Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux (The checked tablecloth) is a large-scale landmark painting by Juan Gris dating from 1915, a watershed year in which he shifted further from his earlier Analytical Cubism to the more lyrical Synthetic Cubism. The importance of this picture is reflected in the fact that it has featured in a number of significant collections since its execution, including that of one of the greatest patrons of Cubism, Dr G.F. Reber of Lausanne. Gris' move away from Analytical Cubism is demonstrated in the sheer exuberant energy of Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux, which features an explosion of objects, seemingly radiating from a point in the lower centre of the composition. There is a sense of dynamism to this composition, accentuated by its sheer size, which is at odds with the more static still life works that he often created; this was a characteristic that marked out his pictures of 1915 in particular. Indeed, it was making specific reference to Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux and another work from the same year that Gris' friend, dealer and biographer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler later wrote: 'Apparently Gris' ideal of architectural grandeur can only be realised with a static subject. But during the summer of 1915 he produced a series of pictures which are full of movement' (D.H. Kahnweiler, Juan Gris: His Life and Work, trans. D. Cooper, London, 1969, p. 126).
In fact, Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux was painted not in the Summer of 1915, as Kahnweiler suggested, but instead in March, only a few months after Gris had returned to Paris following some months in the South of France after the outbreak of the First World War. This marked a new period in Gris' work, as he himself acknowledged in a letter to Kahnweiler written on 26 March 1915, during the same month that Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux was painted: 'I think I have really made progress recently and that my pictures begin to have a unity which they have lacked till now. They are no longer those inventories of objects which used to depress me so much' (Gris, quoted in C. Green, Juan Gris, London & New Haven, 1992, p. 51). This was a shift that has been noted by a number of critics as well. Of the transition of which Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux is such a prominent example, Kahnweiler explained, 'Gris finally gave up presenting the beholder with a great variety of information (acquired by empirical observation) about the objects which he displayed. He now offered a synthesis: that is to say, he packed his knowledge into one significant form, a single emblem. True conceptual painting was born' (Kahnweiler, op. cit., 1969, p. 126). Meanwhile, James Thrall Soby wrote in the catalogue for the exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1958, in which Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux was reproduced although not included in the show itself:
'... for sheer variety his work of 1915 is outstanding. The strange, lovely fluorescence of The Checked Tablecloth is a long cry from the splintered complexity of the Still Life. And in connection with the compositional arrangement of the former picture, mention should be made of Gris' passion for triangles. Lipchitz has told the writer that Gris revered the triangle because it is "so accurate and endless a form." He added that once when he and Gris found a triangular-shaped drinking glass, the latter explained: "You see we are influencing life at last"' (J.T. Soby, Juan Gris, exh. cat., New York, 1958, pp. 50-57).
Those triangles help to banish any sense of the static from Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux: the various objects appear to emanate like a fan from the point down in the middle of the composition, at the bottom. At the same time, this anchoring point helps to give the impression of pictorial unity that increasingly characterised his pictures. The growing focus on coherence is clear in Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux in its inclusion of various objects which are shown almost in relief against the uncluttered background, heightening the sense of cohesion. Douglas Cooper himself noted the less fragmentary nature of Gris' compositions from this time, and the greater certainty in his treatment of the spaces between the objects. Thus, Gris revealed his confidence in paint handling and composition even during a period of extensive pictorial experimentation.
Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux has a vibrancy which is accentuated by the checkering of the tablecloth, which extends into various other fields within the composition. This is a parallel version of the chessboard which featured in several of Gris' works from this period. This was a significant part of the transition from Analytical Cubism: where that earlier means of representation had involved constructing the image of the subject through a scaffolding-like armature, now the grid took on a new appearance, playfully embraced in the form of this tablecloth or, elsewhere, the chessboard; it even appears in the background of Guitare sur une table in the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo in the flagstones of the floor. At the same time, it allowed Gris to introduce the formality of the gridded armature by other means.
Against this framing device, he has shown, using a deliberately extensive and versatile variety of means, a number of objects in Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux. Some, like the grapes, the wood grain or the Bass label, are shown in an almost literal manner, while others are more stylised, for instance the glasses, depicted as fragmented and almost metallic objects, or the spectral cups, saucers and guitar, which are presented in part through deceptively simple white outlines. This range of approaches to verisimilitude is given more emphasis by the life-like scale of the composition. The variety of means of representation explored in Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux cuts to the heart of the transition that was taking shape in Gris' work at this time: while some objects are painted in a manner that echoes his earlier use of collage, a technique which had drawn him away from Analytical Cubism and towards a more legible aesthetic, others hint at a new idealism.
Increasingly, Gris was seeking out an almost Neo-Platonic version of his objects, no longer trusting to observation alone, but instead to memory, experience and indeed concept - hence Kahnweiler's declaration that these works marked the beginning of his 'conceptual' phase. Where Cubism had formerly been seen by Gris, and also his fellow artists, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, as an almost objective means of recording the world, more and more he was seeking out a modern form of classicism that cut to the heart of existence. The outlines of the guitar and the cups in Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux emphasise this notion: they are idealised yet also all the more evocative for the viewer. Nonetheless, they contain shard-like facets of 'materiality', be it in the wood of the guitar or the slivers of white and shadow of the porcelain cups and the bowl.
In Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux, there is a grounded quality to the depiction of the fruit and the label of the bottle of stout. The latter in particular harks back to the recent works involving collage, such as Verres et journaux of the previous year, now in the Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts. Echoing the introduction of 'reality' of those works, the label in Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux has been meticulously painted to the point that it approaches trompe-l'oeil. Meanwhile, the Beaujolais label in the background and the newspaper in the foreground - a staple of Gris' works - reveal a deliberately painterly quality, despite evoking those earlier collage-based works. This painterly dimension is only heightened by the increasing use of Pointillist dabs of colour, which convey a sense of shading in various areas of the picture and which would, over the following year, become increasingly dominant.
Looking at the fruit, beer, wine and guitar in Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux, the viewer could be mistaken for interpreting this rich and lyrical cornucopia as a reflection of a world of plenty, of sensation, of music. Instead, Gris was painting against the backdrop of the First World War and his many deprivations. As a Spanish national, Gris was not called up for service in his adopted home, France. However, he was also unable to return to Spain, as he had neither carried out national service nor paid the necessary tax in order to be exempt from it. Before the First World War had begun, he had travelled with Josette to the South of France, staying first in Collioure and then in Céret. There, he was surrounded by a number of artists and friends, several of whom helped to support him, as his dealer, Kahnweiler, was barely able to help him - as a German national, he was unable to return to France, having left shortly before the outbreak of hostilities. Various arrangements arose to assist Gris: Henri Matisse, with whom Gris had spent a great deal of time in the South, had returned to Paris and arranged for Gertrude Stein and a New York sculptor and dealer, Michael Brenner, to give Gris a stipend. However, he was loath to go against the spirit of the contract he had made with Kahnweiler. He thus found himself between a rock and a hard place until he was released from Kahnweiler and took up a contract with Léonce Rosenberg.
It was in the context of this extended period of personal upheaval that Gris created Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux and a number of other celebrated works, many of which are filled with a similar zest for life. These include Nature morte et paysage - Place Ravignan, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pipe et journal, "Fantomas", now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, and even the moderately more austere Le petit déjeuner in the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, which nonetheless glows with an intense palette. In Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux, Gris has refracted and diffracted the various colours present, in part through his use of the grid, adding an extra dimension of movement to the entirety, lending it an electric sense of buzzing energy. There is a firework-like intensity to its surface that prefigures some of the more Pointillist works of the following year such as Journal et compotier in the Yale University Art Gallery. All this opulence strikes a perplexing note when seen against the biographical details of Gris' life at that time: despite his black mood, he was creating colourful, sensual pictures. Perhaps the fruit, beer and wine were objects to which he aspired, images of hope and plenty in a time of scarcity; they may also have reflected his own desire to escape from the conflict-torn world and into his pictures, as was reflected in his final letter to Kahnweiler from the war years:
'I must apologise to you for discussing things which, at the present grave moment, must appear to you purely silly. But I have worried so much that I am now going to shut myself off and think of nothing but my work. I don't want to hear anything more, especially as everything which is now happening seems to me both useless and devoid of good sense' (Gris, quoted in Kahnweiler, op. cit., p. 28).
However, in Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux, Gris has not entirely succeeded in blocking out the War: in the depiction of Le journal, a publication which appeared in a number of Gris' pictures during and after his period using collage elements, Gris has deliberately shown the ominous subtitle: 'Communiqués officiels'. He has thus allowed a rare, tangential glimpse of the war to enter Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux, doubtless reflecting his own concerns, not least for the friends and colleagues about whose wellbeing he was anxious, in particular Braque, who had suffered a serious head wound while serving on the Front.
Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux was first owned by Kahnweiler's successor as Gris' dealer, Léonce Rosenberg, who himself was not exempt from service and therefore had to juggle his career with his military activities (for some time, he was attached to the British forces as an interpreter for the Royal Flying Corp). It was then acquired by Dr Gottlieb Friedrich Reber, one of the most celebrated of Cubist patrons of the 1920s in particular. Reber had originally collected works by earlier artists including Paul Cézanne, but the discovery of Cubism was a revelation for him, and he assembled a formidable collection of works by the first tier of the movement, Picasso, Braque, Léger and of course Gris. He gradually filled his home, the Château de Béthusy in Lausanne, with their pictures. While his collection diminished following the Crash of 1929, which left his finances dented, and also the Second World War, he nonetheless retained an impressive number of museum-class pictures. Indeed, many of the works he held are now in public collections throughout the world, and the reputation of Cubism was assisted by loans he made to some of the most important surveys of the movement.
Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux was later owned by Professor Dr Wilhelm Löffler, a well-known expert in internal medicine who was also an important pioneer in a number of treatments. The Zurich-based Löffler was also distinguished by inclusion in Thomas Mann's correspondence: in a 1955 letter to Theodor Adorno, Mann wrote that he had been diagnosed by the doctor (T. Mann, The Letters of Thomas Mann 1889-1955, trans. & ed. R. & C. Winston, Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1975, p. 479). During the same year, he also treated King Tribhuvan of Nepal. As well as Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux, Löffler's collection featured an early Futurist masterpiece by Giacomo Balla, a 1911 painting by Wassily Kandinsky entitled Saint George as well as a work on paper, and also a formidable group of pictures by Paul Klee including his Stricken City of 1936, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.