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

Bergson’s view of man as a creator, above the approval of fellow humanity, reads as Nietzschean. In Mind – Energy he wrote ‘the joy he feels is the joy of a god.’1 He equated this person with ‘superman’2 – in Nietzsche’s philosophy the higher state of Übermensch embodies the ‘will to power’ and creation.

Another parallel between these two philosophies is that just as creative intuition entails a willed effort to transcend logical patterns of thought, Bergson’s élan vital and Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ both represent a struggle to gain freedom from the social and material environment. Bergson also distinguished between the artist or poet and ‘the common herd.’3 He wrote that the aim of art is to lay bare the secret and tragic element in our character,4 and that ‘True  pity consists  not  so much in fearing suffering as in desiring it.’5

Bergson wrote that the ‘inward states’ of creative emotion are the most intense as well as the most violent.6 His words ‘for what interests us in the work of the poet is the glimpse we get of certain profound moods or inner struggles’7 are closely echoed in those Picasso used with regard to Cézanne and Van Gogh.

‘It is not what the artist does that counts, but what he is…What forces our interest is Cézanne’s anxiety – that’s Cézanne’s lesson; the torments of Van Gogh – that is the actual drama of the man. The rest is a sham.’8

Bergson held that the object of art is to put to sleep the resistance of the viewer’s personality (a spiritualised hypnosis), to bring the viewer ‘into a state of perfect responsiveness, in which we realise the idea that is suggested to us and sympathise with the feeling that is expressed.’9 To provoke an intuitive response, the elements of the canvas must first arouse the viewer’s emotions and sensitivity to the flow of true duration.10 This can be achieved in a number of ways. Devices include the rhythmical arrangement and effect of line and words

Juan Gris. Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth, 1915, Private collection

Juan Gris. Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth, 1915, Private collection

‘it is the emotion, the original mood, to which they (artists) attain in its undefiled essence. And then, to induce us to make the same effort ourselves they contrive to make us see something of what they have seen: by rhythmical arrangement of words.’11

Bergson also gave the example of letters (of words) which are parts of a poem which one knows, but randomly mixed. Because one knows the poem, one can immediately reconstitute the poem as a whole. This is an example of the reconstitution of the real parts of intuition (and metaphysics), distinct from the partial notations of analysis and the positive sciences, which cannot be reconstituted.

It was Bergson’s philosophy that the Cubists drew on in their use not only of material not previously associated with art (sand, wallpaper etc.) but also of part words and lettering.

‘Now beneath all the sketches he has made at Paris the visitor will probably, by way of memento, write the word “Paris”. And as he has really seen Paris, he will be able, with the help of the original intuition he had of the whole, to place his sketches therein, and so join them up together.’12 Negation also affirms and suggests aspects of an object.13

Another device is the conveyance of the notion of passage. The technique of passage derives from Cézanne, but its stimulus may well lie in Bergson’s philosophy.14 Not only did Cubism develop on this, a similar treatment can be seen in art contemporary with it and which has established connections with Bergson’s philosophy – that of Gleizes, Metzinger, the Futurists and Delaunay.15 Bergson wrote of flexibility, mobility, ‘almost fluid representations, always ready to mould themselves on the fleeting forms of intuition.’16 Evocative of the refined and far more relaxed methods of so-called Synthetic Cubism are Bergson’s words ‘Intuition, bound up to a duration which is growth, perceives in it an uninterrupted continuity of unforeseeable novelty.’17

Pablo Picasso, 'Ma Jolie', 1913-14, oil on canvas, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis (Image, Wikipedia)

Pablo Picasso, ‘Ma Jolie’, 1913-14, oil on canvas, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis

‘So art, whether it be painting or sculpture, poetry or music, has no other object than to brush aside the utilitarian symbols, the conventional and socially accepted generalities, in short, everything that veils reality from us, in order to bring us face to face with reality itself…realism is in the work when idealism is in the soul and…it is only through ideality that we can resume contact with reality.’18

Bergson’s entire philosophy, and the fundamental problem with it, lies in his distinction between the ‘mind’ (consciousness) and the brain, between subjective reality and objective reality. This is encapsulated in the following

‘That there is a close connection between a state of consciousness and the brain we do no dispute. But there is also a close connection between a coat and the nail on which it hangs, for if the nail is pulled out, the coat falls to the ground. Shall we say, then, that the shape of the nail gives us the shape of the coat, or in any way corresponds to it? No more are we entitled to conclude, because the physical fact is hung onto a cerebral state, that there is any parallelism between the two series psychical and physiological.’19

Georges Braque. Pitcher and Violin, 1910

Georges Braque, Violin and Pitcher, 1910

It is my contention that it was very likely to this most fundamental of philosophical issues than a play on illusion that the nail in Braque’s Pitcher and Violin 1909-10, referred. As Bergson and Braque would have been aware – a lot hangs on it.

Part thirteen/to be continued…


1. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 114

2. Ibid., 101, from Creative Evolution, op. cit.

3. Laughter, op. cit., 151

4. Ibid., 160

5. Time and Free Will, op. cit., 19

6. Laughter, op. cit., 158

7. Ibid., 166

8. From an interview with M. de Zayas in Theories of Modern Art, op. cit., 272

9. Time and Free Will, op. cit., 14

10. Antliff wrote that for Bergson, the provocation of an intuition depends on the activation of the beholder’s subliminal ‘mind’.

11. Laughter, op. cit., 156

12. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 33

13. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 288

14. See G. Hamilton, ‘Cézanne, Bergson and the Image of Time’ Art Journal, xvi, Fall, 1956, 2-12

15. See Antliff on the use of passage to evoke the apprehension of the dynamism of form. Definition was not sought but suggestion ‘so that the mind of the spectator is the chosen place of their concrete birth.’ Inventing Bergson, op. cit., 52

16. The Creative Mind, op. cit., 198

17. Ibid., 39

18. Laughter, op. cit., 157

19. Matter and Memory, op. cit., 13

Image sources: 1st/2nd/3rd

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