the highest level; he retains his transcendental idealism and not the pessimism, and is willing to admit that he always interprets Kant through him.' (p.244) 

Which brings us back to the 'idealism' which I have already indicated as being one of the most salient characteristics of On "Cubism". Kant and Schopenhauer, grounded in the philosophical idealism of George Berkeley, argue that the world as a thing-in-itself cannot be known: we can only know the idea, or 'representation', that we have of it in our minds, and this will change from age to age, from culture to culture, from one state of scientific knowledge to another. Kant, however - more than Schopenhauer - argues that there are certain facts that can be known, not because they exist in the external perceived world but because they are characteristic of the operations of the mind. These are the famous 'a priori' ideas, and they include the operations of mathematics and of geometry. So, Kahnweiler says, 'These forms (curves) do not exist in the natural world, any more than straight lines [lignes régulières] but they are strongly established in man. All physical vision rests on them.'  They are 'the solid armature on which we fix the productions of our imagination made up of excitations of the retina and images that have been stored up. They are our "visual categories"' (Rise of Cubism, pp.36-7) 

But the implied clarity of the geometry and the inscription of 'excitations de la rétine et d'images emmagasinées' within a clearly defined geometrical 'armature' is more evocative of the practise of Gleizes, Metzinger and Gris, especially Metzinger and Gris, than it is of Picasso and Braque, who seem often to be deliberately trying to avoid it. The passage is reminiscent of a comment Gleizes makes later, reflecting on the period in his essay Art et Religion: 

'However, to cobble the fragments together more or less competently we were obliged to take the natural requirements of our canvas or of our panel into account.  These fragments of images in fact held together by virtue of the plane surface which supported them.  We used vertical, diagonal or horizontal lines to limit one fragment of description and we then went on to register the next fragment in the same way, and so on....  Can you see the quid pro quo that was taking place?  On the one hand a descriptive method dependent on external phenomena;  on the other a real, authentic method born from a particular plastic fact - the plane, which imposed its formal nature on our attempts to draw the characteristics of something that takes place under completely different plastic conditions.  From this quid pro quo a complete transformation of the classical understanding of form had to emerge.' (English ed, p.36) 

Gleizes concludes that the 'fragments of images' could be dispensed with, and this is a conclusion Kahnweiler refused. But so did Metzinger and Gris. 

(d)  The 'thing-in-itself' 

Nash interprets Kahnweiler as saying that the Cubists were attempting to reach the Kantian 'thing-in-itself', which in Kant's view is impossible. This has certainly been advanced as an explanation of Cubism. I remember having it explained to me when I was a schoolboy in Belfast (and thinking at the time that it was nonsense). Nash perceptively quotes On "Cubism" itself dismissing the notion: 

'It therefore amazes us that well-meaning critics explain the remarkable difference between the forms attributed to nature and those of modern painting, by a desire to represent things not as they appear but as they are. And how are they? According to them, the object possesses an absolute form, an essential form, and in order to uncover it, we should suppress chiaroscuro and traditional perspective. What naïveté! An object has not one form, it has several; it has as many as there are planes in the domain of meaning.' (Translation in Herbert: Modern Artists on Modern Art, quoted by Nash, p.439) 

But in all fairness I do not think Kahnweiler is guilty of it either. He does have a rather well spotted quotation from Kant to the effect that a 'synthesis' can be made of what we know about objects and thus we can 'sieze their multiplicity in a knowledge' (p.34). Which, applied to painting, is again almost exactly Metzinger's notion of the 'total image' as given in the Note on Painting. Instead of the purely retinal impression of the object seen from one point of view it is reconstituted on the canvas out of a choice of different elements derived as much from what we know about the object as from what we see. For all the scorn Kahnweiler heaps on Apollinaire's understanding of Cubism it is quite elegantly summed up in the phrase ensembles nouveaux - new collectivities - which he uses as a common theme in each of his four divisions of Cubism - scientific, physical, orphic, instinctive. Here of course we are largely dealing with 'Scientific Cubism' ('Picasso, Braque, Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Marie Laurencin and Juan Gris'): 'the art of painting new collectivities  with elements borrowed not from reality as it is seen but from reality as it is known'. (26) It implies simply that more information can be conveyed about the object as it exists as a representation in consciousness, not at all that we are approaching the reality of the thing in its own independent life.

26   Apollinaire: The Cubist Painters, p.27. I think there is an important nuance in the word 'ensemble' which Read's translation, 'composition', fails to grasp.

(e)  John Locke: primary and secondary qualities 

Kahnweiler does add a thought which I believe is original to himself when he quotes the distinction Locke makes between the primary and secondary qualities of the object. Locke argued that the primary qualities (essentially those that can be measured - shape, mass, location) were knowable while the secondary qualities (colour, smell, feel etc.) only exist insofar as they can be experienced by the senses. Thus for Locke, laying the philosophical foundation for everything that now goes under the name of 'science', the 'thing-in-itself' is knowable, but only as a colourless, tasteless, odourless abstraction. The contrast is evoked by Gleizes and Metzinger when they say: 

'The geometer measures, the painter tastes [savoure]. The absolute of the one is, inevitably, the relative of the other. If logic is outraged by this, so what? Will logic ever be able to prevent the perfection of a wine from being different in the chemist's retort from what it is in the drinker's glass?' (On "Cubism") 

Kahnweiler suggests that the Cubists, like the practically orientated scientists, or like On "Cubism"'s geometer, wish to retain the primary qualities, which he defines as form and location in space, but only to indicate the secondary qualities. 

In this way one could indeed suggest that they are aiming at the 'thing-in-itself', just as the scientists do. But we have exchanged Kant for Locke. The whole idealist tradition of which Kant, Schopenhauer, Gleizes, Metzinger and, presumably, Kahnweiler, are a part is rooted in George Berkeley's withering critique of Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities, arguing that the supposedly objective measurable qualities are as much dependent on the nature of our senses and of our consciousness as the supposedly secondary qualities of colour, sound, smell etc. 

It is also difficult to understand how Kahnweiler's Lockean idea can be translated into painting. But some sense can be made of it if it is seen as a rather obscure way of expressing a thought that is much better expressed later on by Gleizes. In his various accounts of the evolution of Cubism, Gleizes argues that the first impulse, in reaction to the coloured mists of Impressionism and post-Impressionism, was to insist on hard, solid, sculptural, three dimensional qualities as against colour. Form and colour were conceived as being difficult to reconcile (though On "Cubism" insists that they are inseparable) and the emphasis was put on form. This was, as Gleizes insists, very much a passing phase, even if it was the phase that gave Cubism its name. In the case of Picasso and Braque it only really applies to the work of 1908 and early 1909, most obviously Braque's landscapes done at L'Estaque.