How Cubism Thrived Within the Section d'Or

Art History

February 10, 2021

Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement that ultimately dissolved the traditional art canons, Cubism engaged to establish a new paradigm led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. The founders of this early 20th-century movement not only became the champions of their time, but also the figures who defined modernity.

Cubism spread with the speed of light, and very soon numerous artists started exploring the stylistic and conceptual possibilities of the same. Section d’Or (The Golden Section) or the Puteaux Group was a collective of painters, sculptors, critics, and poets who were eager to move away from Picasso and Braque, and clear the path for a more distinguished version of Cubism.

Their activity is often foreseen in a broader context; however, their production is essential for a proper understanding of this art phenomenon that has directed the further development of avant-garde art-making.

Left: Special issue devoted to the Exhibition of the "Section d'Or", first year, n ° 1, October 9, 1912. Publication date 1912. Image creative commons / Right: Pierre Dumont – Rouen Cathedral, circa 1912. Oil on canvas, 192.5 cm (75.7 in) x 139 cm (54.7 in). Milwaukee Art Museum. Image creative commons

Forming The Section d'Or

The Section d'Or collective was most active from 1911 to around 1914 and it gathered the artists mostly located in the Parisian suburbs. They had regular meetings at the home of the Duchamp brothers in Puteaux and the studio of Albert Gleizes. Some of the members (Jean Metzinger, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Leger, Marie Laurencin, and Albert Gleizes) created quite a scandal at the Salon des Indépendants exhibition in 1911 and presented Cubism to wider audiences for the first time.

The following year, they organized the Salon de la Section d'Or, the all-encompassing exhibition of Cubist works before WW I. After the war ended, the collective was generously supported by the dealer Léonce Rosenberg, and two more grand Section d'Or exhibitions were organized in 1920 and 1925 to underline the shifts and new tendencies present within Cubism.

The first one was organized by Albert Gleizes (with the support by the likes of Alexander Archopenko, Constantin Brancusi, and others) with the idea of promoting Cubism as a European movement, while the second exhibition alongside Cubist works included the ones by the artists affiliated with De Stijl, Bauhaus, Constructivism, and Futurism.

Initially, the collective formed by Metzinger, Gleizes, Le Fauconnier, Léger, and Robert Delaunay included other artists such as Alexander Arhcipenko, Juan Girs, and Francis Picabia, who got introduced with the circle via Guillaume Apollinaire. The formative element of Section d’Or’s articulation was the liaison developed with Metzinger and the Duchamp brothers, who exhibited under the names of Jacques Villon, Marcel Duchamp, and Duchamp-Villon.

The idea of the collective came as a result of a dialog between Gleizes, Metzinger, and Jacques Villon who suggested the name after reading a 1910 translation of Leonardo da Vinci's A Treatise on Painting by Joséphin Péladan. The golden ratio or the golden section that had fascinated different Western practitioners for thousands of years went along with Villon’s belief in order and the significance of mathematical proportions.

On the other hand, Jean Metzinger and Juan Gris were affiliated with Maurice Pincet, an amateur mathematician who had a significant role in the Cubist discussions. The members of the collective were also fascinated with the latest philosophical contributions, especially Einstein's Theory of Relativity and the intuition element found in the philosophical theories of Henry Berson.

Another relevant aspect for the understanding of the existence of Section d’Or was the practice of Georges Seurat, the founder of Pointillism. Namely, the Cubists admired him greatly for the way this artist conducted an underlying mathematical harmony, as well as geometric structuring of motion and form. It was Cezanne who influenced greatly the initial phase of Cubism between 1908 and 1911, while Seurat’s work was adored by both Cubists and Futurists between 1911 and 1914.

Left: Francis Picabia - The Procession, 1912. Oil on canvas, 121.9 x 121.9 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Image creative commons / Right: Juan Gris - Men in a Café, 1912. Oil on canvas, 127.6 cm (50.2 in) x 88.3 cm (34.7 in). Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image creative commons

The Groundbreaking Exhibition

The mentioned Salon de la Section d'Or was held at the Galerie La Boétie in Paris in October 1912 as an entirely Cubist exhibition. Since it included more than 200 works on display produced during the course of three years (from 1909 to 1912), it is considered a retrospective of the movement. The exhibition attracted quite an attention after the opening that lasted from nine until midnight, which was not common at the time. Invitations were sent before the show, and numerous guests were declined entrance at the opening.

The Salon de la Section d'Or was accompanied by the lectures by Apollinaire, Hourcade, and Raynal, and a review that was published amid the Vernissage. While working on the exhibition Gleizes and Metzinger wrote the first theoretical essay on the new movement simply titled Du "Cubisme" that was published by Eugène Figuière in 1912, and translated to English and Russian in 1913.

Ultimately, the exhibition was a huge success as it established Cubism as the leading movement of avant-garde art in Paris despite the fact it was not fully understood by the art critics or the public.

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. Image creative commons / Right: Marcel Duchamp – Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2, 1912. Oil on canvas, 57 7/8 x 35 1/8 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image creative commons

The Legacy of The Section d'Or

The 1912 exhibition and the mentioned essay transformed the way people approach abstraction and gave a breath of fresh air to artists active in other movements. The World War I interrupted the activity of the Section d’Or and brought a shift in collecting Cubist artworks in general. Despite grand efforts to reclaim their fame with the two exhibitions in 1920 and 1925, however, new art movements took over, the former members of Section d’Or pursued other tendencies, and the movement eventually came to an end.

Nevertheless, the activity of this art collective left an enormous legacy that was sought after later by the generation of artists active during the early post-WW II period. Looking from contemporary stance, the entire production of Color Field and Hard-Edge painting, and even Minimal art couldn’t be imagined if there weren’t experiments undertaken by The Section d'Or.

Featured image: Albert Gleizes - Harvest Threshing (Le Dépiquage des Moissons), 1912. Oil on canvas, 269 × 353 cm. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo; La Section d'Or exhibition, 1925, Galerie Vavin-Raspail, Paris. Image Creative Commons.