Juan Gris - Biography and Legacy
Spanish Painter, Illustrator, and Sculptor
Biography of Juan Gris
The man who would become Juan Gris, one of the leading figures in Cubist painting, was born José Victoriano Carmelo Carlos González-Pérez in Madrid in 1887. The thirteenth of fourteen children, he attended Madrid's Escuela de Artes y Manufacturas from 1902 to 1904, where he studied mathematics, physics, and mechanical drawing. Though he was a strong student, the rigidity of academic life did not appeal to him, and his natural ability in drawing encouraged him to shift his focus to the study of art.
After leaving school, he studied painting under the tutelage of José Moreno Carbonero, a respected and sucessful artist in Madrid who had himself taught Salvador Dalí and Picasso. It was in 1905, while working under Carbonero, that González-Pérez changed his name to Juan Gris. He sold all his possessions and moved to Paris in 1906, shortly after the death of his father, and would remain in the city for much of his life. However, since he had dodged Spain's obligatory military service, he had no passport and could neither leave France nor return to Spain.
During his early years in Paris, he worked as an illustrator and satirical cartoonist for a variety of magazines and periodicals. He settled in the Montmartre artist commune Bateau Lavoir, where he met Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and the American writer Gertrude Stein, who would become a lifelong admirer and collector of his work. As he developed relationships with fellow artists, he began to devote more energy to his own painting. Following in the footsteps of Picasso and Braque, he initially worked in the style that would be later defined as Analytic Cubism, known for its monochromatic color, use of linear grids, and breaking down of a subject into geometric planes. While he clearly had enormous respect for Picasso, the older man may have been threatened by the younger's talents, or simply annoyed by his flattery, leading Stein to note that, "Juan Gris was the only person whom Picasso wished away."
Despite the lopsided nature of their relationship, his portrait of his mentor attracted the acclaim of fellow artists and critics when it was exhibited at the Salon des Independants in 1912. That same year, he signed a contract that gave the German art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (who also worked with Picasso and Braque) the exclusive right to sell his work. After several years of financial difficulties in Paris, the arrangement gave him greater stability and allowed his work to reach a broader and more influential audience.
Though many recognized his talent in its own right, his work followed the austere monochromatic style of Analytic Cubism in the early 1910s, and moved in the direction of Synthetic Cubism - a subsequent phase, distinguished by a broader, bolder use of color and a collage-like approach to composition - from 1914 onward. Departing from Picasso and Braque somewhat, his work from the latter period is distinguished by its move away from shattering abstraction and use of bright, harmonious colors in daring combinations.
As was the case for many artists of the time, the outbreak of World War I threw his personal and professional life into a state of flux. The war disrupted his business relationship with Kahnweiler, though he received financial help from Gertrude Stein. He also spent time with Matisse in his studio at Collioure, in the south of France near the Spanish border. In 1916, he signed a new contract with French art dealer Leonce Rosenberg, another hugely influential collector of modernist art. His work from the early war years examines the interplay between objects and their shadows, and reintroduces complicated planar intersections, sumptuous colors and textures.
Toward the end of the war, he spent several months in Touraine, the native region of his French wife Josette. This period, unique in his art, focuses on depictions of traditional peasant figures, linking him to a broader shift among European artists during and after the war. Increasingly, these artists turned away from the avant-garde disruptions and reinterpretations of form that marked the early 1910s, and instead approached traditional techniques and subject matter with renewed interest that would persist throughout the remainder of his career.
Though he experienced periods of illness and financial strife during the war years, his reputation was steadily rising. He was awarded his first major solo exhibition at Rosenberg's Galerie l'Effort Moderne in Paris in 1919. The following year, he participated in the final major exhibition of Cubist painters at the Salon des Independants.
He had been painting prolifically during and after the war, though in 1920 he became ill with pleurisy, a lung inflammation then often confused with tuberculosis. In an attempt to recuperate, he spent the winter at Bandol, on the southeastern coast of France. While there, he spent time with the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and the two discussed ideas about staging and costumes for upcoming productions. Their conversations eventually yielded a full collaboration, with Gris designing costumes and sets for the Ballet Russes from 1922 to 1924.
Major exhibitions of his work took place at the Galerie Simon in Paris and the Galerie Flechtheim in Berlin in 1923, and at the Galerie Flechtheim in Düsseldorf in 1925. It was during these years that he achieved the peak of popularity and renown that he would know in his lifetime. He was also making his most forceful articulation of his theories on art and aesthetics, delivering his lecture, 'Des possibilites de la peinture' at the Sorbonne in 1924. In it, he describes his belief that a painting was not merely a representation of an object from reality, but something that the artist recreates and reinterprets through his craft.
He was unable to bask in his successes for long, due to ongoing - and worsening - health problems. In 1922, he moved out of central Paris to the suburban area of Boulogne-sur-Seine, in the hopes that a quieter rural atmosphere would ease his chronic asthma. From late 1925 onward, he battled consistent kidney and cardiac ailments. He died in 1927 of kidney failure, leaving behind his wife and young son. He was only 40 years old. In response to Gris's death, Stein wrote a memorial titled The Life and Death of Juan Gris, in which she describes him as "a perfect painter."
The Legacy of Juan Gris
He established himself as one of the most distinctive figures in Cubism during his relatively short life. His paintings combine different viewpoints of a subject in one image, calling attention to the limitations of traditional perspective and striving toward a new way of seeing that reflects the complexity of the modern age. Though primarily associated with painting, Cubism also exerted a profound influence on 20th-century sculpture and architecture. The liberating formal concepts initiated by Cubism also had far-reaching consequences for Surrealism, Dada, and the rise of midcentury Abstract Expressionism. While Picasso and Braque are most often credited with creating the new visual language of Cubism, his distinctive interpretation of the style directly influenced artists such as Salvador Dalí, Joseph Cornell, and Diego Rivera, among many others. In The Secret Life, Dalí writes, "my first cubist paintings... were directly and intentionally influenced by Juan Gris." His incorporation of brand logos and newspaper typography also anticipates the Pop art movement in the years following the Second World War, particularly in the works of artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.