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White Gray Black

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

French painter, printmaker and writer. He grew up in Courbevoie, a suburb of Paris, and as a student at the Collège Chaptal became interested in theatre and painting. At 19, his father put him to work in the family interior design and fabric business, an experience that contributed to a lifelong respect for skilled workmanship. The first paintings he exhibited, at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1902, were Impressionist in character, but the work accepted within two years at the Salon d’Automne showed a shift to social themes, a tendency that accelerated until 1908. Compulsory military service from 1903 to 1905 thrust him into the company of working-class people, arousing a permanent sense of solidarity with their aspirations and needs. The results were immediately apparent in the Association Ernest Renan, which he helped to establish in 1905, a kind of popular university with secular and socialist aims. He was also one of the founders of a community of intellectuals based near Paris, the Abbaye de créteil, which functioned from November 1906 to February 1908. He remained interested during these years in social art, but his paintings became flatter and more sombre, more simplified and with an increased emphasis on structure. Through the circle of poets associated with the Abbaye de Créteil, Gleizes met Henri Le Fauconnier, whose portrait of Pierre-Jean Jouve (1909; Paris, Pompidou) made a decisive impression on him, confirming his exploration of volume. His friends soon included Jean Metzinger and Robert Delaunay, with whom he exhibited alongside Le Fauconnier and Fernand Léger at the Salon d’Automne in 1910; the critic Louis Vauxcelles wrote disparagingly of their ‘pallid’ cubes. The five artists, plus Marie Laurencin, encouraged by Guillaume Apollinaire, Roger Allard, Alexandre Mercereau and Jacques Nayral, determined to group themselves together at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911. Manipulating the rules and helping to elect Le Fauconnier chairman of the hanging committee, they showed together in a separate room, marking the emergence of Cubism. Gleizes’s portrait of Jacques Nayral (oil on canvas, 1.62×1.14 m, 1910–11; London, Tate), one of his first major Cubist works, dates from this period.

Given his developed sense of mission and group action, Gleizes welcomed the idea of a generation of young artists, drawn from all classes and countries, revolutionizing the bourgeois canons of art by carrying the painter to the centre of society; in his view the artist–craftsman performed an essential service of seeing and thinking for humanity, rather than serving merely as an ornamenter. Partly in this quasi-heroic and proselytizing spirit, he and Metzinger planned a book, Du Cubisme (Paris, 1912), in which they strove to reconcile different goals and methods in painting. Parts of their text were read during the summer of 1912 to the circle around the Duchamp brothers, known as the Puteaux group, and it was published before the conclusion in October of the Salon de la Section d’Or, where Gleizes exhibited his epic Cubist painting The Harvesters (ex-Guggenheim, New York; for illustration see 1964 exh. cat.). In 1912 he also took part in the second exhibition of the Moderne Kunstkring (Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.). Gleizes’s conviction that artists could explain themselves as well as or better than critics caused him to write and grant interviews during the years when Du Cubisme was enjoying wide circulation, but much of this communication within a continuously expanding circle of artists was destroyed by the outbreak of World War I. Gleizes, a pacifist, was conscripted in August 1914. While serving at Toul in Lorraine he continued to paint; during 1914–15 he created not only works such as Landscape at Toul (1915; Paris, Pompidou) but also his first abstract pictures (e.g. Composition, 1915; see 1964 exh. cat.) and the majestic Portrait of an Army Doctor (1915; New York, Guggenheim). On his demobilization in September 1915 he married Juliette Roche and sailed for New York, where he lived and worked until early 1919, apart from a long voyage to Barcelona from late spring to the autumn of 1916, from which he returned to New York via Cuba and Bermuda by spring 1917. He made direct allusion to one of the landmarks of New York in Brooklyn Bridge (1915; New York, Guggenheim), one of his most abstract pictures of this period. A serious break in his style occurred only in late 1917, when his production stopped almost completely. Increasingly preoccupied with the folly of war and harbouring doubts about humanity’s capacity to manage its affairs, he turned to writing poems, prose sketches and a treatise on painting and collectivity entitled En attendant la victoire: L’Art dans l’évolution générale, none of them published. As a close friend of both Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, he was an intimate observer of the origins of Dada in New York, which he later contended was born of despair and disillusionment. His own organizational efforts were directed towards the re-establishment of a European-wide movement of abstract artists in the form of a large travelling exhibition, the Exposition de la Section d’Or, in 1920; it was not a success. Cubism, with which most of the exhibitors were associated, was passé for younger artists, although Gleizes, on the contrary, felt that only its preliminary phase had been investigated.

By 1920 Gleizes had developed a style based on his first abstract pictures of 1915, characterized by dynamic intersections of vertical, diagonal, horizontal and circular movements, austere in touch but loaded with energetic pattern. He sought to clarify his methods further in La Peinture et ses lois (Paris, 1923), in which he deduced the rules of painting from the picture plane, its proportions, the movement of the human eye and the laws of the universe. This theory, later referred to as translation-rotation, ranks with the writings of Mondrian and Malevich as one of the most thorough expositions of the principles of abstract art, which in his case entailed the rejection not only of representation but also of geometric forms. Based from 1923 in his wife’s native town, Serrières, south of Lyon, he was contemptuous of the revivalism and classicizing tendencies of the rappel à l’ordre and also of Surrealism. Disappointed that the thrust of early modernism had been blunted, he laid the blame on the structure of society, but his initial enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution soon waned, and he was drawn instead to the study of pre-Renaissance art. His investigations of Romanesque, Gothic, Byzantine and Arabic art reinforced his own practices in painting (e.g. Painting with 7 Elements (1924–34; Paris, Pompidou)) and led to a major study, Vie et mort de l’occident chrétien (Sablons, 1930), first published as articles in 1928–9.

Convinced that Western society was on the verge of collapse and determined to rescue what he could, in 1927 Gleizes established the artistic, agricultural and intellectual commune of Moly-Sabata in Sablons, across the river from Serrières, where he continued to live. He continued to write and lecture and exhibited regularly at Léonce Rosenberg’s Galerie de l’Effort Moderne in Paris; he was also a founder, organizer and director of Abstraction–création. From the mid-1920s to the late 1930s much of his energy went into writing. Two of his most important books, Vers une conscience plastique: La Forme et l’histoire (Paris, 1932) and Homocentrisme (Sablons, 1937), reveal his hopes for humanity and his conviction that only art could save the world, by returning to communal, early Christian principles.

Gleizes was long aware that easel painting was somewhat at odds with his philosophy of art as a rejuvenating social force, and he came to see even the largest pictures as only preparatory studies for murals. His first opportunities to produce such works came in 1937–8, first for the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne and then (in collaboration with Jacques Villon) for the auditorium of the Ecole des Arts et Métiers; the latter was rejected by the school authorities as too abstract, but immense panels by Gleizes survive as Four Legendary Figures of the Sky (San Antonio, TX, McNay A. Inst.). Other examples of this ambitious public style include The Transfiguration (1939–41; Lyon, Mus. B.-A.). At the beginning of World War II, he and his wife retreated to their farm near St Rémy-de-Provence and established a commune from which for the next 14 years no serious student or artist was turned away. During the war he worked on a more modest scale on jute, with a sensual touch reminiscent of his first Cubist period. After converting to Roman Catholicism in 1941, he eliminated the references to traditional Christian iconography that had appeared in his paintings since the mid-1920s. Around 1943 he began a series of paintings entitled For Meditation (e.g. 1944; see 1964 exh. cat.), in which he synthesized his rich experience. In 1950, at the suggestion of the French critic Jacques Lassaigne, he published a set of 57 etchings illustrating Pascal’s Pensées (Casablanca, 1950). Drawing on all his previous work for the motifs, he explored in visual form questions concerning the sufficiency of reason, the verifiability of experience, the plausibility of revelation and the exercise of free will.

Daniel Robbins
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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