New York

Leopold Survage

Vestart Gallery

Leopold Survage (1879–1968) is an interesting artist on several counts. Early on, he joined the circle of the Cubists, and Apollinaire himself composed twelve Calligrames for Survage by way of introducing the painter in his first one-man show in Paris in 1917 (although he had been showing regularly at the advanced Salons of the period). In time he became the secretary of the Section d’Or, that faction of classicizing and decorative Cubists to which Gleizes, Metzinger and Marcoussis belonged, not to mention Juan Gris and the young Duchamp. His relationship to the group of expatriate Russian and Eastern European Cubists—think of Chagall, Lipchitz and Archipenko, Survage’s first and lifelong friend in Paris after his arrival from Moscow in 1908—is noteworthy. This group and their followers formed a kind of special Cubist subsection notable for its “Eastern” attachment to music-based abstraction and an attraction to bright, folkloric imagery. The latter tendency is marked, broadly speaking, by non-representational goals with which these Eastern Europeans were familiar in terms of peasant arts and crafts as well as the long tradition of the Eastern icon. Such streams run strong in Survage. He had been born into a family of piano manufacturers and as a young man wavered between becoming a musician or a painter. Much of his work must be viewed as an attempt to reconcile these apparently detached ambitions.

Cubism provided the first method. His early Cubist efforts are standard productions lightly touched by Futurist aims. Like Kandinsky and Kupka before him, and Delaunay at the same time, Survage was attempting to create a visual equivalent to the “abstractness” of music. Moreover, he recognized that the motion picture provided the technological means of satisfying the component of duration in such an ambition. In 1912–13, under the patronage of Gaumont, the chief promoter of the film industry in France, Survage undertook to create the first abstract film, Le Rhythme Coloré. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small watercolor studies were painted, each slightly different than the preceding one, as the frames were shot. Unfortunately, this attempt was abandoned during the First World War and the film was never completed. Had it been finished it surely would have marked one of the achievements of early experimental cinema.

Other close affiliations with music must be mentioned in passing; in 1921, Survage married the well-known pianist Germaine Meyer and in the following year his were the sets and costumes for the world première of Stravinsky’s Mavra for Diaghilev’s Russian season at the Paris Opera.

Like most of the Cubists of the Section d’Or, Survage committed himself to the ingratiating aims of what by the ’20s had become an arrière-garde movement. An able painter of pleasurable pictures (some of his paintings from the ’20s and ’30s resemble those of Le Corbusier) his felicitousness was spared inanity by an interesting admixture of biomorphic and automatic conventions. However, on the eve of the Second World War, nothing of consequence remained (at least to my eyes at this moment) and in this downbeat finale, his case must be likened to that of dozens of Section d’Or painters.

Robert Pincus-Witten