• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Living Still Life

Juan Gris Press

by Christopher Green, with contributions by Christian Derouet, by Karin von Maur
Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, in association with Yale University, 311 pp., $50.00

Juan Gris 18–November 29, 1992; the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, December 18, 1992–February 14, 1993; the Rijksmuseum Kröller–Müller, Otterlo, March 6–May 2, 1993

an exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, September

When Gertrude Stein wrote that “painting in the nineteenth century was done only in France by Frenchmen, apart from that painting did not exist, in the twentieth century it was done in France but by Spaniards,” she was paying tribute to both Picasso and Juan Gris. She appears to have found Braque a bit boring and did not collect his work; and for reasons best known to herself she cherished the belief that Americans and Spaniards were brothers and sisters under the skin.

Despite a period of alienation during the war—itself brought about by Gertrude’s abortive efforts to help him—she was a good friend to Gris. She bought three fine works of his in 1914 just before the outbreak of war, and as many again in the 1920s; by then her own taste in things visual was becoming less secure and Gris’s own output was also becoming increasingly uneven. In 1925 Gris provided illustrations for Stein’s A Book Concluding With As A Wife Has A Cow A Love Story, which like the text have a slightly folkloric quality to them. When Gris died prematurely in 1927 at the age of forty she appears to have been genuinely grief-stricken, and described her essay “The Life and Death of Juan Gris” as “the most moving thing” she had ever written.

Picasso did not always behave wholly correctly toward Gris but was one of the chief mourners at his funeral; Gertrude resented this. It is significant that although Picasso owned works by many of his contemporaries he never exchanged works with Gris. Picasso liked to feel that he had exclusive rights to his friends and he may have resented Gris’s friendship with Stein and the fact that after the war Gris became the painter whom the dealer Kahnweiler most cherished.

Gris was born in Madrid in 1887. As a student there he had worked, using his original name of José Victoriano Carmel Carlos Gonzáles Pérez, under the academic painter José Moreno Carbonero (who later also taught Salvador Dali). He preferred to emphasize the scientific basis of his studies at the Escuela de Artes e Industrias (afterward called the Escuela Industrial). Gris began earning his living as a cartoonist, and appears to have been much in demand. Among the most distinguished periodicals to which he contributed was Blanco y Negro: he was still working for it in 1906 when he changed his name to Juan Gris, possibly as a pun. This same year he left for Paris where caricature was having a new vogue: Gris’s arrival coincided, for example, with the publication of Paul Gaultier’s serious study Le rire et la caricature. Gris was also avoiding military conscription in Spain, a move which cost him his passport and subsequently his liberty to travel. His cartoons show that he was a fluent, accomplished draftsman in the conventional mode of the time; but there is no wit in his line, as there is for example in the commercial work of Bonnard and Lautrec. From the cartoons one might deduce that he had a sense of fun but very little sense of humor, and despite some good jokes a slight melancholy pervades many of them.

In Paris Gris quickly gravitated toward Picasso, as did every other expatriate Spanish artist, and soon Picasso had found him accommodation in the bowels of the “Bateau-Lavoir.” In 1909 Gris moved up to the studio just vacated by Van Dongen, on the ground floor and facing the Place Ravignan. (The ramshackle complex of studios fell away backward from the street level down the slopes of Montmartre.) In the Bateau-Lavoir Gris witnessed the birth of Picasso’s Cubism. He began painting seriously in 1910, and in January 1912 Paris Journal announced his début as a painter with some fifteen oil paintings on show at Clovis Sagot’s gallery.

But it was the Homage to Picasso, shown a couple of months later at the Salon des Indépendants, that first brought him to the attention of the public. The critic Louis Vauxcelles, one of Cubism’s enemies, described the portrait as being of “père Ubu/Kub,” a reference to Jarry’s monstrous Ubu and to Gris’s style, which was certainly more relentlessly cubifying than that of Picasso. It resembled the work of Jean Metzinger, seen by many as leader of the “Salon” Cubists, who unlike Picasso and Braque, showed in the public salons. A contemporary picture by Gris, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother looks like a basrelief in plush, folded and buttoned back onto its canvas support, and bears a startling likeness to the late Douglas Cooper, who once owned the picture. Cooper was to be, together with Kahnweiler, Gris’s greatest champion, and his catalogue raisonné of Gris’s work, which came out in 1977, with the collaboration of Margaret Potter, remains a model of its kind.

The exhibition of Gris’s work recently on view at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery, which travels to Holland and Germany this winter, is not the most beautiful Gris exhibition there has ever been: there have been few as beautiful as that mounted by Cooper in Berne in 1955. But this is the most moving Gris exhibition I have ever seen, because the choice of works makes one so strongly aware of the artistic personality behind them and of the workings of Gris’s mind. The first pictures convey an extraordinary sense of loneliness and frugality, which are emphasized by Gris’s adoption of a cool, restricted palette used to produce an effect of tinted grisaille.

Gris’s studio still lifes have been carefully set up, but they also convey a sense of a life lived: plates and bowls are empty or scraped clean, foodstuffs are basic and limited, wine bottles are almost always not quite full, their contents rationed. The café tables often contain two or more glasses but there is none of the conviviality found in comparable works by Picasso and Braque. Cups of coffee (Gris’s only form of self-indulgence) and other refreshments often denote not so much moments of relaxation as pauses for solitary communion. The Spanish word for still life, bodegón, refers to simple domestic utensils or kitchen supplies and to modest taverns, and Gris’s works are bodegones in the true sense of the word in that they are humble pictures of humble objects. Picasso’s still lifes have been compared to those of Zurbarán, and his admiration for his seventeenth-century predecessor is well known; but the relationship between Gris and the earlier work of Zurbarán is in a sense truer in that there is a shared asceticism.

Gris was originally viewed as a mere follower of Picasso, an impression he helped to foster, although in fact he soon came to prefer the work of Braque. In reality, apart from a few pieces of apprenticeship. Gris’s Cubism was wholly original, right from the start. In 1912 when Gris began to hit his stride Picasso and Braque were still making use of their celebrated Cubist grids, linear scaffoldings around which are suspended complexes of faceted translucent planes. These Gris immediately put to new purposes. In his hands they become like irregular geometric leaded windows; they organize compositions and form the point of departure for the analysis of objects: a jug is quartered and its sections seen from different angles—at eye level, from above, and in rotation from the side. Another group of paintings, initiated in the summer of 1913, are violently, almost garishly colored. The intellectual rigors of Gris’s art persist, but these canvases carry with them a whiff of the fairground and the cheap cantina and remind us that there was also a more popular side to his art. In later life Gris’s greatest relaxation was dancing, and he loved folk and popular music.

The invention by Braque of papier collé in 1912, which involved incorporating into paintings and drawings strips of colored or commercially decorated paper as well as other fragments of external reality—cigarette packages, theater programs, and so on—in turn modified the appearance of Picasso’s and Braque’s paintings in that it led to simpler, solider, and less shadowy effects. These were noted by Gris and once again given a personal interpretation. Linear armatures now give way to compositions built up of somberly colored, upright rectangular slabs which, as with papiers collés, dislocated and modify the objects placed over them; for example the outline of a goblet inscribed over adjacent blue and white planes will be rendered by a white line over the blue plane and then again, seen from a different angle or viewpoint, by a blue line over the white plane.

Gris’s own papiers collés of 1914 and the somber, low-toned paintings of 1916 mark the summit of his achievement. His papiers collés are the most elaborate of all Cubist papiers collés and are in reality surrogate paintings. They have about them a feeling of tailor-made precision that distinguishes them from both Picasso’s rougher, more spontaneous use of the medium and from Braque’s more sparing and open effects: and although the layering and overlapping of pasted paper produces a sensation of depth it is an impacted depth as opposed to the freer, airy space achieved by Braque. Similarly, while Gris often juggles with the reading of things, using, for instance, wallpaper to represent a tablecloth, his papiers collés lack the alchemical properties of Picasso’s. He used newspaper cuttings and other printed matter, often satirically or humorously, but always in a thoughtful way. These are works that make demands on the viewer at many levels. The paintings of 1916 are distinguished by a truly masterly use of blacks which are played off against grays and creamy off-whites to produce an astonishing sense of tonal nuance. These are the most quintessentially Spanish of all Gris’s pictures. Despite their monastic severity they convey a sense of majesty and fullness, and with them one senses in an odd way that the odor of sanctity has descended on the artist.

Gris experienced great hardship during the war; money had always been a problem for him and was to remain one until the very final years of his life. But now with his dealer Kahnweiler in exile and unable to help, things were particularly bad. And yet the disruption of artistic life in Paris and the dispersal of its artists brought with it a sense of release, and despite Gris’s fundamental insecurities, a recognition of his own abilities and worth. Already Picasso had in his own work acknowledged that Gris was no longer a follower but a colleague and competitor. The Salon Cubists, and Metzinger and Diego Rivera in particular, were looking hard at him. Gris saw quite a lot of Matisse in Collioure immediately after the outbreak of war, and when Matisse eventually felt the need to come to terms with Cubism, a movement which he basically disliked, it was Gris’s work that he first consulted. When Braque got back to work after being invalided out of the army he turned to Gris’s recent canvases at a time when Henri Laurens and Jacques Lipchitz were also doing so.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print