Roundly curved in a figure-8, its body so suggestively feminine in silhouette, there is nothing inherently cubist in the shape of a guitar. Its sound, moreover, plucked or strummed, is generally soft, as may accompany the tender sentiments of a serenade or the melancholy heartache of a love song. The guitar is also the refined classical instrument of the Spanish composers Sor, Llobet and Tarrega, and it is in a guitar transcription one is likely to hear first the evocative tonal landscapes of Albéniz's Ibéria. This most Spanish of musical instruments, in more primitive guise, gives voice to the stridently virile cante jondo--the piercing "deep song"--in flamenco performance. It was surely inevitable that in the hands of fellow Spaniards Gris and Picasso that la guitarra española would become the most engagingly lyrical of the all the objects they brought to the cubist table, where they adroitly exploited the roundness of the guitar's shape as a foil to the typically angular syntax of cubist form. Gris' Guitare sur une table becomes, however, more than merely a pretext for a still-life--the artist has here transfigured this instrument into the pictorial equivalent of a fully composed concerto for the guitar, symphonically orchestrated, in every way the work of a virtuoso artist at the height of his powers.
True to synthetic cubist practice, manifest here is Gris' method of composing with tilted and angled translucent color planes, stacked one atop another like panes and shards of tinted glass, glowing with both brilliant and deeply resonant chroma. "The only technique," Gris declared, "is a sort of flat, colored architecture" (quoted in D.-H. Kahnweiler, Juan Gris: His Life and Work, London, 1969, p. 197). In an otherwise darkened room, a shaft of light as if streaming through an opened door has struck the face of the guitar, also illuminating two sheets of staved music paper and a section of molding on the wall behind. Gris has dovetailed these various elements into a grandly conceived but entirely lucid composition--the poet-critic Apollinaire dubbed him "the demon of logic" (L.C. Breunig, ed., Apollinaire on Art, New York, 1972, p. 254). Here is a recent development in the artist's painting, which commenced in his canvases during the spring 1915 and lasted about a year thereafter: Gris has contrasted imitation textures and solid color planes with passages of pointillist dots, stippled in regular rows, functioning by way of contrast with adjacent planar elements as if to aerate the geometry and lighten the density of his conception, while sensuously animating the overall effect of the composition.
Gris had entered the second, synthetic phase of Cubism by the time he was painting in Céret during the summer and fall of 1913 (Cooper, no. 57; fig. 1). This new trend in cubist practice had stemmed directly from the invention and the subsequent use by Braque and Picasso of papiers collés--cut and pasted papers--during the late summer and fall of 1912. Gris soon followed suit, and made his contribution to the further development of this idea in the sustained use of paper collage and oil as co-equal techniques on canvas, in his superb series of collage paintings executed in 1914 (Cooper, no. 117, fig. 2), which James Thrall Soby called "some of the finest works of his career...assuredly among the most perfect works of our time" (Juan Gris, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1958, p. 35). The practice of papiers collés suggested to Gris new ways of composing his pictures, enabling him to freely mix various objects within subtly shifting yet mainly legible spatial constructs. The result suggested the illusion of depth and low relief while adhering to the now cardinal rule of modernism, which decreed that however elaborately one might compose a picture, the innate flatness of the canvas must be respected, upheld, and so far as possible, be shown to advantage.
The First World War began in August 1914, while Gris was still in the middle of his production of hybrid papier collé-oil paintings. By the end of the year, however, Gris--and Picasso, too--had grown tired of making collages. It was by then apparent that the bloody battles on the Western Front would not end in victory for France and its allies anytime soon, as many had, at first, liked to believe. Gris had been following the terrible news of the day in Le Figaro, Le Matin and Le Journal, dailies whose headlines only the year before had provided the ephemera he cleverly extracted for his collage paintings. In a letter to Maurice Raynal dated 20 December, however, Gris admitted, "My present life is flat, undecided and sterile and I don't even like reading the newspapers because I am so depressed and terrified by what is happening" (quoted in Letters, XXV). The charm and fun of the artists' collage games seemed inappropriate, even frivolous, while there was such a murderously all-consuming war going on within earshot of Paris.
These were indeed trying times. There were wartime shortages of all kinds; during the especially cold winter of 1914-1915 coal for heating was prohibitively expensive and difficult to obtain. Paris was subject to bombardment by distant long-range German guns, and nighttime Zeppelin raids over the city terrified its inhabitants. Many of Gris' friends and colleagues, such as Braque, Léger and the poet Apollinaire, were serving on the front lines in harm's way. Gris became distraught when he learned that Braque had suffered a grievous head wound at Carency in May 1915; Picasso's partner in Cubism was temporarily blinded, and subsequently had to undergo painful trepanning to relieve the stress on his brain.
Gris, on the home front of the avant-garde, faced his own share of personal difficulties. The few artists who were still at work in Paris included those who were unfit to serve, had been invalidated out as recovering casualties or otherwise released from duty. Others, such as Gris, Picasso and Severini, were nationals of allied or neutral nations, perhaps stranded in Paris by the hostilities, and were not obliged to serve in the French military. The general public would scoff at any young man going about his business in Paris who was not in uniform. It was moreover the belief among many Parisians that avant-garde painting like Cubism and Futurism was not French at all, but was a foreign intrusion, something like a fifth column conspiracy in their midst. Many were convinced that Cubism was German in origin, and lending credibility to this idea was the fact that the dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who represented Picasso, Braque and Gris, and showed Cubism in his gallery, had been forced as a German national to leave France at the declaration of war. He was loath, however, to take up arms against his artist friends and face them across no-man's land from the opposing German lines. Becoming an outcast in his own country as well, Kahnweiler went into exile, taking up residence in Bern.
Prior to the war Kahnweiler had placed Gris under contract, paying him a monthly stipend in exchange for his work. It was rumored in the early months of the war that they were still communicating with each other, which was true, and consequently some decided Gris must be a foreign agent or spy. Gris wrote Kahnweiler on 19 April 1915, "You who are absent cannot imagine how every foreigner here is suspect, no matter what his nationality is... They say appalling things in the canteens of Montmartre and make terrible accusations against myself and against anyone who has had dealings with you. So I have not been able to go and eat in them... life at this moment is not much fun and although I used to be very fond of Paris I would gladly leave it now" (Letters, XXXII). Gris unfortunately had nowhere else to go. As a young man he had evaded his compulsory military service in Spain, and did not pay the alternative exemption tax. He would have been severely penalized if he attempted to return to his family home in Madrid.
Picasso could draw on substantial savings from pre-war sales, but Gris found himself in deeply straitened circumstances. He struggled to make enough money on which he and his wife could survive. Kahnweiler was forced to temporarily cut off the monthly payments stipulated in their pre-war contract. There was briefly the possibility of a promising deal with Gertrude Stein and the American dealer Joseph Brummer, who began to collect Gris' work in 1914 and could have opened a valuable American outlet for the artist's paintings. This arrangement came to naught, however, when Stein found out that Kahnweiler had secretly resumed sending small amounts of money to Gris via the artist's parents in Madrid.
Léonce Rosenberg, an erstwhile antiquities dealer, was then seeking to fill the vacuum left by Kahnweiler's departure, and made overtures to Gris in early 1915 to buy his paintings. Gris scrupulously adhered to obligations he felt were still in effect under his arrangement with Kahnweiler and conscientiously declined. It was not until the spring of that year that Gris and Kahnweiler mutually consented to suspend the terms of their agreement, leaving Gris free to sell pictures to Rosenberg. Now working with a French dealer, the source of Gris' income was above board and beyond reproach, although these resources, at a time when the Paris art market was virtually dead, were only barely adequate for his needs.
Rosenberg's support was nonetheless an important factor that encouraged Gris to resume painting in early 1915. He completed the somber but richly composed still-life Livre, pipe et verres in March (Cooper, no. 128; fig. 3). "I think I have really made progress recently," Gris wrote to Kahnweiler on the 6th of that month, "and that my pictures begin to have a unity which they have lacked unto now. They are no longer those inventories of objects which used to depress me so much. But I still have to make an enormous effort to achieve what I have in mind. For I realize that although my ideas are well enough developed, my means of expressing them plastically are not. In short, I have not got an aesthetic, and this I can only acquire through experience" (Letters, XXXI).
Appearances ostensibly bear out the artist's self-critique. In July 1915 Gris painted Verre et carte à jouer (Cooper, no. 143, fig. 4), in which the proliferation of forms, together with a central patch of sand-infused pigment, upstage the presence of a ghostly playing card. In the same month he reasserted the role of objects, going so far to introduce the rare appearance of living, organic elements--in one canvas, a potted geranium plant (Cooper, no. 144; fig. 5). With the advantage of hindsight, however, Christopher Green put a positive spin on the matter of Gris' apparent lack of a consistent aesthetic: "Perhaps the most remarkable demonstration of how the open-endedness of Gris's working practice, its endless generation and withdrawal of possibilities carried through in the proliferation of his Cubisms, is the sequence of changes in his work over the fifteen months between June 1915 and October 1916. In that brief time, he set up a more and a less 'conceptual' Cubism as clear alternatives...generating not one, but two 'lines' of development. He then switched unaccountably into a dazzling pointilliste Cubism at the turn of 1915-1916" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1992, p. 45).
During the course of 1915 Gris had been racking up one masterly painting after another--about thirty-five in all, as Cooper recorded--with the result that 1915 ended up becoming as productive as the year 1913 had been, which included his breakthrough season in Céret. "If Gris' mood had been almost unrelentingly black in 1915, as his letters attest," James Thrall Soby has written, "his paintings through some blissful irony became more opulent than before" (Juan Gris, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1958, p. 48). He even increased his output during 1916 to a level that matched his production of 1914, before the wartime slowdown had set in, about fifty-five works in all on canvas and panel, plus many fine jewel-like gouaches.
Leaving behind the restricted tonalities of the 1914 collage paintings, Gris began working again in rich and varied colors, as he had done in the magnificent Céret paintings of 1913. "In his still lifes of 1916," Soby stated, "Gris alternated between insolence and sobriety in his use of color" (ibid., p. 57). Picasso had also turned to color, really for the first time in his Cubism, beginning with the joyous paintings completed in Avignon on the eve of the war, and in works during following year (Zervos, vol. 2*, no. 537; fig. 6). Gris had been the strongest colorist among cubist painters, and he strikingly regaled this Guitare sur une table in the luminous raiment of color harmonies already well-practiced, and now replete with stippled forms, like notes freed from a composer's score, which lend his instrument a suitably musical and celebratory air.
Picasso and Severini employed the pointillist dot even more extensively over a longer period time during the war years, a stylistic ploy which some later characterized as "rococo Cubism." This technique owes something to the precedent though not the science of the earlier Neo-Impressionist technique of Seurat and Signac. Perhaps more relevant is the contemporary influence of wartime camouflage, which some artists were assigned to devise and paint while serving in the military. Among the patterns used for warplanes are various speckle designs, to obscure their outlines and render them more difficult to detect by adversaries flying above. "When Picasso returned to Paris [from Avignon in 1914] and saw a convoy of camouflaged artillery lumber up the boulevard Raspail," John Richardson has written, "he turned to Gertrude Stein and said, 'We were the ones who did that.' For much of the war pointillism would be his camouflage" (A Life of Picasso, 1907-1917: The Painter of Modern Life, New York, 1996, p. 338).
During 1915-1916 Gris succeeded in making his painting, as he sought, "less dry and more plastic," while developing "the sensitive and sensuous" side of his art (the artist quoted in D. Cooper, The Cubist Epoch, exh. cat., The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1970, pp. 223 and 224). At a time when Picasso had begun dividing his attention between Cubism and his growing inclination toward a neo-classicist treatment of the figure, Gris' remained resolutely dedicated to Cubism, and ever committed to his principles of pictorial logic and lucidity, as well as those qualities he cited above. He exercised a strong, perhaps an even prevailing influence on other cubist painters, including those returning to their studios at war's end, in the so-called "crystalline" phase of Cubism during the late 'teens.
The early provenance of Gris's Guitare sur une table is thrice distinguished. From Léonce Rosenberg, who directed the avant-garde Galerie l'Effort Moderne, the painting entered the collection of Gottlieb Friedrich Reber, a German-born textile manufacturer who moved to Switzerland in 1919, settling in Lausanne. By 1910, at the age of thirty, he famously possessed twenty-seven Cézannes. The art historian Carl Einstein is believed to have influenced Reber's decision during the 1920s to modernize his collection by acquiring works of the major cubists, most of which he purchased from Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg. Reber eventually owned eighty works by Juan Gris, at least seventy paintings by Picasso, as well as numerous works of Braque and Léger. Douglas Cooper, the expert curator and writer on Cubism--and friend of Picasso, Braque and Léger--met Reber in 1932, as the collector was beginning to sell paintings from his collection to cover losses on the French stock exchange. Cooper acquired the present painting in 1939, as the onset of world war further exacerbated Reber's financial situation.
Juan Gris, at Beaulieu, Touraine, in 1916. Photograph by Josette Gris. BARCODE: 28858423
(fig. 1) Juan Gris, Violon et guitare, Céret, September 1913. Sold, Christie's, New York, 3 November 2010, lot 23. BARCODE: 25017908
(fig. 2) Juan Gris, Guitare et verre, Collioure, August-October 1914. Private collection. BARCODE: 28858430
(fig. 3) Juan Gris, Livre, pipe et verres, March 1915. Sold, Christie's, New York, 6 November 2008, lot 7. BARCODE: 25016109
(fig. 4) Juan Gris, Verre et carte à jouer, July 1915. Sold, Christie's, New York, 1 November 2005, lot 26. BARCODE: PW575_1
(fig. 5) Juan Gris, Le pot de géranium, July 1915. Sold, Christie's, New York, 9 May 2007, lot 59. BARCODE: 24158381
(fig. 6) Pablo Picasso, Compotière et verre, Paris, winter 1914-1915. Columbus Museum of Art. BARCODE: 25239799FIG