What The Section d'Or Exhibition Meant for Cubism

January 16, 2019

Cubism emerged from the minds and paint brushes of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. But [the] credit for expanding knowledge of the Cubist method to the masses unquestionably goes to the Groupe de Puteaux, and their landmark Cubist exhibition of 1912, La Section d'Or.

The first Cubist paintings appeared around 1909, causing a shock wave through the Parisian avant-garde, which in turn caused a number of other painters to adopt the theories and principles Picasso and Braque were developing. Picasso and Braque rarely commented publicly about their experiments, but their followers grasped on to what little they did share and used those ideas to formulate a definitive conceptual movement.

Among the earliest Cubist converts were Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Robert Delaunay, Henri le Fauconnier, Fernand Léger, and the Duchamp brothers – Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Villon, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon. Some of these artists exhibited together at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants, after which they began meeting formally in the Paris suburbs, either at the studio of Albert Gleizes in Courbevoie, or at the home of the Duchamp brothers in Puteaux.

That second meeting place gave the Groupe de Puteaux, or Puteaux Group, its name. At these meetings, the group had deep discussions of what Cubism is and is not, and outlined both its roots and its goals. By 1912, they had a fully formed conception of their method, so to mark the moment they mounted the first ever major Cubist exhibition: La Section d'Or. To accompany the exhibition, Gleizes and Metzinger published Du Cubism, the first – and only – explanation of Cubism written by early Cubist artists themselves.

The impact of both the exhibition and the essay on the development of the artistic culture of their own time, and on that of every generation to come, is impossible to overstate.

Special issue dedicated to the exhibition of La Section d'Or 1912
Special issue dedicated to the exhibition of La Section d'Or, first year, no. 1, October 9, 1912. Image via Wikimedia Commons

La Section d’Or - The Golden Idea

The Puteaux Group called their initial exhibition La Section d’Or as a reference to the “golden ratio,” a mathematical concept that dates back more than 2000 years. The concept involves geometric values that appear regularly in nature. It is an objective formula, but it has also taken on certain mystical attributions over the centuries.

The Puteaux artists frequently discussed mathematic formulas, including the golden ratio, at their meetings. They chose the term as a title for their exhibition because of what they felt it implied. In no way were they saying that they actually applied the golden ratio in their work. They were merely interested in what the idea of the golden ratio means to people. Nonetheless, critics rushed to look for evidence of the golden ratio in the paintings exhibited at La Section d’Or.

In a few paintings by Juan Gris they found such evidence in the layout of the composition, and at least one painting by Gleizes had unusual dimensions that match the formula. But in Du Cubism it clearly states:

We are neither geometers nor sculptors; for us, lines, surfaces, and columns are only nuances of the notion of fullness. Geometry is a science, painting is an art. The geometer measures, the painter savors.

For many viewers this explanation is unsatisfying, especially if they want to understand Cubism in specific terms. I was initially taught that Cubism was a way of expressing four-dimensional space by showing multiple simultaneous perspectives – and I have written as much in several previous articles. And while I still believe that is an accurate way to describe many Cubist paintings, after reading Du Cubism I understand my error.

The language of Cubism was not explicitly defined. It was only based partly on logic, and partly on feeling, and it evolved over time. The goal of Cubist artists was not to define, but to suggest. As Gleizes and Metzinger wrote:

Certain forms must remain implicit, so that the mind of the spectator is the chosen place of their concrete birth.

Left Jean Metzinger - La Femme au Cheval (Woman with a Horse), 1911-12 Right Albert Gleizes - La Chasse (The Hunt), 1911
Left: Jean Metzinger - La Femme au Cheval (Woman with a Horse), 1911-12. Oil on canvas, 162 cm × 130.5 cm (63.8 in × 51.2 in). Statens Museum for Kunst / Right: Albert Gleizes - La Chasse (The Hunt), 1911. Oil on canvas, 123.2 x 99 cm. Images via Wikimedia Commons

Errors of the Eye

Even if we cannot attribute any one specific agenda to the Cubists, we can at least note the premium they placed on innovation. Du Cubism states that the only law of art is the law of time. Artists must not imitate the art of the past. They must be of their own time, and strive to discover for themselves what that means.

The struggle the Cubists faced is no different in that respect than the struggle that every generation of abstract artists has faced since: it is the struggle to overcome the difference between what the public sees, and what the public understands. Gleizes and Metzinger wrote, “The eye quickly interests the mind in its errors.” In part, they were referring to their own paintings and how viewers scanned them quickly with their eyes then jumped to conclusions in their minds. They hoped viewers could learn to read abstract art slowly, absorbing the different elements like words on a page, waiting until the entire piece is read before venturing to understand it.

The expression of that humble hope is only one way in which Du Cubism has affected every artistic method developed in the past century. We also see its influence in its expression of “the kinship of color and form,” where the roots of the teachings of Hans Hofmann are clear; in its insistence that art be “a fixation of our personality: unmeasurable, in which nothing is ever repeated,” where the spirit of Abstract Expressionism, Tachisme, Forma 1, and so many other aesthetic positions lurk; and in its embrace of “as many images of the object as eyes to contemplate it, as many images of essence as minds to understand it,” where we hear the call of Conceptual Art and the image saturated Post Internet age.

Whatever future influence The Section d’Or, The Puteaux Group or Cubism has yet to offer is perhaps best expressed in one of the final sentences of Du Cubism, where Gleizes and Metzinger offered this thought:

People will finally realize that there never was a Cubist technique, but simply a pictorial technique which a few painters exhibited with courage and diversity.

Written by Phillip Barcio.

Featured image: La Section d'Or exhibition, 1925, Galerie Vavin-Raspail, Paris, by uknown photographer. Image via Wikimedia Commons.