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The Moment of Cubism

John Berger's 1967 essay of materialist art criticism.

John Berger 6 December 2018

The Moment of Cubism

The Moment of Cubism’ - excerpted from Landscapes, edited by Tom Overton. The 1967 essay of materialist art criticism, originally published in New Left Review, traces the lineages and legacies of Cubism. In it, Berger grapples with the sensation that “the most extreme Cubist works” – both “too optimistic and too revolutionary … to have been painted today” – are “caught, pinned down, in an enclave of time, waiting to be released and to continue a journey that began in 1907.”

An interlocking world system of imperialism; opposed to it, a socialist international; the founding of modern physics, physiology and sociology; the increasing use of electricity, the invention of radio and the cinema; the beginnings of mass production; the publishing of mass-circulation newspapers; the new structural possibilities offered by the availability of steel and aluminium; the rapid development of chemical industries and the production of synthetic materials; the appearance of the motor-car and the aeroplane: What did all this mean?

The question may seem so vast that it leads to despair. Yet there are rare historical moments to which such a question can perhaps be applied. These are moments of convergence, when numerous developments enter a period of similar qualitative change, before diverging into a multiplicity of new terms. Few of those who live through such a moment can grasp the full significance of the qualitative change taking place: but everybody is aware of the times changing: the future, instead of offering continuity, appears to advance towards them. 

This was surely the case in Europe from about 1900 to 1914 – although one must remember, when studying the evidence, that the reaction of many people to their own awareness of change is to pretend to ignore it.

Apollinaire, who was the greatest and most representative poet of the Cubist movement, repeatedly refers to the future in his poetry:

Where my youth fell

You see the flame of the future
You must know that I speak today
To tell the whole world

That the art of prophecy is born at last.

The developments which converged at the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe changed the meaning of both time and space. All, in different ways, some inhuman and others full of promise, offered a liberation from the immediate, from the rigid distinction between absence and presence. The concept of the field, first put forward by Faraday when wrestling with the problem – as defined in traditional terms – of ‘action at a distance’, entered now, unacknowledged, into all modes of planning and calculation and even into many modes of feeling. There was a startling extension through time and space of human power and knowledge. For the first time the world, as a totality, ceased to be an abstraction and became realisable. 

If Apollinaire was the greatest Cubist poet, Blaise Cendrars was the first. His poem Les Pâques à New York (1912) had a profound influence on Apollinaire, and demonstrated to him how radically one could break with tradition. The three major poems of Cendrars at this time were all concerned with travelling – but travelling in a new sense across a realisable globe. In Le Panama ou Les Aventures de Mes Sept Oncles, he writes:

Poetry dates from today

           The milky way round my neck
           The two hemispheres on my eyes
                    At full speed
There are no more breakdowns
If I had the time to save a little money I’d
                    be flying in the air show

I have reserved my seat in the first train through
                    the tunnel under the Channel

I am the first pilot to cross the Atlantic solo
900 millions

The 900 millions probably refers to the then estimated population of the world.  

It is important to see how philosophically far-reaching were the consequences of this change and why it can be termed qualitative. It was not merely a question of faster transport, quicker messages, a more complex scientific vocabulary, larger accumulations of capital, wider markets, international organisations, and so on. The process of the secularisation of the world was at last complete. Arguments against the existence of God had achieved little. But now man was able to extend himself indefinitely beyond the immediate: he took over the territory in space and time where God had been presumed to exist.

Zone, the poem that Apollinaire wrote under the immediate influence of Cendrars, contains the following lines:

Christ pupil of the eye

Twentieth pupil of the centuries knows how

This century changed into a bird ascends like Jesus

Devils in pits raise their heads to watch it
They say it’s imitating Simon Magus of Judea
If it can fly, we’ll call it the fly one

Angels swing past its trapeze

Icarus Enoch Elias Apollonius of Tyana
Hover round the first aeroplane

Dispersing at times to let through the priests
As they bear the Holy Eucharist

Forever ascending and raising the Host.

The second consequence concerned the relation of the self to the secularised world. There was no longer any essential discontinuity between the individual and the general. The invisible and the multiple no longer intervened between each individual and the world. It was becoming more and more difficult to think in terms of having been placed in the world. A man was part of the world and indivisible from it. In an entirely original sense, which remains at the basis of modern consciousness, a man was the world which he inherited.

Again, Apollinaire expresses this:

I have known since then the bouquet of the world
I am drunk from having drunk the universe whole.

All the previous spiritual problems of religion and morality would now be increasingly concentrated in a man’s choice of attitude to the existing state of the world, considered as his own existing state.

It is now only against the world, within his own consciousness, that he can measure his stature. He is enhanced or diminished according to how he acts towards the enhancement or diminishment of the world. His self apart from the world, his self wrenched from its global context – the sum of all existing social contexts – is a mere biological accident. The secularisation of the world exacts its price as well as offering the privilege of a choice, clearer than any other in history.


I am everywhere or rather I start to be everywhere
It is I who am starting this thing of the centuries
                to come.

As soon as more than one man says this, or feels it, or aspires towards feeling it – and one must remember that the notion and the feeling are the consequence of numerous material developments impinging upon millions of lives – as soon as this happens, the unity of the world has been proposed.

The term unity of the world can acquire a dangerously utopian aura. But only if it is thought to be politically applicable to the world as it is. A sine qua non for the unity of the world is the end of exploitation. The evasion of this fact is what renders the term utopian.

Meanwhile the term has other significations. In many respects (the Declaration of Human Rights, military strategy, communications, and so on), the world since 1900 has been treated as a single unit. The unity of the world has received de facto recognition.

Today we know that the world should be unified, just as we know that all men should have equal rights. Insofar as a man denies this or acquiesces in its denial, he denies the unity of his own self. Hence the profound psychological sickness of the imperialist countries, hence the corruption implicit in so much of their learning – when knowledge is used to deny knowledge.

At the moment of Cubism, no denials were necessary. It was a moment of prophecy, but prophecy as the basis of a transformation that had actually begun.


Already I hear the shrill sound of the friend’s voice to come
Who walks with you in Europe

Whilst never leaving America.

I do not wish to suggest a general period of ebullient optimism. It was a period of poverty, exploitation, fear and desperation. The majority could only be concerned with the means of their survival, and millions did not survive. But for those who asked questions, there were new positive answers whose authenticity seemed to be guaranteed by the existence of new forces.

The socialist movements in Europe (with the exception of that in Germany and sections of the trade union movement in the United States) were convinced that they were on the eve of revolution and that the revolution would spread to become a world revolution. This belief was shared even by those who disagreed about the political means necessary – by syndicalists, parliamentarians, communists and anarchists.

A particular kind of suffering was coming to an end: the suffering of hopelessness and defeat. People now believed, if not for themselves then for the future, in victory. The belief was often strongest where the conditions were worst. Everyone who was exploited or downtrodden and who had the strength left to ask about the purpose of his miserable life was able to hear in answer the echo of declarations like that of Lucheni, the Italian anarchist who stabbed the empress of Austria in 1898: ‘The hour is not far distant when a new sun will shine upon all men alike’, or like that of Kalyaev in 1905 who, on being sentenced to death for the assassination of the governor-general of Moscow, told the court ‘to learn to look the advancing revolution straight in the eye’.

An end was in sight. The limitless, which until now had always reminded men of the unattainability of their hopes, became suddenly an encouragement. The world became a starting point.

- excerpted from Landscapes, edited by Tom Overton, currently 50% off as part of our end-of-year sale.

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Berger pushes at the limits of art writing, demonstrating beautifully how his artist’s eye makes him a storyteller in these essays, rather than a critic. With “landscape” as an animating, liberating metaphor rather than a rigid defnition, this collection surveys the aesthetic landscapes that have informed, challenged and nourished John Berger’s understanding of the world. Landscapes—alongside Portraits—completes a tour through the history of art that will be an intellectual benchmark for many years to come.

In this brilliant collection of diverse works—essays, short stories, poems, translations—which spans a lifetime’s engagement with art, John Berger reveals how he came to his own unique way of see...