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Juan Gris was a quietist, whose life was ostensibly marked by few major incidents. Though not the inventor of Cubism, he was one of its most able practitioners and evolved a very personal variety of it, combining elements which he had learned from Braque and Picasso with others which were his own personal invention. Typical of his approach was his remark about Cezanne, the universally acknowledged father of Cubism: 'Cezanne made a cylinder out of a bottle. I start from the cylinder to create a special kind of individual object. I make a bottle out of a cylinder.' A highly intelligent man, he had a marked impact on other painters - not only on the artists of the Section d'Or, the group with whom he identified himself, but also on senior members of the Ecole de Paris, such as Matisse, with whom he spent the summer at Collioure in 1914. He had a special sympathy for poets, and collaborated with a number of distinguished writers, among them Pierre Reverdy, whose Guitare Endormie he illustrated, Gertrude Stein and Raymond Radiguet.
"Gris was a pseudonym: he was born Jose Victoriano GonzĂˇlez in 1887, in Madrid, the thirteenth child of a rich Castilian merchant. He studied first to be an engineer at the School of Arts and Manufactures in Madrid, which he entered in 1902. By the time he abandoned this for an artistic career he was already contributing illustrations to the reviews Blanco y Negro and Madrid Comico.
"Madrid at this time was an extremely provincial milieu, much more so than Barcelona, and as soon as he could Gris abandoned it for Paris, arriving there in 1906 at the age of nineteen. He found himself a studio at the famous Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre, and was soon in contact with his compatriot Picasso, who also lived and worked there, and with the poets Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob and AndrĂ© Salmon, who formed part of Picasso's circle. At first he supported himself by making humorous drawings for papers such as LĂˇssiette au beurre and Le Charivari, but in 1910 he began his career as a serious artist by making a series of large watercolours. In the following year he started to paint. Gris's subject-matter was always his immediate surroundings: he produced still lifes composed of simple, everyday objects, portraits of friends, and occasionally landscapes or cityscapes.
"In 1911 (the year in which he spent time with Picasso at Ceret) he held his first exhibition, showing fifteen paintings at the little gallery run by Clovis Sagot. This was well received by those whose opinion he respected, and he was sufficiently encouraged to send three paintings to the Salon des IndĂ©pendants in the spring of 1912. In October of the same year he showed his work in the Section d'Or exhibition, with Marcoussis, Gleizes and Metzinger. Since Braque and Picasso were not at this time showing their work, the Section d'Or was the public face of Cubism. Gris was clearly the most gifted of the group, and he attracted the attention both of dealers and of well informed collectors. Gertrude Stein and Leonce Rosenberg bought paintings, and Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler offered Gris a contract, which he accepted. His work was evolving rapidly; he had grasped the significance of collage almost as soon as it was invented by Braque and Picasso in 1912. This liberated his compositional sense enabling him to evolve the subtler patterns of overlapping planes characteristic of his mature work. At this time he was friendly with the Delaunays. Sonia recalled that he spent so much time at the Bal Bullier, their favourite night-spot, that they wondered that he still had enough energy left to work.
"The outbreak of war brought a momentary check, since Kahnweiler was an enemy alien and was forced to leave Paris. Gris's contract with him lapsed, but in 1917 he was able to make another with Leonce Rosenberg which tided him over until Kahnweiler's return to France, when he renewed his former allegiance. But in 1920, just after his new contract was signed, Gris suffered a serious attack of pleurisy, and his health was never to be strong again.
"Diaghilev was now taking an interest in Gris, having recognized in him a kind of classicism in tune with postwar taste. A first project, for Cuadro Flamenco, did not come to fruition, but in November 1922 Diaghilev commissioned Gris to design sets and costumes for Les Tentations de la BerĂ«, which was premiered in 1924. In 1925 Gris had his first exhibition - and the only one in his lifetime - outside France, at the Flechtheim Gallery in Duesseldorf. His health was now very poor: bronchitis was succeeded by asthma and finally by uremia. Gris died on 11 May 1927 at the age of forty, leaving a wife, Josette, and a son, Georges
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