GRIS Juan
( 1887-1927). Born in Madrid; died at Boulogne-sur-Seine, near Paris. José Victoriano Gonzalez, known as Juan Gris, was born of a Castilian father and an Andalusian mother. According to his sister Antonieta, his vocation was evident in early childhood, at the age of six or seven. Nevertheless, he received a general education and then enrolled at the School of Arts and Crafts in Madrid. His preliminary education was essentially scientific, and this is seen in his writings and pictorial theories. When financial ruin struck his family, he made a living by selling drawings to humorous papers in Madrid. It was not long before he devoted himself entirely to painting, entering the studio of an old academic painter, Moreno Carbonero, who, he said, 'made him disgusted with good painting'. He lived among painters and writers, and took the name Juan Gris. At that time the more advanced artistic circles in Spain were becoming initiated into 'Modern-style', under the influence of German publications and reviews.
At the age of nineteen Gris decided to go to Paris, paying for the journey by selling all his possessions. Since he left without doing his military service, he was never able to obtain a passport, and this prevented him from ever travelling out of France. He asked for French nationality, but he died without obtaining it. Attracted by the rising fame of Picasso, he settled at the Bateau-Lavoir, 13 Rue Ravignan, where he lived precariously by making satirical drawings for newspapers and magazines. But he worked mostly for himself, and when he decided, after four or five years of endeavour, to exhibit his work, he gave up his old livelihood for ever. His first buyer was the dealer Clovis Sagot, and he first exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants of 1912, to which he sent a Hommage à Picasso. In the same year he showed his works in Barcelona, Rouen, and the exhibition of the Section d'Or in Paris. Kahnweiler, who had known him since 1907, became his dealer. He also became his best friend, and the book which he wrote about him in 1946 was the first definitive work published about him. Gertrude Stein, Léonce Rosenberg and Alfred Flechtheim acquired his works. These were still painted in the style of analytical Cubism. Cubism, reacting against imitation, had recourse at first to the analysis of objects, which it tried to grasp not merely in their changing appearances but in their successive aspects, in all their facets, even in cross-section, the result on the canvas being a juxtaposition of planes and lines that was often complicated but was particularly expressive. Gris's first works, especially his portraits, are always intelligible and well balanced. The Cubists very soon tried to introduce elements taken from everyday life into their compositions, to serve as guide-posts and explanations for the public: for instance, trompe-l'ail wood and marble, printed letters, and actual pieces of newspaper. Juan Gris used these ingenuous and empirical methods with great distinction, but he started a reform that was more profound and coherent, a truly scientific doctrine of modern painting. He played a decisive role in what has been called synthetic Cubism.
In the summer of 1913 Gris stayed at Céret with Picasso, who encouraged him, and with Manolo, with whom he had endless arguments on theory. From then on he strove to make Cubism clearer, more precisely defined, more irrefutable. The war found him again at Céret, in 1914, with Matisse and Marquet. On his return to Paris he set to work at once, helped by Léonce Rosenberg the art dealer, who held an exhibition for him in 1919. At the Salon des Indépendants of 1920 he participated in the last exhibition of the united Cubist group, which was to break up soon after that. He was not very successful, and be saw himself disparaged, even by his friends, although he always showed them the greatest kindness. It disturbed him to see the meaning of Cubism distorted -- its impetus had been broken perhaps by the war -and he decided to pursue alone his search for a 'grand style' suited to his time. Possessed by a sort of craving for knowledge, in which he seemed to seek compensation for the ineptitude against which he raged, Juan Gris would have been one of the universal men of the Renaissance had he lived at that time.
What was synthetic Cubism, according to Juan Gris? A certain discrepancy already existed between the structure and composition of the picture and its colours, for the latter were sometimes indicated only by a smudge. Thus, in the papiers collés, the details could be interchanged without any damage to the solidly established structure. This was the starting-point of Juan Gris's method. Kahnweiler has reported a talk on this subject in 1920: 'I begin', declared Gris, 'by organizing my picture; then I characterize the objects'. Another of his declarations -- often quoted and generally misinterpreted -- states, even more precisely, that he went from the general to the particular, starting from an abstraction and arriving at a real fact. Yet the context is very clear. He began by saying: 'I work with the elements of the mind; with the aid of the imagination, I try to make concrete what is abstract'. And he continued: 'I want to arrive at a new set of characteristics, to create specific individuals by starting from a general type. . . . From a bottle, Cézanne made a cylinder, but I make a bottle from a cylinder -- a certain type of bottle.' Because he spoke of the mathematical structure of a picture, it is assumed that he had a theoretical and abstract mentality which arbitrarily reversed all the normal processes of artistic creation, excluding from them every human element. It is sufficient to look at Gris's work to dismiss these legends and hasty interpretations. The basis of this new work is a sort of generalized drawing, charged with memories, concepts, ideas, all long meditated upon by the artist before they took form.
He chose consciously the geometrical architecture that emerges therefrom. Then, with his imagination and reason, he strove to make this construction objective, so that it should be communicated, and comprehensible, to the spectator. This process could justly be compared with the creative work of musicians and writers. It is not surprising, then, that Gris should appear a true classicist whose pure, noble, and austere art is fixed in the essential, from which everything peripheral has been excluded. At the end of his life Gris, a great admirer of the seventeenth century and particularly of Philippe de Champaigne, turned to the art of Pompeii, the Fontainebleau school and the work of David. His style is the result of a remarkable effort. He used a process of reversal of forms which almost recalls the repetitions of rhyme and gives a curious undulation to his lines, creating the impression of volume. His art is a logical, complex, coherent system.
In 1920 Gris fell seriously ill with pleurisy and went to Touraine for a few months, then spent the winter in Bandol, on the Côte d'Azur. Diaghilev, who was at that time in Monte Carlo, suggested that he do the décor and costumes for a Spanish ballet, but this project did not materialize. Gris spent the following winter at Céret and returned to Paris in the spring, apparently restored to health. He settled in Boulogne, just outside Paris. Musicians, painters, poets and critics came to see him on Sundays, and the evenings were gay, for Gris loved dancing. The week was spent in calm, reflective work. Diaghilev, returning to his old project, commissioned Gris in 1923 to design the décor and costumes for a Louis XIV ballet, Les Tentations de la Bergère, then the stage set for La Fête Merveilleuse which he was presenting in the Gallery of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, and a décor for L'Education Manquée by Chabrier. But the feverish, disordered atmosphere of the ballet, and the intrigues and jealousies that abounded there, exasperated him so that he refused to repeat the experience. On May 15th, 1924, Gris read to the philosophical and scientific study group at the Sorbonne his paper on Les Possibilités de la Peinture, which was published in French, German and Spanish, and had tremendous repercussions. Gris had even greater success in 1925, when he painted his serenest and most perfect works. But his health was gravely undermined. He spent his winters in the south -- in Toulon in 1925, in Hyères in 1926. The climate at the latter place did not suit him, so that his health grew steadily worse, and he was brought back to Paris, where he died on May 11th, 1927.
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