Juan Gris', Le livre: At the Centre of Cubism
'My canvases are beginning to have a unity they previously lacked', Juan Gris wrote to his art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler in March 1915. 'They are no longer those inventories of objects that used to discourage me so much' (letter of 26 March 1915, reprinted in translation in D. Cooper, Letters of Juan Gris, 1913-1927, London, 1956, letter 31). Painted in Paris at the very end of 1914 and/or the start of 1915, his Cubist picture Le livre marks the start of this change of direction towards a way of working, in each painting, from an abstract compositional armature towards its subject matter, rather than the other way round. This was a development that was consonant with the shift of emphasis in modernism in the second decade of the twentieth century from representation to abstraction and to an assertion of the autonomy of the painting as object; artists across Europe such as Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, Robert and Sonia Delaunay were then exploring such concerns. For Gris, however, and for Cubism in general, painting remained, crucially, an art of representation, and it was his search for the balance between reflecting upon this and acknowledging the autonomy of a picture that placed his art at the centre of the modernist discourse of that decade, and gives his painting such exhilarating complexity and fascination. The change of direction was to take several years, and would not be completed until about 1919, but Le livre is the painting which made the break with Gris' previous way of working, and opened his pictorial thinking to the future. It is thus a key transitional work: replete, at once, with hints at the work to come and with recapitulations of that of the previous year, and indeed of the two years before that as well; as such, a remarkable and rare moment in the history of his Cubism, and by extension of modernism itself. This essay will explore the several dimensions of both prospective and retrospective visions.
Juan Gris had come to Cubism late, in comparison with others within the movement. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque had been embarked since late 1908 on that shared adventure of elaborating, first 'analytic', and then 'synthetic', Cubism in a six-year partnership of almost daily contact and discussion of each other's latest pictures, a partnership that Braque later described as being 'like two climbers roped together on a mountain' (Picasso more mordantly and pithily recalled that 'Braque was my wife)--and that was ended by the outbreak of war in August 1914. Somewhat later than this adventure of 'gallery' Cubism (both artists belonged to the stable of the innovative new dealer Kahnweiler), 'salon' Cubism was launched in Paris in April 1911, when Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes and Henri Le Fauconnier had grouped together their epic paintings of scenes of modern life in room 41 at the Salon des Indépendants, to much critical derision and some acclaim. From that moment, the Cubist movement, complex and thus divided as it was, dominated the pan-European network of the artistic avant-garde. Gris himself had been in Paris since 1906, when he arrived from Madrid, met his compatriot Picasso (already a name to note) and installed himself in the same 'Bateau-Lavoir' studio building in Montmartre. But the newcomer continued the work of magazine caricature that he had begun in the Spanish capital, producing between 1907 and the First World War over 450 drawings for satirical and humorous magazines such as L'assiette au beurre, Le cri de Paris and Le Charivari (R. Bachollet, Juan Gris: dessinateur de presse de Madrid à Montmartre: catalogue raisonné 1904-1912, Paris, 2003).
It was on Picasso's example that Gris took up painting in 1910. With hindsight we can see, in the bravura use of line and flat colour in his illustrations to capture the chic mondaines of Paris who were his chief satirical targets, or the folksy geometries of Montmartre streets, hints of the qualities he would display in some of his first canvases. By the time he made his public début as a fully-fledged Cubist at the Salon des Indépendants in March 1912, exhibiting three paintings, including Hommage à Pablo Picasso, he had both made strides and begun to exploit more deliberately the lessons he had learned as an illustrator. The Hommage was a substantial painting, an impressively resolved exercise in a style that was indebted to the innovations of gallery Cubism (its most obvious point of reference being, as Christopher Green notes, Picasso's Portrait de Vollard (C. Green Juan Gris, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1992, pp. 17-18)) and to their codification by Metzinger in Le goûter. Gris' painting shows, too, the qualities of graphic flair and visual economy characteristic of his caricatures, elegantly and succinctly condensing the features of its subject into the crisp lines of a grid derived from the recent paintings of Picasso and Braque. Yet it could be said that those qualities had also set limits on its success, in that the fragmentation of Picasso's features, especially, took his portrait too far from legibility to capture that likeness which the genre requires, and came close to a stylisation in which the demands of the grid overpowered all other considerations.
Perhaps Gris was aware of such shortcomings, for his next step was to bring the lessons he was learning from the Cubism of his friends into yet closer relation to the skills he had learned as a caricaturist, combining the 'low' art practice of the latter and the 'high' practice of painting to great effect (and initiating what was to be a complex and witty conversation between them that ran through much of his work of the next three years). In October 1912 he showed thirteen works in the 'Salon de la Section d'or' ('Salon of the Golden Section'), the biggest exhibition of Cubist paintings to that date. Among them was L'Homme au café, of mid-1912, which made of the gallery Cubist grid the organising principle for analysis itself, and at the same time put his skills as a caricaturist at the centre of the painting. Unencumbered by the need for a likeness (it was not a portrait), his juxtaposition of profiles, features and details sets the figure wittily into a busy motion that captures most effectively the image of a café-terrace dandy. Yet the complicated jigsaw of its composition is anchored by a severe geometry ordered, as William Camfield proposed, according to the proportions of that age-old ratio of the Golden Section whose hidden geometries were (as the title of the exhibition indicates) preoccupying many painters in the Cubist movement (W.A. Camfield, 'Juan Gris and the Golden Section', in Art Bulletin, 47, March 1965, pp. 128-34). This is the territory of Metzinger's Le goûter, but the wit and acuity of Gris' articulation of this subject show up the bombast of the former's. In the year since Le goûter Metzinger too had moved on, and recent paintings such as the Danseuse au café are close to Gris' picture in their linear scaffolding and complicated facetted features. Yet the comparison is telling: the Danseuse lacks Gris' deftness of characterisation that captures a personality in the profile of an eyebrow, and where Metzinger vacillates between the sensuous charms of his fashionable subject and the severer ones of intellect, Gris contains the humour of his dandy within a compositional armature that insists on the painting's status as a picture above all else.
It is this clarity of purpose that enabled Gris to introduce into his pictures the complex contrasts of representational conventions that were to be a key feature of his subsequent painting, as well as to deploy with particular wit the 'low' and non-art materials with which Picasso too was then playing in works such as Nature morte au cannage de chaise of the spring of 1912. This little work--the first collage in the history of art--employs pasted papers, a rope frame and a scrap of industrially-printed imitation-cane oilcloth to conjure a puzzle in which the representational status of each element is uncertain: Picasso leaves open, for example, whether the patterned fragment stands for a table-cloth, or the table surface itself, or a cane chair. Gris followed him in this interrogation of illusionism, but in his own way. Le lavabo, painted within weeks of Picasso's pioneering collage (and now, alas, lost), juxtaposed a shower-curtain rendered with orthodox legibility against the diagrammatic grid of a bathroom still-life that it was swept back to reveal--and included a fragment of real mirror that not only stood for itself, the necessary shaving-mirror, but also must thus have reflected the face of every viewer who stood before it. This was an innovation beyond Picasso's, an incorporation of the real world that also implied the involvement of the viewer in the completion of the picture; it anticipates, moreover, the further challenge to artistic authority that would be presented by Marcel Duchamp's Readymades.
Le lavabo was Gris' first sortie into the addition of extraneous elements to his canvas. Indebted though it was to the example of Picasso, it was a conceit that he made fully his own over the next eighteen months, during which time he made increasing use, in particular, of pre-printed papers of all kinds, sticking them to the canvas and drawing or painting on them with a graphic and conceptual inventiveness that were unique. Once again, Gris was following in the footsteps of his senior partners in gallery Cubism, Picasso and Braque, in this experimentation with 'papier-collé'. It was the latter who had pioneered the inclusion of industrially-printed wallpaper fragments, in his Compotier et verre of September 1912. Picasso was quick to follow, preferring the semiotic and semantic, punning possibilities of newspaper fragments to Braque's spatial deployment of imitation-woodgrain patterning, bringing the subject-matter of their juxtaposed texts into the meaning of the work, often salaciously--as in Au Bon Marché of early 1913, whose lingerie label is accompanied by a suggestively-positioned newspaper clipping declaring 'trou ici' ('hole here'). Gris' use of the new medium was quite distinct from both: at once more focused on the formal problematic of pictorial representation, sharply questioning of the status of the artist in the use of such ready-made imagery, and open to its rich decorative potential. Thus his Violon et gravure accrochée of April 1913 incorporated an eighteenth-century print in a complex interleaving of different ways of representing a bottle, a glass and the eponymous instrument (an example of that 'inventory of objects' that he decried in the 1915 letter quoted earlier)--and Gris sent this work to Kahnweiler with a note that the purchaser should feel free to replace this engraving with any other of his or her preference. (Alarmed at the subversiveness of this proposal, which took the conceit of Le lavabo's mirror a stage further, the dealer took pains to persuade him of its unwisdom (D. Cooper, op. cit., 1956, letter 3, no. 2)). Thus too, Gris' witty riposte to Picasso's Nature morte au cannage de chaise in his Guitare sur une chaise of September 1913, an 'in-joke' between Cubists that uses papier-collé, but not where expected: confounding our (and, presumably, Picasso's) assumption that, like his own collage, Gris' work uses a fragment of pre-printed cane pattern to suggest the chair's seat, this little triangular shape is in fact painted, a minutely-rendered piece of virtuoso trompe-l'oeil brushwork; and the pasted paper element is, instead, the triangle of imitation-woodgrain wallpaper (imitating Braque in his turn?) to the right of this.
Like Braque and Picasso (and, incidentally, unlike any of the salon Cubists), Gris was captivated by the possibilities that papier-collé offered for the exploration of illusionism, and of the ways in which signs of all kinds could be juxtaposed to interrogate that illusionism, to foreground its artifice; consequently, also like his fellow gallery Cubists, he devoted an increasing proportion of his output to experimenting with the new medium. Picasso virtually laid aside his brushes for several months from the start of 1913 to play with pasted papers; for his part, Gris made use of a wider range of paper types and patterns, but almost always in combination with an equally wide range of painted marks and surfaces. In his case, the result was a body of work that, from mid-1913 through to the end of 1914, runs the gamut of printed images and oil painting techniques, often to the most sumptuous of decorative effects. An example is Les fleurs, a 1914 oil, pencil and papier-collé work that combines fragments of newspaper and ready-made illustrations of rose blossoms with a painstakingly trompe-l'oeil passage of marbling, all overdrawn with pencil renditions of teacups, a wine glass and a bottle, and accompanied by a 'cut-out' silhouette of a pipe that, on close inspection, proves to be painted instead. All of these elements are orchestrated through a colour-scheme of rich, complementary blues, purples, oranges and yellows into a scintillating harmony.
The art historian Thomas Crow once analysed the ways in which artists of the avant-garde, from the time of Seurat on, embraced the subject-matter, the media and the devices of commercial popular culture as a means both of escaping the empty virtuosities and clichéd formulae of the painting practices of their times, and of reinvigorating their craft by borrowing the often iconoclastic vigour of those 'low' cultural techniques. But, he added, this borrowing was invariably followed by a retreat from that vigour, the recuperation of those devices for 'high' art (T. Crow, 'Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts', in F. Frascina, ed., Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, London, 1985, pp. 233-66). His analysis is applicable to the Cubism of Picasso, Braque and Gris, in that all of them followed their exploration of pasted papers with the transcription of their effects into oil paint. None did this more comprehensively, nor more irrevocably, than Gris, and it was Le livre that began this recuperation: after a year of immersion in the potential of papier-collé, he turned in this work back to an exclusive use of oil paint--and he never returned to the techniques of cut-and-paste again. Yet this recuperation was anything but a retreat; rather, it opened a period of Gris' work that amounts to a sustained and bravura display of the rich representative potential of oil paint and of its virtuoso handling, offering an excuse, in the transcription of the arsenal of pasted-paper effects that he had explored over the previous eighteen months, for putting painterly illusionism through its paces. The result in this painting was, one might say, a pictorial Art of Fugue in a Cubist key, at once sumptuously decorative and conceptually witty. To take some instances of these qualities: Le livre transcribes several of Gris' favourite pasted-paper materials and patterns into the medium of oils: the striped wallpaper and the woodgraining that appear in several of his works of the previous months, for example, are here rendered in paint, the woodgrain lusciously and with an ironic obviousness, a stylisation of mimesis that he knows could never fool the eye, the wallpaper incised with scratched striations that emphasise its unmistakably painted character. Moreover, as if such rhetorical play with representation were not enough, Gris subverts his own illusionism by turning the 'wooden' surfaces an unlikely shade of green--unlikely, that is, as wood, but a colour that picks up the green of the wine bottle standing on it, as if to suggest that light shining through the bottle has suffused the table-top with its colouration. The bottle itself, and the wine glass to its right, together present a vignette, within the picture as a whole, that contains the gamut of its representational devices: the juxtaposition of rounded volumes with black shading that flattens these; the transition from the cylinder of the lower bottle, emphasised by the label with its hint of fine Burgundy ('Clos de Vougeot'?), to the sharp-shouldered flatness of its upper third (and from Burgundy to Bordeaux in bottle-shape); the combination of different views of both bottle and glass, in a succinct reprise of Cubism's keynote conceit; the 'unfurling' of the neck of the bottle to its left in a passage whose 'glazing' technique allows the table surface to be seen through its glass transparency.
Yet if Le livre thus recapitulates and re-works the qualities and devices of his pasted-paper pictures, delighting in the additional layer of illusionism that their rendition in oil paint affords, it also introduces another note, in the emphasis Gris gives to the compositional structure of this picture. In his earliest Cubist paintings of 1912 that structure was provided by a grid that dominated the composition, sometimes overpowering the subject matter; by contrast, in the papiers-collés that followed, it was subordinated to the play of signs and surfaces. From Le livre on, however, and for a period of approximately three years, Gris brought these elements into balance, and then held them there, the play with illusionism in some works holding its own against, in others underpinned by, an armature whose origins, although as yet understated, lay in the implicit geometries of the canvas rectangle itself. By the spring of 1918, it seems, he had developed a way of working in which the illusionism was generated from these geometries (C. Green, 'Synthesis and the "synthetic process" in the paintings of Juan Gris 1915-19', in Art History, 5, no. 1, March 1982, p. 101); a procedure that he affirmed three years later: 'I try to make concrete that which is abstract', he declared in 1921; 'Mine is an art of synthesis, a deductive art' (L'Esprit nouveau, 5, February 1921, p. 534). As yet however, in early 1915, this destination was only hinted at, in Le livre: if the relation of the still-life elements to the framing rectangle are evident--as, for instance, in the anchoring of the right edge of the bottle to the lower right corner, or its top to the apex of a triangle that meets at the picture's top edge, these geometries are suggested with a lightness of touch that matches the soft shading that separates its components. Perhaps this was only half-way towards the artist's eventual destination; but it might be thought that it is precisely this balance between representation and abstraction, between Gris' past and future work in this turn-of-the-year moment, that makes Le livre such an exquisite picture.