Henri Bergson, Neoplatonist, and the Cubist Aesthetic: Part Two

Bergson asked how it is possible, having posited unchanging Ideas, to make change come from them, then argued ‘there is more in the motionless than in the moving’,1 that Ideas are contained in matter and that nothing, the source of becoming, moves between Ideas, creating ‘endless agitation’, which leads to the degradation of Ideas. Hence duration coexisted with Ideas. Forms are ‘snapshots’ of changing reality. ‘They are moments gathered along the course of time’:2

‘Beneath the changing phenomena will appear to us, by transparence, a closed system of concepts subordinated to and co-ordinated with each other…It will be prior to human knowledge…prior also to things, which awkwardly try to imitate it…Its immutability is therefore, indeed, the cause of the universal becoming.’3

He argued:

‘But when we put immutable Ideas at the base of the moving reality, a whole physics, a whole cosmology, a whole theology follows necessarily. We must insist on the point.’4

Bergson thought that we are all born Platonists5 and that there exists nothing positive outside Ideas.6 He gave the example of the Idea of a poem, how thousands of people write on an Idea and how our minds can leap from the words to the images and from these to the Idea:7

‘the philosopher, ascending again from the percept to the concept, sees condensed into the logical all the positive reality that the physical possesses. His intellect, doing away with the materiality that lessens being, grasps being itself in the immutable system of Ideas.’8

In view not only of form in art but of the highly philosophic nature of Cubism, Bergson’s treatment of form is very important, and is both Platonic:

‘the philosophy of Ideas…starts from the Form; it sees in the Form the very essence of reality…it posits Form in the eternal’9

and most productive in comparison. For example, the following:

‘Things re-enter into each other. What was extended in space is contracted into pure Form. And past, present and future shrink into a single moment, which is eternity.’10

compared with Picasso’s statement in 1923:

‘When I hear people speak of the evolution of an artist, it seems to me that they are considering him standing between two mirrors that face each other and reproduce his image an infinite number of times, and that they contemplate the successive images of one mirror as his past, and the images of the other mirror as his future, while his real image is taken as his present. They do not consider that they are all the same images in different planes.’11

Again, on the limitation and unreality of appearance:

‘(Forms) tend to withdraw into their own definition, that is to say, into the artificial reconstruction and symbolical expression which is their intellectual equivalent. They enter into eternity, if you will; but what is eternal in them is just what is unreal.’12

Nietzsche wrote:
‘The more ‘Idea’ the more being. (Plato) reversed the concept ‘reality’ and said: ‘What you take for real is an error, and the nearer we approach the ‘Idea’, the nearer we approach ‘truth’ – Is this understood? It was the greatest of rebaptisms…Fundamentally, Plato, as the artist he was, preferred appearance to being! lie and invention to truth! the unreal to the actual! But he was so convinced of the value of appearance that he gave it the attributes ‘being’, ‘causality’ and ‘goodness’ and ‘truth’, in short everything men value.’13

Picasso who had read most of Nietzsche’s works by seventeen and who co-edited a magazine recommending The Birth of Tragedy in 1901 stated:

‘Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth…The artist must know how to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.’14

Part two/to be continued…


1. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 316

2. Ibid., 317

3. Ibid., 328. This is what Cézanne sought to express in his late work

4. Ibid., 315

5. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 64

6. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 316

7. Ibid., 320

8. Ibid., 321

9. Ibid., 318

10. Ibid., 320

11. Picasso in a statement to M. de Zayas, ‘Picasso Speaks’, The Arts, New York, May 1923, reprint., in E. Fry, Cubism, London, 1966, reprint., 1978, 167

12. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 317

13. F. Nietzsche, The Will to Power, W. Kaufmann, ed., New York, 1968, 308

14. Picasso to M.de Zayas in Fry, op. cit., 165-166

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