Apollinaire Defines Cubism

Guillaume Apollinaire presented a rationale for cubist practice by laying down the three main tenets of cubist aesthetics.

Summary of Event

In 1913, Guillaume Apollinaire published several articles in a booklet titled Les Peintres cubistes: Méditations esthétiques (The Cubist Painters: Aesthetic Meditations, 1944). This collection’s subtitle is an apt description of the manner in which Apollinaire treats his two principal subjects: the theory behind cubist practice during the period 1907-1912 and the psychological analysis of the chief cubists and their works. Apollinaire does not approach his subject through logical analysis and plain expository prose. Instead, as a poet as well as a critic, he seeks to penetrate into the essence of things, and he renders his sharp impressions with sensitivity and feeling. His treatment is thus meditative, imaginative, freely associative, and poetic; it shows serious, concentrated, and continual reflection concerning his goals. The Cubist Painters is truly the product of Apollinaire’s aesthetic meditations. Cubist Painters, The (Apollinaire)
Art movements;cubism
[kw]Apollinaire Defines Cubism (1913)
[kw]Cubism, Apollinaire Defines (1913)
Cubist Painters, The (Apollinaire)
Art movements;cubism
[g]France;1913: Apollinaire Defines Cubism[03220]
[c]Arts;1913: Apollinaire Defines Cubism[03220]
[c]Publishing and journalism;1913: Apollinaire Defines Cubism[03220]
Apollinaire, Guillaume
Picasso, Pablo
Braque, Georges
Metzinger, Jean
Gleizes, Albert
Gris, Juan
Salmon, André
Delaunay, Robert
Jacob, Max
Léger, Fernand

Apollinaire begins his booklet by citing what he considers the three “plastic virtues: purity, unity, and truth.” He holds that these virtues, from an artistic standpoint, “keep nature in subjection.” By “nature,” he means the ordinary reality perceived by means of the senses. For him, however, this reality is not true; it consists of mere appearances, which are continually undergoing change. Therefore, in Apollinaire’s view, nature is not a worthy subject for art. Although cubist artists “look at nature,” Apollinaire notes, they do not imitate it. As art is not a mirror held up to nature, so cubism is basically conceptual rather than perceptual. It is a matter of intellect, and hence of the “categories”—the universal modes of development and determination. Among such categories are content and form, time and space, quality and measurement, and essence and appearance. By means of mind, then, according to Apollinaire, one can know the essential or transcendental reality that subsists “beyond the scope of nature.”

Having rejected the spirit of the fin de siècle, the cubists pursued the new spirit of the machine age and its dynamic concept of reality. They were fascinated by the new structures and the new machines: the Eiffel Tower, the motorcar, the wireless, the airplane, the telephone, the phonograph, the cinema. They paid spectator attention to the new mathematics and the new physics: non-Euclidean geometry and topology, radiation, atomic structure, optics, light, color, quantum mechanics, relativity, the fourth dimension. Above all, they searched for new lines and forms, both concepts not found in nature. They became interested in the ancient sculptures of Egypt, Africa, and Oceania. They were attacked for their geometry; they no longer limited themselves to the “dimensions of Euclid” but indulged in a “fourth dimension” and presented perspectives “in the round” from a series of station points.

Above all, they sought to achieve “purity, unity, and truth.” According to Apollinaire, “purity” is practically a synonym for “originality.” It is the state of an artist who, after studying tradition thoroughly, rejects it to start out on his or her own path of creativity. The term “unity” refers to the successful full completion of the artist’s vision, when the picture “will exist ineluctably.” Apollinaire says, however, that “neither purity nor unity count with truth.” Truth cannot be found in appearance, or ordinary reality; it is to be found in essence, or ultimate reality. The truth of ultimate reality, however, “can never be definite, for truth is always new.” The social role and end of art is always “to keep it new.” Such an aim, Apollinaire asserts, gives art “the illusion of the typical,” and “all the art works of an epoch end by resembling the most energetic, the most expressive and the most typical work of the period.”

According to Apollinaire, the idea of cubism was first suggested in derision by the Fauve painter Henri Matisse. Matisse, Henri The “new aesthetics,” Apollinaire claims, was first thought out by André Derain, Derain, André another Fauve painter. Derain himself was never a cubist, however, and the first cubist paintings were the work of the great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, a resident of France, and Picasso’s masterful French contemporary Georges Braque. Another important early contributor to the cubist movement was Jean Metzinger. In addition to his brilliant discussion of these pioneers and their works, Apollinaire also comments on the following artists and their works: Albert Gleizes, Marie Laurencin (Apollinaire’s mistress from 1907 to 1912, whose work was peripheral to that of the genuine cubists), Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, a sculptor.


By the autumn of 1912, Apollinaire recognized that although cubism had become a powerful force in the art world, it had also provoked divergent aims among its practitioners. In The Cubist Painters, he notes four trends developing concurrently in cubism. He calls them “scientific-geometric,” “physical,” “instinctive,” and “orphic” cubism. Of these trends, he says, two are “pure”—the scientific-geometric and the orphic. They are pure because they take nothing from visual reality and present “essential reality” in a pure manner. In addition, Apollinaire points out, Orphism Orphism
Art movements;Orphism depicts a “subject” conveying some “sublime meaning” despite its nonrepresentational character. Indeed, ten days after The Cubist Painters was published, Apollinaire deserted cubism for Orphism, although he considered Orphism within the scope of the cubist movement. He had first used the term “Orphism” to distinguish the paintings of Robert Delaunay being shown at the Section d’Or exhibition in 1912. Delaunay had recognized that color, if identified as light, keeps moving and changing to form abstract shapes and patterns. Delaunay also noted that certain colors, when combined in harmonic contrast with other colors, produce light movements. Léger and Picabia also went over to Orphism. Another prominent Orphicist was the Czech occult painter František Kupka, who had certain ideas about color of his own.

The Section d’Or group was founded in 1912 by the cubists Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes. This group was inspired, however, not by the expressive color theories of Delaunay and Kupka but by the interest the 1890’s group called the Nabis (Symbolist disciples of Paul Gauguin) had taken in forms or compositions based on mathematical proportions. Some art historians have considered the Section d’Or exhibition, held in Paris in October, 1912, to constitute the climax of the first, or analytical, phase of the cubist movement. During the analytical phase (1907-1912), it became cubist practice to fragment three-dimensional objects and view them simultaneously from a variety of points, everything being presented on a flat two-dimensional surface. During the synethic phase (1913-1921), forms were simplified, brighter colors came into use, and illusion, collage, and papier collé (patterned collage) were employed. From 1910, the cubist movement began to have international effects on such foreign movements as Italian Futurism, the German Der Blaue Reiter group, Russian Cubo-Futurism and Rayonism, Franco-Spanish Creacionismo, English vorticism, Dadaism, and Surrealism.

Italian Futurism Futurism
Art movements;Futurism began as a revolutionary program in literature and art. Futurism soon developed far broader aims, however, and became an extensive social plan that supported Italian nationalism, gloried in action and warfare, and thrilled at the power and speed of technology and the machine. In effect, the Futurist program was preparing the way for the fascist state. In expressing itself in literature and art, Futurism was at first tongue-tied; when it discovered the cubist idiom, it found its own voice. Although never a Futurist, Marcel Duchamp rendered the idea of motion in a more complex style in Nude Descending a Staircase No. 1 in 1911 than the Futurist Giacomo Balla did in his 1912 work Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (Leash in Motion).

Cubo-Futurism Cubo-Futurism[Cubo Futurism]
Art movements;Cubo-Futurism[Cubo Futurism] and Rayonism Rayonism
Art movements;Rayonism were both Russian styles of painting that lasted only a few years. Cubo-Futurism was originated in Moscow in 1909 by Natalya Goncharova Goncharova, Natalya and Mikhail Larionov Larionov, Mikhail and lasted to 1914. This style combined cubist mannerisms with cultivated primitivism based on Russian peasant art. The name Cubo-Futurism was conferred on this style by Kazimir Malevich Malevich, Kazimir in 1913 in reference to his own works, in which he had combined cultivated primitivism with treatment in the manner of the early “tubular” works of Léger. His painting Knife Grinder (1912) displays both cubist and Futurist features. Rayonism was another style practiced by Goncharova and Larionov during the same period. A synthesis of cubism, Futurism, and Orphism, Rayonism was based on the theory that all objects emit rays and that artists could manipulate the radiance of objects for their own aesthetic purposes.

Art movements;Creacionismo (creationism), essentially an aesthetic of poetry, arose for a short time in France, apparently sponsored by Pierre Reverdy Reverdy, Pierre in conjunction with the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro. Huidobro, Vicente After quarreling with Reverdy, Huidobro went off in a huff to Spain, where he introduced Creacionismo, and it flourished there for a short time. A “cubist notion” and antimimetic, Creacionismo maintained that a poem was a creation in its own right—that it was not an imitation of nature but a supplement to nature. This view harks back to Apollinaire, who states, “Poetry and creation are one and the same thing; he alone must be called poet who invents and creates.”

Vorticism Vorticism
Art movements;vorticism was an art movement started in England in 1913 by the painter and writer Wyndham Lewis Lewis, Wyndham and the sculptor Jacob Epstein. Epstein, Jacob It was associated with Futurism and cubism, and its founders hoped to awaken England to the twentieth century. In practice, vorticism tried to operate somewhere between the Futurist obsession with speedy motion and the cubist preoccupation with fragmented geometrical objects. Other prominent vorticists were the American poet Ezra Pound, the English writer T. E. Hulme, and the French sculptor Henri Gautier-Brzeska.

Cubism was introduced to the United States with the New York Armory Show of 1913. The most prominent American cubists were the Russian American painter Max Weber, who had been influenced by cubism at least a year earlier, and Stuart Davis, who was not affected by the idiom until the 1920’s.

Although Picasso and Duchamp-Villon made one or two experiments in sculpture earlier, no significant cubist sculpture was created before 1914, when Duchamp-Villon’s The Horse and Aleksandr Archipenko’s Woman with a Fan appeared. When the sculptors got going, they tended to take their cues from the cubist painters, and some sculptures show their derivation plainly. On the other hand, some sculptors who utilized cubist elements were able to create exciting new forms. During the period 1914-1920, two major sculptors emerged in Paris who worked in the cubist idiom: the Lithuanian Jacques Lipshitz and the native Frenchman Henri Laurens.

Literature, especially poetry, showed the effect of cubist philosophy and technique. Of course, Apollinaire himself and several other writers, including Max Jacob, André Salmon, Pierre Reverdy, and Gertrude Stein, were intimately connected with the cubist painters. Apollinaire’s second major volume of poems, Calligrammes (1918; English translation, 1980), sounds an aesthetic note quite different from that of his first major volume, Alcools: Poèmes, 1898-1913 (1913; Alcools: Poems, 1898-1913, 1964). In the latter the influence of Symbolism is clear, whereas in the former the poetic structure is dislocated and fragmented in cubist style.

Critics have noted technical correspondences between Jacob’s poetry and cubist paintings, in particular the prose poems of his Cornet à dés (1917; Cup of Dice, 1979). Apollinaire’s Swiss friend Blaise Cendrars (who wrote in French) was even more vigorous than Apollinaire in modernist poetics, liking the kinetic speed and rhythm of the modern world, which he projected in telegraphic syntax. Critics also consider Reverdy’s poetry undeniably cubist. Like his Chilean acquaintance Huidobro, Reverdy held a poem to be an independent object; in his poetry, he searched for essential reality. He managed to combine a number of perspectives on his own situations while excluding his own presence. Cubist influence is also discernible in the work of the American poets Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Hart Crane. In prose, critics have seen cubist aesthetics in André Gide’s novel Les Faux-monnayeurs (1925; The Counterfeiters, 1927) and in some of the work of Gertrude Stein.

The publication of Apollinaire’s The Cubist Painters was a major event in the cultural history of the modern world. Through his poetry, his activist leadership, and his art criticism, Apollinaire helped to give the twentieth century a new conception of representation in poetry and the plastic arts. Cubist Painters, The (Apollinaire)
Art movements;cubism

Further Reading

  • Adéma, Marcel. Apollinaire. Translated by Denise Folliot. New York: Grove Press, 1954. Scholarly biography succeeds in recovering the real Apollinaire, a man whose character was often misunderstood and maligned. Presents Apollinaire’s life in a clear and orderly way while remaining largely uncritical.
  • Antliff, Mark, and Patricia Leighten. Cubism and Culture. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001. Scholarly work discusses the innovations of cubism and their relation to cultural, political, philosophical, and scientific changes taking place in French society at the time. Includes many illustrations (more than fifty in color), bibliography, and index.
  • Apollinaire, Guillaume. The Cubist Painters. Translated by Peter Read. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. The first new English translation of Apollinaire’s groundbreaking work since 1944. Volume also presents information on the original’s publication and analysis of its impact.
  • Barr, Alfred H., Jr. Cubism and Abstract Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1974. A general scholarly survey of the cubist and abstract art movements. Thoroughly documented. A valuable reference source.
  • Bates, Scott. Guillaume Apollinaire. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. General introduction to Apollinaire as poet, novelist, and art critic provides a great deal of valuable information.
  • Cooper, Douglas. The Cubist Epoch. 1971. Reprint. London: Phaidon Press, 1995. Presents a highly intelligent analysis and description of cubism, its aesthetic principles, its genesis and development, and its widespread influence. Emphasizes that cubism cannot be defined as one thing and that it was a reaction against outworn conventions in favor of a “new realism.”
  • Davies, Margaret. Apollinaire. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1964. Combined biographical and critical study is an authoritative work of scholarship. An unusual feature is the author’s use of Apollinaire’s creative writing to throw light on biographical facts. Deals especially well with Apollinaire’s modernist period and his relationship to the various painters and movements of the time. The literary criticism, although perceptive in spots, is sparse in development.
  • Gray, Christopher. Cubist Aesthetic Theories. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. Sketches the genesis and development of cubism. Also describes both the philosophical and aesthetic ideas cubism reacted against and those it adopted for its own use. Divides the development of cubism into two phases, the first concerning the issue of the true nature of reality and of humankind’s ability to know it and the second displaying a rising consciousness among painters and poets of the new developments in the sciences, especially physics and mathematics, and the wonders of the machine.

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