In a comment on my article ‘The Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Council of Frankfurt & the Practice of Painting’, Baker Galloway asks if ‘to develop towards a contemporary indigenous iconography in western cultures’ we need to revisit ‘these medieval (I use the term loosely) periods in our western history, or do we start from where we are today?’ And he gives his own view that ‘I am yet to be convinced that the way forward involves recovering the Romanesque.’
I can’t address this question (well, let me be frank. I can’t address any question relating to painting) without evoking the case of Albert Gleizes. Gleizes took the view that Romanesque art embodied the qualities that were required for a modern religious painting. I realise that the term ‘modern’ – not typical of Gleizes’s own language – might put some readers off so I will quickly explain that he was not arguing for any sort of linear ‘progress’ in our intellectual, moral or cultural lives, though he was arguing for a sense of direction. A direction towards a religious consciousness such as had existed in the Romanesque period.
Gleizes took the view that human societies alternate in their development between two poles. One of them is materialist and this-worldly, understanding reality as whatever presents itself to our mind through the senses, ie as being essentially external to ourselves; the other is religious, understanding that the material, visible world is transient and that it is through inner experience (in particular, he argued through the practise of a craft) that a more permanent reality can be encountered. The first frame of mind he called ‘spatial’, the second ‘rhythmic’. All human societies go through these different phases and of course we don’t expect to experience either in its pure form; we are always in a state of transition from one to the other. One way of judging the frame of mind predominant in any given society is by looking at the artefacts it has left behind, especially in the visual arts, at what it regards as suitable for decoration. The chaos of our present day visual imagination is in his view a consequence of the breakup of a coherent materialist view of the world (‘humanism’) not yet giving way to a coherent religious view.
Gleizes first gave clear expression to this argument in his essay Painting and its laws, published in 1923, about the same time as Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, with his similar distinction between ‘culture’ (organic) and ‘civilisation’ (mechanical). And there are also parallels with Wilhelm Worringer’s distinctions between ‘abstraction’ and ’empathy’ in his book of that name, published in 1908. It would be interesting to discuss the parallels and differences there are between these three ‘cyclical’ views of history but that is not my intention here.
Those of us who love the iconography of the Orthodox Church like to think that it is not subject to the twists and turns, the vagaries of history, so typical of Western art but there is of course much more variety than some of us are willing to admit. And whether or not it corresponds to the theories of Gleizes, Spengler or Worringer, our modern admiration for a type of icon painting that prevailed prior to the seventeenth century has a ‘cyclical’ feel to it – it is a recovery of the past. Furthermore, as Fr Silouan has shown in articles in the OAJ, ‘modernist’ painters, and collectors of modernist painting, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were somewhat ahead of the Church in developing this revolution in our sensibility. The zeitgeist is not for nothing in the business.
Gleizes argues in Painting and its laws that the transition from a ‘rhythmic’ to a ‘spatial’ art can be seen in Western art in the thirteenth century, in the transition from ‘Romanesque’ to ‘Gothic’. It can be seen most obviously in the treatment of the folds of the garments in Romanesque and Gothic sculpture. The Romanesque garments are an excuse for an elaborate interplay of curved lines; the Gothic folds imitate the appearance of ‘real’ garments on a ‘real’ body.
This is an illustration from Gleizes’s book Form and History (1932) showing a thirteenth century sculpture from Notre Dame in Paris and a twelfth century sculpture from Chartres. In his explanatory note Gleizes says: “Mr Emile Mâle [the leading French specialist in mediaeval art history at the time – PB] believed that these two sculptures came from the same workshops. We only have to compare them in terms of their technique to see the mistake. Chartres still has a concern for rhythm, Paris no longer: Chartres enters into a cadence, Paris is concerned with imitation. The historian has been misled by the resemblance in the figurative aspect; it cannot deceive the practitioner. The difference in technique, despite the closeness in time, is still clearly to be seen.’
It is important to stress that Gleizes did not start out from a study of Romanesque to arrive at his own practise as a painter. Quite the reverse. It was as a result of his researches in the line associated with the misleading name ‘Cubism’ that he arrived at his understanding of Romanesque art. Romanesque art was already coming into fashion, but all too often what was appreciated was the quaint, ‘primitive’ figuration and not the rhythmic interaction of the lines which was, Gleizes argued, the main concern of the artist and of his contemporaries. A highly sophisticated art was being treated as if it had the charm of children’s art.
It is, unfortunately, the quaint figuration that is likely to appeal to modern iconographers wanting to take their inspiration from Romanesque art as it is, alas, the quaint figuration that dominates in much of the so-called ‘Neo-Coptic’ revival.
But what could Romanesque art possibly have in common with Cubism? Cubism marked first and foremost the collapse of the idea that the painter’s job was to situate whatever it was he or she wanted to show in an illusory three dimensional space. This idea and the optical principles by which it was underpinned had sustained painting for some three centuries or more. The question in Gleizes’s mind was to know if Cubism could give birth to an alternative that would be equally strong, capable of sustaining a similar wealth of variety within a common, generally recognised convention. Gleizes did not believe that such a convention would be without precedent in human history. If it was to be true to human nature, it had to be a truth which had already been known in other times and other places. By the early twenties when Painting and its laws was written he believed he had found two essential characteristics for such a development which he called, borrowing the terms from physics (he was at the time moving in a social circle which included Paul Langevin, one of the leading French interpreters of the theory of relativity) ‘translation’ and ‘rotation’. The ‘translation’ establishes the stability of the painting, most obviously through the assertion of vertical and horizontal lines. It is essentially static, a matter of balance and proportion. The ‘rotation’ – beginning with the destabilising diagonal and developing into the curve and ultimately (though this went beyond the argument of Painting and its laws) the arabesque – puts the eye into movement, a movement that is, necessarily circular or spiralling, since the moment it passes outside the frame of the painting it would stop.
For Gleizes this mobility was a dormant faculty of the eye, known to other peoples and other periods of history but lost (or it might be better to say inhibited) with the idea that the painter’s job was to copy the external appearances of the natural world. The realistically painted animals in the Lascaux caves were to Gleizes evidence of a society fallen into decadence. He was suspicious of what he knew of ‘Byzantine’ painting, seeing it as a prolongation of the essentially static art of classical Rome (this is what prompted me to write my article on the Council of Frankfurt). By contrast the rhythmic principle, the ability of the eye to move freely from one thing to the other, was embodied magnificently in Romanesque art. This is what was important in Romanesque painting – not the mere fact that it represented a ‘Western’ sensibility (a sensibility subsequently lost).
Here is Gleizes describing the Romanesque Christ in Glory in Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe in France:
‘Think, for example, of the ‘Christ in Glory’ of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, from the twelfth century, a painting with a grandeur and simplicity of means, a clarity in its ‘doing’ and in its ‘saying’ which cannot be separated one from the other. What an object realised, to achieve the sacred with such apparent facility. The figure of Christ is the centre of the painting, the principle at the heart of every seed; its extension defines the undefined space of the wall … The figure opens up; in entering into movement it becomes an interplay of different currents; the folds of the robe give way to regular spiralling waves; they agree to die in space to be raised again in time; the individual that is shown in the undefined and finite moment is gently turned to the lasting and willed continuity of the person. The cadences become more urgent, the waves stronger, the determination to proceed holds firm, and a diadem of concentric circles overwhelms the image, which is reduced to being a vague memory – right to the point at which the transfiguration is realised, the cadences have achieved their end, the waves come together in the last of the circles, the perfect rhythm, the unique form, eternity. The Resurrection in glory of time and space. The halo is a result of the same operation. It is the fulfilment of the figure pre-ordained in the shape of the head; in its circularity, it spontaneously dominates the eddies of the cadences that have been generated by the different directions opened up by the extensions in space. Ever so subtly, it adds an element that troubles the supreme purity of the rhythm. The halo confirms the gloriole and blends with it unhesitatingly.’ [i]
‘The figure opens up … the individual that is shown in the undefined and finite moment is gently turned to the lasting and willed continuity of the person … a diadem of concentric circles overwhelms the image, which is reduced to being a vague memory …’ This is the problem with regard to Orthodox iconography which insists – and I think must insist – on maintaining the integrity of the figurative image.
Gleizes was interested in the Mount Athos Painter’s Guide of Dionysius of Fourna and some of his paintings were based on mainstream Orthodox iconography. For example a theophany:
and a transfiguration:
These are both etchings taken from Gleizes’s illustrations to the Pensées de Pascal (1950). He never made a painting based on the Theophany but he did do an important painting based on the Transfiguration, a theme which, because of the theme of light, was important to him:
This is the right hand of a large triptych which also includes a Crucifixion and a Christ in Glory.
This is the etching based on the Christ in Glory with the evangelists and their symbols (a theme of which Gleizes was fond). It is magnificent but it quite clearly could not be used as an object of veneration in an Orthodox church. The Triptych has, however, great importance for me since it was in front of it in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Lyon that, many years ago, I first found myself able to enter into the dance, the movement of the eye that Gleizes announced as the important discovery of Cubism, renewing with the achievement of Romanesque art.
Note, though, the great vertical divisions in the painting which assert at the same time as the mobility, a massive stability. This emphasis on stability is central to my own effort to see how Gleizes’s discoveries could be of use in Orthodox iconography.
What Gleizes was envisaging was a painter’s act that would replicate, or at least evoke, the passage from the senses (aisthesis) through the soul (psyche) to the noetic vision (nous) which, as we know from the Philokalia is imageless: ‘Let the virtues of the body lead you to those of the soul; and the virtues of the soul to those of the spirit; and these in turn to immaterial and principial knowledge’ – Evagrius the Solitary, On Prayer § 132.
Whether or not this is possible for painting in general (maybe it is an absurd pretension. Maybe not) it is certainly impossible for the icon painter who is necessarily, as a matter of humble service to the needs of the Church, stuck at the level of the image and therefore, taking Gleizes’s threefold division of translation-rotation-rhythm (space-time-eternity; body-soul-spirit) at the level of translation. Which is not to say that the higher levels are irrelevant. If we accept this Orthodox anthropology then all three levels are of our nature and therefore always present even in the midst of our most abject sinfulness. And the ‘lowest’ level – the body, the senses, the image – is the necessary springboard (Gleizes used the French word ‘tremplin’) for the rest. But at the level of the springboard – the starting point, veneration of the physical appearance of the Saint – the higher levels can only be hinted at, most obviously in the perfect circle of the halo.
I have often thought that in the days before glasses were invented, older people with failing eyesight entering a church would see only the golden circles of the halos and the ‘decorative’ lines of the radzelka picking out the folds of the garments. The whole figurative aspect would, at a distance at least, be little more than a dark blur. I have quoted Gleizes on the folds of the garments in Romanesque sculpture. Here is Pavel Florensky, writing in 1918 in his essay on ‘reverse perspective’, which shows a good knowledge of the thinking of the painters influenced by Cubism. He evokes:
‘the lines of the so-called razdelki which are painted in a colour different from that used to paint the corresponding place on the icon (raskryshka), most often using metallic paints – a gold or very rarely a silver assist or slaked gold. By thus emphasising the colour of the hues on the razdelka, we wish to say that the icon painter pays conscious attention to it, although it does not correspond to anything physically seen, to any kind of analogous system of lines on clothing or a seat, for instance, but is only (! – PB) a system of potential lines, a given object’s structural lines, similar, for instance, to the lines of force of an electric or magnetic field, or to systems of equipotential, isothermic or other curves. The lines of the radzelka express a metaphysical schema of the given object, its dynamic, with greater force than its visible lines are capable of, although they are themselves quite invisible. Once outlined on the icon they represent in the painter’s conception the sum total of the tasks presented to the contemplating eye, the lines that direct the movement of the eye as it contemplates the icon.’[ii]
That is perfect – or nearly perfect. Florensky the mathematician-physicist sees the lines of force as underpinning, or reinforcing the figurative image. Gleizes would see them as the living spiral running through the figurative image and potentially transcending it, passing from space into time.
But the starting point, the lowest level, the springboard, is still the figurative image and the figurative image, using Gleizes’s terminology is a matter of translation, or, to use his later terminology – measure-cadence-rhythm – of measure. Translation, or measure, is a matter of the organisation of space, in principle static and rectilinear. The straight line has a power and a dignity all its own. Until the painter has begun to have some understanding of this, he or she has no business using any other sort of line.
The vertical is (internally so to speak) the person in front of the icon standing, the horizontal is the ground the person is standing on. Both are stable. The stability is upset by the diagonal. If the whole is not to fall over in the direction of the diagonal it must be balanced by a diagonal falling in the opposite direction.
This is the talisman, the essential ABC of pictorial construction, taken from Gleizes’s Painting and its laws:
It is derived from the experience of Cubism, in particular what may be regarded as the highest phase of Cubism as a collective adventure, the wartime work of the painters in Paris grouped together under the patronage of the great, but much reviled and neglected, art dealer, Léonce Rosenberg (Gleizes was in New York at the time and not part of this group. He was immensely impressed by what had been achieved in his absence):
And here is a well-known Russian icon (Vologda, sixteenth century) which embodies much the same principles. Note in particular the force achieved by the parallelism of the diagonal lines:
And, since I have evoked Gleizes’s Transfiguration here is my own attempt to use these principles for a (much more conventionally figurative) Transfiguration icon. I have no great pretensions as a painter. I worked for some ten years with a woman, Genevieve Dalban, the person most able to teach Gleizes’s principles, but she was a potter not a painter and I was engaged in a large work of writing, translating and sorting out an archive (as well as grinding pigments and making pottery tiles). She was a devout old school Roman Catholic and not preoccupied with the problem of the icon. I am doing this work in painting because I think it needs to be done and no-one else is doing it:
Of course I am not suggesting for a moment that this is the only way icons can or should be painted. The qualities that don’t interest me – for example, flesh and what we might call tactile materiality – are in themselves very beautiful and there is nothing in the canons to say they can’t be celebrated in the icon. Painters who possess skills I don’t possess may go some way towards combining the two. But I do think the modern icon shares the formlessness and lack of direction of the world about us (less obviously because of the Church-imposed discipline) and that any suggestions for toughening it with a principle of construction should be considered carefully.
[i] Albert Gleizes: Spiritualité rythme forme, first published in Gaston Diehl (ed): Les Problèmes de la Peinture, Lyon, Editions Confluences’, 1945. Republished in Albert Gleizes: Puissances du Cubisme. Chambéry (Eds Présence), 1969. My translation, accessible at http://www.peterbrooke.org/form-and-history/texts/
[ii] Pavel Florensky: Beyond Vision – Essays on the perception of art, edited with introduction by Nicoletta Misler, translated by Wendy Salmon, London, Reaktion Books, 2002, p.206.