Henri Bergson, Neoplatonist, and the Cubist Aesthetic

Bergson at the Académie française, 1918

Bergson at his reception at the Académie française, 1918

30.07.1996

The philosophy of Henri Bergson was a major and perhaps the most important direct influence on the development of the Cubist aesthetic – as well as central to the development of early twentieth century Modernism. It is my contention that it was on the back of Bergson’s philosophy that a set of philosophical ways of thinking with a fundamentally Platonic and Neoplatonic core were carried into at least a number of the leading art currents in the first two decades of the twentieth century – particularly that of Cubism – itself pivotal to Modernism.

The connection between Cubism, Bergson and Platonism has been written about since the early development of Cubism, notably by those involved with that development. Yet despite the evidence, to my knowledge it has only been explored to some degree by R. Antliff. Antliff’s writing is exemplary of the confusion and hesitancy of scholarship on this subject. On the one hand he argued that Bergson played a seminal role in shaping the art and politics of the Fauvist, Cubist and Futurist movements1, that the first attempts to align Cubist theory with that of Bergson began in about 19122, and that ‘no sustained comparative examination of Cubism’s precepts with those of Bergson has been undertaken thus far.’3

On the other, he wrote not only that Bergson’s influence on Cubism has remained enigmatic4 but that his question was not whether the progenitors of Cubism and Fauvism invented their art forms in response to Bergson, but how his ideas were received in a pre-existing (my emphasis) Fauvist and Cubist milieu.5 Other writers recognised an interesting connection between Bergson’s philosophy and Cubism or dismissed any possible influence of the former on the latter.6 Hence, since Bergson’s philosophy has long been ‘out of favour’, I consider it necessary to state the following as an exposition of that philosophy, focusing particularly on those aspects I consider relevant to my subject. I will also make a number of connections with Cubism and the relevant artistic and philosophical work of others.

Bergson was one of the most influential and widely read philosophers of the first decades of the twentieth century. His lectures at the College de France (where he was a professor from 1900) were immensely popular with students and wealthy intellectuals. By 1910 he was regarded as a national sage, receiving the Legion d’honneur in 1918 and the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928. His most influential works were written in between 1889 (Time and Free Will) and 1907 (Creative Evolution).

They are Matter and Memory (1896), Laughter (1900) and An Introduction to Metaphysics (1903). Many, particularly some religious and political zealots regarded him as an ally against positivism. In his introduction to an edition of Creative Evolution, Peter Gunter referred to that book as the first metaphysical system of the twentieth century. This book is regarded as Bergson’s most important work and it had a very strong impact when it was published.7

Bergson’s philosophy played a major part in the ‘revolt against reason’ in French culture from the late nineteenth century. His epistemology put ‘intuition’ in the place of ‘reason’. His notion of ‘mind’ was plainly dualist – ‘consciousness is essentially free, it is freedom itself‘8, ‘consciousness does not spring from the brain’9:

‘the mind overflows the brain on all sides, and…cerebral activity responds only to a very small part of mental activity…mental life cannot be an affect of bodily life…it looks much more as if the body were simply made use of by the mind, and…we have, therefore no reason to suppose the body and the mind united inseparably to one another.’10

Bergson thought that existence moves as a flow and not dialectically. For him, the unity of opposites resulted in a false movement. Deleuze noted that in this there is a Platonic tone.11 The implication of Bergson’s philosophy is that he did to Plato what Marx claimed to have done to Hegel, yet his philosophy sought to maintain the development of Platonism ‘on its head’. He opposed his eternity of creative evolution to Plato’s immutable eternity based on Ideas and defined ‘eidos’ as ‘the stable view taken of the instability of things’.12

He wrote that Plato was the ‘first and foremost’ to seek true reality in the unchanging, whereas for Bergson, this reality lay precisely in what does change. For him, Plato did not take becoming seriously:

‘The whole of the philosophy which begins with Plato and culminates in Plotinus is the development of a principle which may be formulated thus: “There is more in the immutable than in the moving, and we pass from the stable to the unstable by a mere diminution.” Now it is the contrary which is true. Modern science dates from the day when mobility was set up as an independent reality.’13

Yet, on investigation, this eternal and ‘independent reality’ is revealed as precisely the immutable of Plato.

Part one/to be continued…

Notes

1. R. Antliff, Inventing Bergson, Cultural Politics and the Parisian Avant-Garde, New Jersey, 1993, 6

2. R. Antliff, ‘Bergson and Cubism : A Reassessment’, Art Journal, Winter 1988 vol. 47 no. 4, 342

3. Ibid., 342

4. Ibid., 341 and ‘The Relevance of Bergson : Creative Intuition, Fauvism and Cubism’, Ph.D thesis, Yale University, 1991, 8

5. Antliff, ibid., 3. In his important study on the relationship between Neoplatonism and certain artists involved in the development of early twentieth century abstraction, Cheetham omits discussing Bergson. ‘I do not discuss Bergson, because in spite of his tremendous interest in memory and his influence in modern painting (especially Futurism), he was overtly anti-Platonic in his theorising.’ In the next paragraph, ‘Notions of purity are also central to Cubism and Orphism, as Apollinaire makes clear.’ M. Cheetham, The Rhetoric of Purity, Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting, Cambridge, 1991, xiv, xv.

6. Antliff cites G. Beck and M. Roskill in ‘Bergson and Cubism: A Reassessment’ , op. cit., 347

7. H. Bergson, Creative Evolution, 1907, trans. A. Mitchell, New York, 1911, reprint., 1983, xxv

8. Ibid., 270

9. Ibid., 262

10. H. Larrabee, ed., Selections from Bergson, New York, 1949, 119

11. G. Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans., H. Tomlinson, B. Habberjam, New York, 1988, 44; also ‘This multiplicity that is duration is not at all the same thing as the multiple, any more than its simplicity is the same as the One’, 46

12. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 315

13. H. Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. T. Hulme, New York, 1955, 54

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