The pioneering Cubist artist and the forward-looking composer — kindred spirits in their disdain for the “conventional” in the arts — are forever linked by an iconic painting.
In 2012, the French postal service issued a stamp portraying a 1915 painting by the French Cubist artist, theoretician and philosopher Albert Gleizes titled Le Chant de guerre, portrait de Florent Schmitt. How is it that Schmitt came to be the subject of such a painting, and how did it come about?
It’s an intriguing question. Indeed, considering that the Cubism movement sought to disassociate art from bourgeois trappings, it may seem counterintuitive that Florent Schmitt would be associated with it, because Schmitt is perceived by some observers to embody conservative rather than radical tendencies.
Then again, it does well to recall the words of composer Alain Margoni, a protégé of Florent Schmitt during the 1950s, who has famously stated, “The French are not revolutionaries; they are frustrated conservatives.”
And if we look closely at the life of both Florent Schmitt and Albert Gleizes, we can discern those very qualities quite clearly, seeing as how both of them moved in “radical” as well as “conservative” circles during the trajectory of their lives.
Born in Paris in 1881, Albert Léon Gleizes came from an artistic family. He was the son of a fabric designer as well as the nephew of Léon Comerre, a well-known portrait painter who had been a Prix de Rome winner in 1875.
Exhibiting rebellious tendencies as a youth, Gleizes preferred wandering the cemeteries of Paris over attending school — even as he became a self-taught artist.
After serving a stint in the French infantry for several years in the late 1800s, Gleizes returned to Paris — more non-conformist in his attitudes than ever. He turned his full attentions to painting, while also taking some formal instruction in art.
He was just 21 years old when his echt-Impressionist work La Seine à Asnières was exhibited at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1902.
Gleizes was also politically active in his early years, being one of the founders of the Association Ernest Renan, named after the French orientalist and Semitic scholar — a union of students vehemently opposed to military propaganda. Gleizes was placed in charge of the association’s Section littéraire et artistique, in which he organized various theatre productions and poetry readings.
Gleizes and other like-minded artists also formed a kind of fraternal association, renting a large house they dubbed the Abbaye de Créteil. This short-lived community of artists aimed to develop their creations completely free of commercial concerns. While this venture failed after just one year, Gleizes soon moved to another house near Montmartre which he shared with four fellow-artists including Amedeo Modigliani.
During this time, Gleizes’ artistic style had migrated away from Impressionism — now taking greater interest in bolder colors (a transitory flirtation with Fauvism), but more importantly being characterized by dynamic intersections of geometric planes.
A successful exhibition of Gleizes paintings in Moscow in 1908 raised the artist’s profile back home in Paris, resulting in his artwork being exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1910 — and then in 1911 at the first art exhibition in Paris devoted to Cubism, at which Gleizes’ paintings were featured alongside those of fellow painters Jean Metzinger, Robert Delaunay and others.
The American art historian Daniel Robbins has characterized Gleizes’ development as an artist during this time as follows:
“We see the artist’s volumetric approach to Cubism and his successful union of a broad field of vision with a flat picture frame … The effort to grasp the intricate rhythms of a panorama resulted in a comprehensive geometry of intersecting and overlapping forms which created a new and more dynamic quality of movement.”
In 1912, Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes co-authored the first-ever book published about Cubism in art, which introduced the theoretical and aesthetic foundations of the movement.
In their book, the two authors posited that artists should refrain from viewing an object from a specific point of view, but instead “rebuild” it based on a selection of viewpoints — as if viewed simultaneously from numerous angles, and in four dimensions.
The Metzinger/Gleizes volume, titled Du cubisme, made quite a stir and raised more than a few eyebrows. The subject of intense interest, the book was translated into English and Russian almost immediately — even as the Cubists were accused by traditionalists of creating an art form that was “barbaric.”
The year 1913 was an important one for Gleizes, as he and several other Cubist painters introduced their artwork to American audiences at prominent exhibitions in New York City, Boston and Chicago.
That same year, through a mutual artist friend Gleizes met Juliette Roche (1884-1980), the daughter of Jules Roche, a high-ranking French politician who was also a leading light in the Parisian avant-garde art world.
[As an interesting aside, Jules Roche was also the godfather of the famed poet and stage designer Jean Cocteau.]
An accomplished artist in her own right, Juliette Roche studied painting at the Académie Ranson in Paris.
With the outbreak of World War I, Gleizes re-enlisted in the French army and was attached to the Army Health Service’s infirmary unit in Toul, where he was placed in charge of organizing entertainment for convalescent troops. In one of those projects he was engaged by Cocteau to design the sets and costumes for a production of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It was also during this time that Gleizes came into contact with Florent Schmitt — although it’s quite likely that their paths had already crossed in Paris prior to the war, seeing as how the worlds of music and art in the city were so inextricably intertwined.
Besides, Schmitt was a founding member and active participant in Les Apaches, the Société musicale indépendante and other “non-conformist” groups that propagated “new” music, literature and art in opposition to the conservative and often “chilly” Parisian public.
The piece was premiered at the Théâtre de Toul in February 1915. Enlisted in the armed forces at the time, Schmitt was assigned to the Toul region of the country as was Gleizes. No doubt, this is how Gleizes and Schmitt came into contact even as both were working on their new artistic creations. According to historian and writer Michel Hachet, Gleizes was mobilized in Toul and was assigned to the 167th Infantry Regiment occupying the Maréchal Ney barracks at Plateau St-Georges. Meanwhile, Schmitt had been mobilized in nearby Francheville, located less than 10 miles away.
In Toul and the surrounding region, many artists who had had the opportunity to know one another in pre-war civilian life found themselves together again. Important experimentation was being carried out in the region, leading to the use of war camouflage. But besides painters and graphic designers, there were also musicians in their midst.
During the 1914-15 period when both Albert Gleizes and Florent Schmitt were mobilized, the artist created no fewer than a half-dozen portraits of the composer. The pieces include works in oils, lithographs, and pen-and-ink drawings. The most famous of these creations is the painting titled Le Chant de guerre, portrait de Florent Schmitt, which was the artwork selected by the French postal service in 2012 to represent Cubism on a commemorative postage stamp.
In 1915, Albert Gleizes and Juliette Roche, now married, traveled to New York City where the two of them spent the remainder of the war (not counting a side trip to neutral Spain). With the war’s end, the couple returned to Paris where they continued to move for a time in the circles of avant-garde society. But for Albert in particular, the consequences of the war, coupled with the bitter failure of the Russian Revolution, seem to have brought on something of a personal crisis.
Even so, the early 1920s would continue to see Gleizes focusing on a highly abstract brand of Cubism, in which he was described by Christopher Green in the book Cubism and its Enemies: Modern Movements and Reaction in French Art, 1916–1928 as “fusing aesthetic, metaphysical, moral and social priorities to describe the status and function of art.”
An interesting characterization of Gleizes’ artistic style was published as part of a retrospective of paintings exhibited recently by the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which states in part:
“The art of Albert Gleizes impresses with its complex harmony, depth of creative thought and, at the same time, the simplicity and clarity of its expression.
Gleizes wasn’t interested in the genre of still life, preferring to live nature in landscapes and portraits. In the center of his paintings there are nearly always people, along with a heap of complex geometric shapes in the background as an industrial ‘landscape.’
This compositional style, as well as the harmonious use of large planes and saturated colors, attracts the eye and makes the viewer study the canvas for a long time, noticing more and more details.”
With the death of Jules Roche, the Gleizes came into a sizable inheritance, which likely had a further tempering effect on some of Albert Gleizes’ more non-conformist attitudes.
In 1923 Gleizes and his wife settled in Serrières, south of Lyon. Four years later the couple established Moly-Sabata, an artists’ community located in Sablons, in the Isère department of southeastern France.
In creating Moly-Sabata, Gleizes intended to forge a “redoubt of salvation” within a society that was destined, in his view, to undergo a collapse. He was known to describe Moly-Sabata as a kind of refuge — “a center for detoxification” for people disillusioned with urban industrial society.
At Moly-Sabata, the couple offered studios and workshops even as they withdrew resolutely from the celebrity hustle and bustle that had once characterized their lives in Paris.
In the 1930s, Gleizes would begin to gravitate more towards Romanesque, Gothic, Byzantine and Arabic art as sources of inspiration, while concentrating increasingly on producing art for public spaces. One of his most recognized works from this period is the mural The Fall of Babylon.
Another important commission for Gleizes was creating large murals for the 1937 Paris Exposition. This project paralleled Florent Schmitt’s own Paris Expo involvement with the Fêtes de la lumière, the brainchild of architects Eugène-Elie Beaudouin and Marcel Lods for which Schmitt composed his brilliant Fête de la lumière, Op. 88 — music that was presented at the Expo’s evening extravaganzas of lights, water and music held on the banks of the Seine River.
Like Florent Schmitt and his wife Jeanne, Albert and Juliette Gleizes elected to remain in France during World War II. In 1942, the artist began working on a series of creations he called Supports de contemplations — large-scale, non-representational paintings that were simultaneously complex and serene. Art materials being difficult to procure during wartime, Gleizes improvised by painting on burlap, sizing the porous material with a glue-and-paint mixture.
In his final years, Gleizes’ outlook became increasingly spiritual and more “otherworldly.” His last major creation was a 1952 fresco titled Eucharist, which he painted for the Jesuit chapel in Chantilly. The artist died the following year at age 71, having long ago foresworn the rebelliousness of his youth and the notoriety that had come with it.
In the trajectory of Albert Gleizes’ life, I see parallels with that of his near-contemporary Ida Rubinstein (1885-1960), the Russian-Jewish dancer and dramatic actress who commanded the limelight in Paris for three decades before withdrawing completely from public life and retiring to the south of France — quietly converting to Roman Catholicism and spending her final years in seclusion save for periodic visits to the abbey of Hautecombe near Chambrey.
As well, the artistic legacy of both personages is substantial. Ida Rubinstein will forever be remembered as a person whose artistic passions — and financial largess — enabled the creation of important musical masterpieces by Ravel, Stravinsky, Schmitt and Honegger.
As for Albert Gleizes’ legacy, art historian Daniel Robbins sums it up this way:
“His paintings remain to testify to his willingness to struggle for final answers. His is an abstract art of deep significance and meaning — paradoxically human even in his very search for absolute order and truth.”
Albert Gleizes’ sanctuary Moly-Sabata has outlasted him and his wife. Among its residents were the Australian potter Anne Dangar and the French weaver Lucie Deveyle who continued to play host to, in the words of Ulster-born artist and writer Peter Brooke, “a succession of sometimes-talented but often eccentric and difficult friends and contacts of the Gleizeses.”
Today, Moly-Sabata is a residential center for artists that is administered under the auspices of the Fondation Albert Gleizes, “without any particular references to Gleizes’ principles but with a lively sense of its inheritance,” as Brooke characterizes it.
In commemoration of the centenary of the publication of the book Du cubisme by Gleizes and Metzinger, in 2012 the Musée de La Poste presented a show in Paris that included more than 80 paintings and drawings created by some of the greatest exponents of the Cubist style. Issued in concert with the exhibition was the Chant de guerre postage stamp immortalizing Florent Schmitt.
And here’s one more note of interest: It’s a measure of the high esteem which Florent Schmitt held for Albert Gleizes that for decades, one of the artist’s paintings hung prominently in Schmitt’s study at his home in St-Cloud. The painting can be seen clearly in a series of photographs taken of the composer by the photographer Bruno Lipnitzki in 1937.
“Radicals,” “revolutionaries” or “frustrated conservatives”: In the end, it mattered little when it came to the enduring relationships that developed in the tumultuous and endlessly fascinating times in Paris and France before, during and after the Grande Guerre.