Living Still Life

Juan Gris Press

by Christopher Green, with contributions by Christian Derouet and 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.

After the war Gris played an important if indirect role in the formation of Purism, a movement launched by Amédée Ozenfant and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) in 1919. Purism acknowledged a debt to Cubism but felt that the intellectual clarity and formal innovations that had characterized it during its early, heroic years had subsequently been dissipated because the Cubists—and this is where the Purists made an exception of Gris—had failed to take into account the discoveries of science and the perfectibility of machinemade forms. Gris was now one of the most influential artists working in Europe, and at the time of his death he had become the acknowledged leader of what had come to be known as the “second Cubism” or of Cubism as it was interpreted by artists in France during the 1920s.

It was also during the war years that Gris’s closest links with literature were made. His friendship with the poet Pierre Reverdy was cemented then, and despite odd moments of estrangement it was a friendship that bore many fruits. Reverdy was two years younger than Gris and came to see Cubism through Gris’s eyes; and he was to become one of the most perceptive critics of Cubism’s later phases. As a poet he was influenced by both Apollinaire and Max Jacob; and he was heir to both. His poems, like some of Apollinaire’s and most of Jacob’s, reflect a debt to Cubism in that they are beautifully constructed and coherent entities made up of overlaid, often seemingly fractured or dislocated parts. Reverdy shared some of Apollinaire’s lyric gifts, although his voice is more hesitant and reticent; and he responded to the fantastic, proto-Surrealist side of Apollinaire’s art. His work is more accessible than Jacob’s but has some of the same underlying anguish that is the result of a simultaneous delight in and rejection of the sensory world.

Jacob had mystic proclivities and twice experienced visions of Christ (the second in a movie theater); Reverdy was also of a religious bent but suffered from life-long doubts. In 1917 Reverdy launched his lively and influential periodical Nord-Sud (a reference to the metro line that linked Montmartre and Montparnasse) which provided a forum for a new generation of poets, including two other writers close to Gris, Paul Dermée and the Chilean Vicente Huidobro. Picasso had always been drawn to poets and writers because he enjoyed their company and because he picked up ideas from them, and they saved him the trouble of having to read things for himself. In the case of Gris the poets eased the underlying loneliness of his nature; he was an influence on them when he helped to inspire Reverdy’s and Dermée’s still life poems executed between 1915 and 1919, and his collaborations with Huidobro led to some literary experiments of his own.

Gris’s work of the war years has often been compared to Reverdy’s contemporary poetry, and in 1915–1916 Gris produced the most beautiful of his book illustrations for Reverdy’s Au Soleil du plafond (not published until much later). These small exquisite works anticipate Picasso’s miniature still lifes executed at the end of the decade. The comparison with Reverdy is rewarding but can’t be pushed too far. Reverdy was fascinated by the use of metaphor in Cubism and used it as the basis for his own aesthetic, most succinctly expressed in his essay L’Image, published in Nord-Sud in March 1918. In it he defined the poetic image as the product of the “coming together” of two or more “distant realities.” Reverdy had observed the “rhyming” shapes in Gris’s work: the circle of a goblet seen from above picking up the sounding hole of a guitar, for instance—and strove to achieve similar effects in his poetry. But Reverdy’s own confrontations did, as he suggested, bring together unexpected images, as when he talks of his own head being a lighted lamp. And it was the unlikeliness of his juxtapositions that made him an important figure for the Surrealists.

Gris by contrast stressed family likeliness and affinities of things. He remained bound to objects even though they became increasingly the products of his own imagination. But if Gris accepted the validity of visual experience, while Reverdy reveled in it and yet questioned and looked beyond it, they both became increasingly obsessed by abstracting and purifying the means by which they rendered their respective visions; and there is an underlying humility common to the art of both. But the art of the two men has a shared remoteness and purity as well.

It was in Gris’s writings of the 1920s that the distinction between the “analytic” and “synthetic” method of approach was truly hammered out, most notably in a lecture entitled Sur les possibilités de la peinture, which he delivered at the Société des études philosophiques et scientifiques in the Sorbonne in April 1924. Ironically the lecture gained some of the publicity and prominence his art had hitherto failed to achieve. Within the context of Cubism, and put in its simplest form, an analytic approach involved working from representation toward highly abstract effects, whereas a synthetic approach meant working from abstraction toward a new kind of figuration or representation of objects. Gris’s early Cubism had been in a sense more rigorously analytical than that of Picasso and Braque in that they were working conceptually and from memory and their images of objects are generalized, whereas Gris’s still life objects continue to belong to the real world and are subsequently dismembered, dissected, and put together in what might be described as greater Cubist plenitude.

But already there were conceptual undercurrents in his art, and premonitions of what he would later call a synthetic procedure in that his compositions are almost from the start dictated by abstract geometric substructures: squares, golden sections, and the diagonals which bisect them, and so on. By 1913 he was making preparatory drawings using rulers, templates, calipers, and repeated geometric modules. These have been referred to as scientific, although in fact the calculations are sometimes random and arbitrary and conform to no consistent perspectival principles. On his deathbed Gris asked Kahnweiler and his wife, Josette, to destroy them. Earlier on Gris had gloried in his use of what he saw as verifiable compositional principles; now he was afraid of posterity viewing him as a cold and calculating artist. The loss of these drawings is great because one or two have survived and are truly beautiful.

In 1913-1914 when Gris was making extensive use of papier collé, the manipulation of “ready made” compositional elements, even when they had been specifically tailored to the painting, must have sharpened his sense of achieving abstract compositional substructures onto which his imagery could be affixed. By 1915 he was able to write to Kahnweiler: “My paintings are no longer those inventories which depress me so”; and the objects in his paintings had certainly become less literal. Six years later Gris was able to claim that he could produce to order a composition to suit any given size or format.

In a sense he had moved from an initial Neo-Aristotelian position, concerned with the classification of objects and types of perception, to a Neoplatonic belief in the perfectibility of form, a belief suggested in his writings, which have all the lucidity of his paintings.* They make it clear that he had come to see painting as being made up of two interacting but completely independent elements. The first of them was “architecture,” by which he meant the abstract composition or substructure of a painting and which he conceived as flat colored shapes. This colored architecture was the means or the vehicle of his art. The end on the other hand was the representational aspect of a canvas or its subject; this was sometimes suggested by the flat colored architecture itself or could on other occasions be imposed onto it. There is no doubt about which of the two aspects of Gris’s painting now took primacy, not only in the sequence and construction of a painting but for its own sake. “It is not picture X which manages to correspond with my subject,” he writes, “but subject X which manages to correspond with my picture.”

Kahnweiler saw Gris as working in a synthetic mode by 1916; in other words he felt that Gris’s paintings now began as total abstractions and ended up with legible, representational subjects. Christopher Green, who has selected the current exhibition and whose seven introductory essays make up a new and invaluable book on Gris, argues for a slightly later date. He suggests that it was toward the end of 1917, when Gris’s collaboration with Reverdy was at its closest, that by the artist’s own definition he achieved a truly synthetic procedure. Green believes that while Gris had previously used rhymed objects in his work not only was Gris now marrying figurative subjects onto abstract pictorial substructure, he was also “rhyming” some of these abstract shapes before qualifying them as objects.

Gris was later to confuse the issue because, like virtually every other painter, he was convinced that his most recent painting marked an advance on what had gone before, and as the word “synthetic” acquired talismanlike connotations in his mind he kept moving the goal posts, allowing only his most recent work through them. In any case, by 1921 he had made his position clear when he made his most famous pronouncement:

Cézanne turns a bottle into a cylinder…. I make a bottle, a particular bottle out of a cylinder. Cézanne works towards architecture, I tend away from it. For example I make a composition with a white and a black and make adjustments when the white has become a sheet of paper and the black a shadow.

Gris then qualifies the statement by a revealing aside: “What I mean is that I adjust the white so that it becomes paper and the black so that it becomes a shadow.” The countless “adjustments” visible on close scrutiny in almost all of his paintings, from the very first to the very last, demonstrate that the instinctive balancing of forms and the modifying of their contours played as great a role in his picture making as did his pictorial theory.

Green’s view that in 1917 Gris moved into a new phase was reinforced by the installation at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, which broke the two sections of the exhibition at this point. And as one moved into the upstairs galleries one did feel very strongly that a search for systems had been replaced by a sense of methods found and then disguised. The work of 1918 looks more architectural and in a sense more impersonal. The imagery remains the same; still life continues to reign supreme although the ratio of figure pieces to still life increases and there are a few somewhat awkward attempts at multi-figure compositions. From a technical point of view the earlier pleating or overlapping of spatial effects is replaced by a feeling almost of bas-relief. And the incisive juxtaposition of lights and darks emphasizes the fact that Gris was not so much a draftsman in his painting as a supreme manipulator of the painted edge. Gris’s work retains its Spanish flavor but one also now gets the impression that he was perhaps unconsciously trying to integrate his work into a French tradition.

In 1916 and 1918 respectively he had produced his reinterpretations of works by Corot and Cézanne. Chardin was also much on his mind. Gris’s great pictorial loves, Kahnweiler tells us, were almost all French and include Fouquet, Boucher, and Ingres; the inclusion of Boucher is revealing. Some of Gris’s work of the 1920s seeks to charm and in this it is not always successful. When he abandons his more traditional Spanish palette and moves into paler, softer hues, his color sense becomes at times uncertain, and some of the more decorative, curvilinear pictures look either slack or selfconscious. In 1920 Gris suffered his first major illness, and although there were subsequently protracted periods of good health and good spirits his physique had been undermined. From time to time the late work—and this is particularly true of the years 1922–1923—shows signs of fatigue.

Throughout his career Gris’s work is for the most part curiously unaccentuated so that when we think of him we tend to get a composite picture of his works in our mind, increasingly so as his career moves to a close. The late horizontal window pictures executed at Bandol do however mark a high point and are infused by a new and totally unforced poetry and lyricism. The very late still lifes achieve something of what Braque used subsequently to refer to as “le climat,” and which he described as “arriving at a temperature which renders things malleable.” The objects in the still lifes of 1925 and 1926 are self-contained, dreamlike, and remote. Simultaneously they seem to buckle and bend, locking behind into a pictorial substructure which is, once again, both rigorous and deliquescent.

Gertrude Stein in what was in effect her obituary of Gris was at her best when she wrote, “Four years partly illness much perfection and rejoining beauty and perfection and then at the end there was a definite creation of something…This is what is to be measured. He made something that is to be measured. And that is that something.” Yes, it is. To the end of his life Gris remained an isolated and in some respects a misunderstood and even somewhat tragic figure. He lacked self-confidence, yearned for it, and never achieved it. But he had extraordinary self-knowledge and maybe this ultimately stood him in better stead. In 1915 he wrote to Kahnweiler:

I can’t find room in my pictures for that more sensitive and sensuous side which I feel should always be there…. Oh how I wish I could convey the ease and the charm of the unfinished. Well, it can’t be helped. One must after all paint as one is oneself. My mind is too precise to muddy a blue or twist a straight line.

  1. *

    The Collected Writings of Juan Gris form an appendix to Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s Juan Gris: His Life and Work, translated by Douglas Cooper (London: Lund Humphries, 1947).