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: Juan Gris' Still Life


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
A few years ago a European conductor was rehearsing a leading American orchestra. The program he was preparing was to be his first in this country. His first fifteen minutes with the orchestra did not go well. He put down his baton and exclaimed, “Gentlemen, something is the matter. We do not feel together.” Something in his tone, his manner, his gesture, broke the ice. There was complete understanding and communication for the rest of the rehearsal and at the concert the reading given to the major work on the program, Berlioz' “Fantastic Symphony,” was hailed as one of the finest heard in many years.One can imagine that an unfamiliar observer, seeing for the first time a synthetic cubist work such as the Institute's recently acquired Still Life, by Juan Gris, might feel confronted with the same problem of communication. An approach to it was once offered by the late Roger Fry who, perhaps remembering similar experiences of his own, observed that the work of art is like a radio transmitter which sends out its message on a certain wave length. To receive this message the observer must “tune in” by careful adjustment of the “dials” controlling his emotional and mental sensibilities on the wave established by the artist. Yet the fact that at first we may not be able to “find the station” does not mean that a message, and perhaps a powerful and important one, is not being transmitted. Extending the metaphor, it is easy to see that a work of art in a new and unfamiliar language might present problems beyond the capacity, or at least beyond the accustomed use, of our ordinary receiving equipment. If one wants to get this message, one must continue carefully searching with the dials. Perhaps when it comes in one will find that it involved more than hearing the sound.To a world still conditioned by realistic seeing habits, the abstract work of art tends to create especially difficult problems of recognition. And this is still true of works of art in the cubist idiom, and idiom which, after forty years' practiced by most painters and critics, has become something of a professional vernacular. Such works of art confront the observer with a phenomenon which is definitely not a reflection of the outer world, and even though they often contain efficiencies, tiny clues, echoes of the familiar, these usually prove elusive if one attempts to arrive at too realistic a reconstruction with them alone.In approaching abstract or semi-abstract works of art, such as Juan Gris' Still Life, one of the three major cubist works recently added to the Institute's permanent collection, one of the first things we may confidently rule out as a blind alley to understanding is the recognition of objects in the outer world as we have known them. A better clue to understanding and communicative relationship with his work may be found in Picasso's famous statement of 1935 in which he says “It's not what the artist does that counts, but what he is. Cézanne would never have interested me a bit if he had lived and thought like Jacques Emile Blanche, even if the apple he painted had been ten times as beautiful. What forces our interest is Cézanne's anxiety—that's Cézanne's lesson; the torments of Van Gogh—that is the actual drama of the man.”This is a statement which deals less with emotional experience contained in individual paintings than an emotional quality inherent in a larger work—something like the difference between weather and climate. Cézanne, of course, was hardly interested in representing emotions, per se. And if we accept that this quality of “anxiety” which Picasso stresses exists in his work we must assume that it emerges from the elements with which his pictures are composed: colors, lines, shapes and the way these are handled, without the aid of ordinary associational props.Qualities of the same generic type ascribed by Picasso to Cézanne exist in the work of Juan Gris and although it is difficult to summarize them with the same single-word succinctness, an avenue may be provided to them by what critics have called Gris' “perfectionism,” his “precision,” and his “refinement.” Certain it is that his pictures radiate a serene strength in the unity and balance of carefully measured and beautifully finished elements. They are the elements which have led critics to apply to his work, more than any others of the Cubist movement, another term—“classic,” classic both in the sense that his pictures establish a norm of perfection in thought and execution, and because his work as a whole represents a “rational” style carried to its peak of expression. But all of these terms led us away somewhat. There is also a music in Gris' compositions, a music which follows a strict canon, but which sings of order in the world and of a stable beauty that potentially lies in all of our tangible surroundings.From 1912 to 1915 Gris' work was concerned with what Daniel Henry Kahnweiler in his book, Juan Gris, His Life and Work (London, 1947), has described as “multiple aspects.” Following the spirit of his great cubist contemporaries, Picasso and Braque, he broke up his subjects in a semi-geometrical manner and reassembled them freely on his canvas. His pictures of this time present a great variety of the staple still life items of the analytic cubist period—glasses, bottles, violins, often with illusionistically painted patterns of wallpaper, newspaper type, musical scores, and playing cards added to the compositions. In 1915 he became dissatisfied with this manner of collecting data, and, searching for a greater dynamism, painted a series of canvasses full of movement. A variety of objects seen from different points of view simultaneously, and sometimes arranged in an oval inscribed on a square canvas, gave a strong whirling impression. Gris' work remained in this animated stage for about a year. When he emerged from it his subjects became simpler, more stable, his forms expanded, and his color took on a new sobriety. As Kahnweiler described the new phase, the beholder was no longer presented with a variety of information, but a synthesis in which his knowledge of the subject was packed into one significant form.Still Life, a work formerly in the Nelson A. Rockefeller and John Senior, Jr., collections, was painted in 1917, in the period between 1916 and 1919 which leading critics have considered the finest in Gris' career and which marks the emergence and the flowering of his synthetic cubist style. The composition is based on a simple table, bottle and vase with a scroll-like handle. Various aspects of each object are presented. The top of the table is poised almost vertically, whereas the legs extend straight down in a more normal position. The drawer is reduced to a rectangular scheme of lines, lifted out of position and placed in the free space at the top of the composition. The bottle is drawn in a half section with added circular and rectangular elements suggesting a combination of vertical, angular and head-on views. The dominant part of the vase is the scroll, the spiral form of which is echoed, in combination with angular lines, both in the main body of the vessel and the shadow. But unlike Gris' previous work, the forms chosen to summarize the parts of the still life subject are not descriptive. They are rather “emblems” which incorporate the whole of the artist's knowledge of the solid bodies represented. One might say that instead of the forms being records of what the artist sees as he paints, they are signs invented to convey what the artist conceives as the total idea of the subject, with all non-essentials left out.With this approach, first undertaken a year before Still Life was painted, Gris opened the way to a new world, the world of “conceptual painting,” a world in which the forms of his pictures are “endowed with the power to create in the reader's imagination images which signify to him the outer world.” No longer do they describe this world to him, presenting him with facts, as in an inventory, but they summarize it through formal metaphors, as in the art of the middle ages when trees, buildings, and objects in the outer world were not observed with the eye but conceived in the mind. The emotional quality of his work has none of the tremulant element of Cézanne's anxiety. It is more akin to the settled confidence that comes from carefully worked out principles of the imagination successfully applied to the raw materials of experience, from the achievement of perfectly integrated structural relations behind appearance, as in the architecture of fine buildings.Still Life is a work which reveals Gris' fully resolved strivings in this direction and, at the same time, eloquently represents one of the culminating stages in the development of cubism. The Institute is fortunate indeed that it should now form a part of its permanent collection.
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Source: "Juan Gris' Still Life," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 42, no. 21 (May, 1953): 101-103.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009