Cubism and Twentieth-Century Art

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

PART TWO THE EXPANSION OF CUBISM IN PARIS

IV JUAN GRIS

About 1910, a number of young artists working in Paris begin to examine closely the astonishing pictorial discoveries that had just been made. Of these artists, two emerged quickly as masters who could create and sustain a personal Cubist world whose quality might at times even rival the best of Picasso and Braque. They were another Spaniard and another Frenchman, Juan Gris ( 1887- 1927) and Fernand Léger ( 1881- 1955); and, in a sense, their art complemented their compatriots'. Next to Picasso's quixotic adventures in the worlds of comedy and tragedy, fantasy and reality, Juan Gris disclosed still another aspect of the Spanish character -- an intense and ascetic mysticism. Next to Braque's French hedonism and elegance, Fernand Léger offered the rigorous and heroic monumentality of the classical French tradition as exemplified in Poussin, David, and Seurat.

José Victoriano Gonzalez was born and raised in Madrid, a city artistically provincial by comparison with the Barcelona that nurtured Gaudí, Picasso, Miró, and Dalí. He decided to move to Paris and, shortly before leaving Spain, changed his name to Juan Gris. Arriving in the artistic capital of Europe in 1906, he moved into the bateau-lavoir, the famous "floating laundry" of Montmartre where Picasso and other avant-garde painters and poets lived. By 1908 he had made the acquaintance of Kahnweiler, who was to be his biographer. It was not until 1910, however, that he begin to turn from his work as a graphic artist for Parisian newspapers to painting.

His initial exploration of Cubism was made with the same rapidity and brilliance that characterized the 70 unfolding of so many artistic careers around 1910. Already in a still life of 1911, the essentials of Gris's style are defined. In comparison with Braque's and Picasso's contemporary Analytic Cubist work, Gris's canvas is more severe and more lucid. Four objects -- a bottle, a humidor, a wineglass, and a bowl -- are aligned in a grid of diagonals, verticals, and horizontals, and take their places with in immobility that belies the weightless, glistening planes of which they are composed. The measured solemnity of the structure is matched by the intense and mysterious light that illumines the objects with a whiteness as absolute as the blackness of the shadows where no light falls.

In her biography of Picasso, Gertrude Stein wrote that "the seduction of flowers and of landscapes, of still lifes was inevitably more seductive to Frenchmen thin to Spaniards; Juan Gris always made still lifes but to him a still life was not a seduction it was a religion. . . ." With these words, she might have been describing this Still Life of 1911, whose religious quality recalls the seventeenth-century Spanish still lifes of such masters as Francisco de Zurbarán, with whom Gris's art has often been linked. In one 68 of Zurbarán's still lifes the analogy becomes clear. As in the Gris, the objects are arranged with a simple

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