The Spanish painter Juan Gris (1887-1927) is one of the major cubist painters. His work is distinguished by its lucidity and austerity.
Juan Gris, whose real name was José Victoriano Gonzalez, was born in Madrid on March 23, 1887. He studied engineering at Madrid's School of Arts and Sciences. He also took painting lessons with the minor academic artist José Maria Carbonero and sold humorous drawings to local newspapers.
Gris arrived in Paris in 1906 and remained in France the rest of his life. He had skipped military service, so he could not return to Spain. He settled in the Bateau Lavoir, a tenement that housed many painters, critics, and poets, and there he met Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, and Maurice Raynal. Gris produced his first cubist paintings in 1911-1912; they were in the analytical cubist vein of Braque and Picasso but characterized by a metalliclike sheen, as in the Guitar and Flowers (1912) and the Portrait of Picasso (1912), in which Picasso's Napoleonic attitude is cleverly caught. The year 1913 marks the beginning of Gris's synthetic cubism, a cubist approach in which the object was no longer faceted into smaller parts but was recombined with other objects or parts of objects to form a new esthetic totality.
Gris and his wife spent the summer of 1913 with Picasso at Ceret, and that year Gris began to use collage consistently in his work. Gris's early collages are frequently richer in detail and bolder in color than contemporary collages of Picasso and Braque, as in the Guitar, Glasses, and Bottle (1914).
In 1914 Gris spent time with Henri Matisse at Collioure. Gris returned to Paris in 1915, and he suffered bleak poverty during World War I. In late 1916 his paintings became more stately and architectonic, and forms became larger and flatter as multiple viewpoints were to an extent abandoned, as in the Violin (1916). Gris referred to these paintings as "flat, colored architecture." In 1917 he executed his only sculpture, a painted plaster Harlequin, which was close to what Jacques Lipchitz was doing at the time.
Between 1917 and 1920 Gris introduced a new complexity in his art. He set up interplays between objects and their shadows and reintroduced complicated planar intersections and sumptuous colors and textures, as in the Fruit Bowl on Checkered Cloth (1917). In 1920 he participated in the Salon des Indépendants at the last exhibition of the united cubist group. That year he fell ill with pleurisy and wintered at Bandol, where he discussed with the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev plans for décors for ballets. Some of these commissions were canceled through intrigues, but others, like Les Tentations de la Bergère, were executed in 1922 and 1923.
Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, who became Gris's dealer in 1920, wrote the first monograph on the painter in 1929. Kahnweiler praised the works of the artist's last period, but many subsequent critics found them empty compared to his previous output. It was as though Gris were producing parodies of himself:in single works there is an uncertain wavering between austerity and decorative complexities, as in the Two Pierrots (1922). Gris's health continued to deteriorate in his last years.
In 1924 and 1925 Gris spent much of his time writing and lecturing on his views on painting. In 1924 he delivered a paper at the Sorbonne, Les Possibilités de la peinture (On the Possibilities of Painting), which was later translated and widely published. He died in Paris on May 11, 1927.
One of Gris's most famous pronouncements was made in 1921:"I consider that the architectural element is mathematics, the abstract side; I want to humanize it. Cézanne turns a bottle into a cylinder, but I begin with a cylinder and create an individual out of a special type:I make a bottle—a particular bottle—out of a cylinder." Recent investigations have shown that precise measurements, some incorporating a golden mean, were used in a few of Gris's paintings.
An intimate view of Gris is in Letters of Juan Gris, 1913-1927, collected by Daniel Henry Kahnweiler and translated and edited by Douglas Cooper (1956). The best study of Gris is Kahnweiler's Juan Gris: His Life and Work, translated by Cooper (1947; rev. ed. 1969), which is a moving tribute by the artist's loyal friend and dealer and a penetrating analysis of Gris's character and work. The book also includes most of Gris's published writings in English translation. James Thrall Soby, Juan Gris (1958), is a useful guide to the artist's development. □