Present Tendencies in Painting – Jacques Riviere

We must, I think guard against misinterpreting the uneasiness and the hesitant Conviction shown by the cubists. I do not see it as a sign that their vocation is Arbitrary, nor do I conclude from it that their inner torments are all in vain.

On the contrary, their perplexity makes me believe that there is in their enterprise something greater than themselves, an overwhelmingly powerful necessity in the evolution of painting, a truth greater than they can see at fi rst sight. They are the precursors – clumsy, like all precursors – of a new art which is henceforth inevitable . . .

My intention is to give the cubists a little more freedom and assurance by supplying them with the deep reasons for what they are doing. True, this will not be possible without showing them how badly they have done it so far.

I – The Present Needs of Painting

… The true purpose of painting is to represent objects as they really are; that is to say, differently from the way we see them. It tends always to give us their sensible essence, their presence, this is why the image it forms does not resemble their appearance …

Let us now try to determine more precisely what sorts of transformation the painter must impose on objects as he sees them in order to express them as they are. These transformations are both negative and positive: he must eliminate lighting and perspective, and he must replace them with other and more truly plastic values.

Why lighting must be eliminated

… It is the sign of a particular instant … If, therefore, the plastic image is to reveal the essence and permanence of beings, it must be free of lighting effects . . .

Lighting is not only a superficial mark; it has the effect of profoundly altering the forms themselves … It can therefore be said that lighting prevents things from appearing as they are . . . Contrary to what is usually thought, sight is a successive sense; we have to combine many of its perceptions before we can know a single object well. But the painted image is fixed . . .

What must be put in place of lighting

He [the cubist] has renounced lighting – that is to say, the direction of the light ~ but not light itself. . . It is enough for him to replace a crude and unjust distribution of light and shade with a more subtle and more equal distribution; it is enough for him to divide up between all the surfaces the shade that formerly accumulated on some; he will use the small portion of shading allotted to each one by placing it against the nearest edge of some other lit surface, in order to mark the respective inclination and divergence of the parts of the object.

In this way he will be able to model the object without having recourse to contrasts, simply by means of summits and declivities. This procedure will have the advantage of marking not only the separation but also the join of the planes, instead of a succession of bright salients and black cavities, we shall see slopes supported on one another in a gentle solidarity. As they will be both separate and united, the exigencies of multiplicity and those of unity will be satisfied  one and the same time.



II – The Mistakes of the Cubists

In spite of appearances, painting has not yet emerged from impressionism. AH art is impressionist that aims at representing, instead of the things themselves, the sensation we have of them; instead of reality, the image by which we become aware of it; instead of the object, the intermediary that brings us into relation with it . . .

The cubists are destined to take up the greater part of the lesson of Cezanne; they are going to give back to painting its true aim, which is to reproduce, with asperity and with respect, objects as they are . . .

First mistake of the cubists

From the truth that the painter must always show enough faces of an object to suggest its volume, they conclude that he must show all its faces. From the truth that sometimes it is necessary to add to the visible faces another, which could not be seen except by changing one’s position a little, they conclude that it is necessary to add all the faces one could see by moving right round the object and looking at it from above and below.

The absurdity of such an inference does not need any long demonstration. Let us simply remark that the procedure, as understood by the cubists, arrives at a result that is the direct opposite of its purpose. If the painter sometimes shows more faces of an object than one can really see at once, this is in order to give its volume. But every volume is closed and implies the joining of the planes to each other; it consists in a certain relationship of all the faces to a centre. By putting all its faces side by side, the cubists give the object the appearance of an unfolded map and destroy its volume . , .

Second mistake of the cubists

From the truth that lighting and perspective, which act to subordinate the parts to the object and the objects to the picture, have to be eliminated, they conclude that all subordination must be renounced . . . They understand eliminating perspective and lighting to mean sacrificing nothing as secondary; they take these two ideas as equivalent, as interchangeable. They thus condemn themselves never again to select anything from reality; and since there can be no subordination without selection, the elements in their pictures relapse into anarchy and form a mad cacophony which makes us laugh . . .



To each object they add the distance which separates it from neighbouring objects, in the form of planes as resistant as its own; and in this way they showed, prolonged in all directions and armed with incomprehensible fins. The intervals between forms – all the empty parts of the picture, all the places in & occupied by nothing but air, find themselves filled up by a system of walls and fortifications. These are new, entirely imaginary objects, thrusting in between the first ones as though to wedge them tight.

Here again the procedure renders itself useless and automatically does away idth the effects it aims at producing. The purpose of the painter’s efforts to express depth is only to distinguish objects one from another, only to mark 4eir independence in the third dimension. But if he gives to what separates jkem the same appearance as he gives to each of them, he ceases to represent fheir separation and tends, on the contrary, to confuse them, to weld them into &a inexplicable continuum.


It is, indeed, impossible not to discern already in the work of some young artists  more intelligent and penetrating understanding of cubism. I have directed my criticisms here principally at Picasso, at Braque and at the group formed by Metzinger, Gleizes, Delaunay, Leger, Herbin, Marcel Duchamp. Le Fauconnier, iho was a member of it, seems to be freeing himself from it. He may become » fine painter. But it is chiefly towards Derain and Dufy on the one hand, and on the other towards La Fresnaye, de Segonzac and Fontenay, that my best hopes have tended, ever since Picasso, who for a moment seemed near to Possessing genius, strayed into occult researches where it is impossible to follow «hn. Lastly, I shall set apart Andre Lhote, whose recent works appear to me to announce, with admirable simplicity, the decisive arrival of the new painting.


Originally published in the Revue d’Europe et d’Amerique, Paris, March 1912.

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