Painted late in 1917, Violon et journal is a seminal still-life by Juan Gris. It is a mark of the quality of this picture that it has featured in several of the important exhibitions of Gris' works, including the retrospective in Paris held a year after his untimely and tragic death, and the travelling retrospective in the United States three decades later. Dating from the vintage period in Gris' all-too-short career, when he was at the height of his powers and had moved into a position leading as opposed to following the Cubist movement, Violon et journal is packed with the qualities that led his companions Picasso and Braque to turn increasingly to his example in order to escape some of the obstacles and impasses that had met their own paintings.
Gris arrived in Paris in 1906, already a devoted Francophile who had adopted the name 'Gris' instead of the original González Pérez. It was half a decade before he adopted the Cubism of his friend and mentor Picasso. They had for some time lived as near-neighbours in the Bateau Lavoir, the legendary ramshackle haunt of artists in Montmartre. There, Gris spent his earlier years as a proficient illustrator and cartoonist, belying the seriousness which is all too often attributed to him. This was a far cry from the mechanical drawing which he had initially studied in Spain, but which would provide such firm foundations both for these early pictorial adventures and later for his unique and profoundly influential strain of Cubism. This influence arguably extended far further than to the world of other artists: his friend Jacques Lipchitz remembered Gris commenting, on seeing a three-sided glass, 'You see we are influencing life at last!' (Gris, quoted in J. T. Soby, Juan Gris, exh.cat., New York, 1958, p. 57). Looking at Violon et journal, one sees precisely the type of Cubist glass to which Gris was referring.
Essentially, during his early years in Paris, Gris had long been surrounded by Cubism, by the works and the influence of Picasso and Braque, elders who were also now friends. But he came to Cubism only after years of his own investigations, and this resulted in his adopting his own style, a style fuelled with its own internal logic. His earliest Cubist works were often on paper and displayed a strange and absorbing translucence and clarity. This latter quality would remain a central aspect of his always-readable paintings. Despite the concepts and calculations that appear to have gone into the composition of Violon et journal, despite the refractions implied by the Cubist style, many of the various elements that comprise this domestic tableau are clear to see: bottle, glass, and of course the newspaper and violin of the title. At the same time, there is little sense of spontaneity-- where Picasso's pictures would sometimes change during their execution as forms suggested themselves, Gris' appear to have expressed an idea already formed, already whittled out of and deduced from the visual reality and its suggestions to him. Picasso accordingly thought of himself as more of a romantic painter than Gris; however, it was to Gris' use of calculations as well as the grisaille of later works that Picasso would increasingly turn in his own works. In his authoritative books on the life of Picasso, John Richardson has several times pointed out that the tensions between Picasso and Gris, which were mostly fostered and harboured on the side of the older artist, were the result of his anxiety and resentment at seeing the 'sorcerer's apprentice' doing so well, surpassing his master. This was best exemplified when Picasso's dealer, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, had signed Gris, taking him under contract and under his wing. Picasso felt affronted that he had not been consulted by either person, and doubtless also felt threatened by this new force on the Parisian avant garde scene.
In this picture, the calculations and intricacy of the composition are evident in what the great art historian James Thrall Soby, writing in the 1958 catalogue for the MoMA exhibition in which the picture featured, referred to as the 'zigzag complexity of Violin and Newspaper, in which the planes are as intricately adjusted, one behind the other, as the sails on a clipper ship' (Soby, ibid., p. 78). There is an architectural structure to this painting, with the overlapping forms giving a sense of form, of mass, of structure. In this way, Gris is condensing some of his actual experience of the objects that he is depicting. He is capturing some aspect of the reality of the still life tableau that would, before Cubism, have been impossible. 'I work with the elements of the intellect, with the imagination,' Gris explained. 'I try to make concrete that which is abstract. I proceed from the general to the particular, by which I mean that I start with an abstraction in order to arrive at a new fact. Mine is an art of synthesis, of deduction' (Gris, quoted in D.-H. Kahnweiler, Juan Gris: His Life and Work, trans. D. Cooper, London, 1969, p. 193).
It is this quality that led to so many people to consider Gris a classical painter, cutting to the heart of the world that he represented. He has used science, mathematics, engineering and even a sense of architecture as the means to capture and portray an essentially emotional core, instilling a sense of revelation in the viewer, adding to our knowledge of the world through his vision. In this context, the radiating forms that so add to the dynamism of Violon et journal have an almost halo-like effect, condensing the idea that these simple elements are imbued with their own character, their own life. There is an idealism at work here. Gris has condensed the techniques of the Cubists, of scientists, but also crucially of Old Masters such as Fouquet and Chardin into this epiphany-like vision of a corner of the everyday world. 'Though in my system I may depart greatly from any form of idealistic or naturalistic art, in practice I do not want to break away from the Louvre,' Gris himself explained. 'Mine is the method of all times, the method used by the old masters: there are technical means and they remain constant' (Gris, quoted in ibid., p. 193).
During the years of the First World War, Picasso avoided upsetting Gris too much, avoided tensions with him, partly because they were among the only painters in their circle who were not obliged to fight. The two Spaniards therefore remained in France, mostly in Paris. His intense loyalty to his friend and dealer, Kahnweiler, who was exiled as an enemy alien, meant that he was reluctant to sign up with another dealer without the permission of his first, a situation that led to his enduring intense hardship, often relying on the charity of friends such as Picasso in order to survive, let alone to paint. Eventually, Kahnweiler agreed to rescind the untenable agreement (although Gris was the only major Cubist to return to him at the cessation of hostilities), and Gris was signed to the Galerie L'Effort Moderne of Léonce Rosenberg, the first owner of this painting. The deprivations of the War meant that there was very little canvas upon which to paint. Gris circumvented this problem by painting on panels, a technique in which he encouraged Picasso.
During 1917, Gris was increasingly isolating himself from the circles of his friends, withdrawing from society, devoting himself increasingly to painting. While he occasionally ventured out for meals and adventures with his friends, he was spending more and more time dedicated to further advancing Cubism. Despite his more withdrawn lifestyle, he was still increasingly influential as one of the leaders and pioneers of the movement, looked to by the second generation painters of that movement as well as the first generation. In particular, Gris spent time during this tumultuous period with Braque, who voiced his intense admiration for the Spanish painter's pictures from the last years of the Great War. Certainly the presence of the violin in this work recalls the pictures of Braque, who had a collection of musical instruments that he used as models for his own still life compositions. At the same time, the role of the musical instrument introduces a reference to music, the presence of another dimension, of time passing, and of art that is not static (as a painting usually is) but that changes from second to second, hinting at the role of time within the universe that has been depicted. The fractured perspective of the painting shows a strange agglomeration of different views, showing a different relationship to time from that contained in most traditional pictures.
That the violin serves as a strange indicator of the added dimension of time perhaps even reflected the importance of new concepts of relativity to the more mathematically-inclined Cubists. At the same time, like the bottle and glass, it acts as a visual anchor that insists that we are glimpsing, albeit through a Cubist glass, a distorted fraction of the real world. The text in the fragmentary newspaper emphasises this, acting in an almost trompe-l'oeil manner: the words are clearly legible, albeit in a fragmentary state, and are read by the viewer, bridging the gap between the world outside the picture and that represented. These words, the name of a newspaper, also add a highly contemporary sense of currency to the painting during these years where the news was devoured in order to find out in what state the world found itself, whether this offensive or that surge had finally worked, which forces were advancing and which retreating.
It is a tribute to the importance of Violon et journal that one of its owners was the prominent art historian, curator and collector James Johnson Sweeney, whose distinguished career included periods as director of the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, as well as a number of other highly prestigious galleries. In this capacity, he organised a number of highly influential exhibitions over the decades, as well as writing monographs on a range of artists that stretched from Gaudi and Calder to Pollock and Chillida. His own collection included high-quality works by pioneers of both modern and Post-War art including Picasso, Léger and Mondrian.