THE RESTRAINED HANDS OF JUAN GRIS
IT'S grand to see a painter who knew what he was doing,'' was Picasso's comment on the work of fellow Spanish artist Juan Gris at the end of Gris's life in 1927. It was, in fact, something of a double-edged epitaph. Picasso may well have meant to imply that an artist has no business knowing what he is doing. He should work by intuition and instinct. Picasso did once agree that it was necessary to have an idea of what a painting should be beforehand - but then quickly added that it should only be a very vague idea. Gris, however, was not at all for vagueness.
Both Picasso and Gris were Cubists. Picasso, with Braque, had been a pioneer, while Gris, a few years later on the scene, brought his scrupulous clarity to bear on the ideas they had generated. He recognized the power of their work. He even said he felt ``crushed'' by Braque's paintings because he admired them so much; it was with ``some pleasure'' in 1920, therefore, that he could at last register a dislike for the direction Braque's work was then beginning to take - ``towards Impressionism.'' Gris found it ``soft and lacking in precision.''
As these three drawings show, Gris's own version of Cubism was neither soft nor imprecise. He was, by artistic temperament, firmly on the classical side of the classic/romantic divide. Structure and order - a kind of mathematical or architectural starting point - were for him the basis of painting.
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, his friend, patron, and biographer, sums up Gris's response to the often rather rough-shod and improvisatory Cubism of Picasso and Braque: ``What undoubtedly worried Gris in his friends' work,'' Kahnweiler writes, ``was the complexity, the confusion of lines - only apparent, it is true, but troublesome for the reader of canvasses which justly claimed to be representational and realistic. This smacked of the `ambiguity' which he detested. His own contribution was clarity, purity and a hatred of falsehood. Picasso and Braque always proclaimed that they disdained tricks of brushwork; but, carried away by their emotions, they often yielded in spite of themselves to their technical gifts. Only Gris made his hand completely subservient to the will of his very clear mind.''
Gris - as can be seen in a drawing like ``Still Life: Teapot and Glass'' - carried the idea of the Cubists to a level of completeness and finish they hadn't originally attempted. Their aim was to represent on the flat surface of paper or canvas the subject in such a way that the picture would do full justice to that subject's three-dimensionality - and to the viewer's shifting viewpoint. The attempt to render a figure or a still life from many angles invited complexity and confusion. Perhaps Braque and Picasso actually relished this complexity.
The two tried to show the sides and back of objects as well as the front, the inside as well as the outside - what they knew about an object as well as what they could see of it. And they did this, at least at first, without resort to relief or sculpture, working purely in the conventional materials of painting and drawing. But one thing led to another, and Cubism led to ``collage,'' the sticking of things like rope, chair cane, wallpaper, and wood-grain paper to the surface of the picture. Such surfaces and shapes competed with the drawn or painted objects, sometimes calling the effectiveness of those means into question. This led the Cubists to relief and sculpture - to actually working in three dimensions.
But not Gris. He held to the restraints and possibilities of painting and drawing, and even in his exploration of collage he did not allow it to become a distraction.
The restraint and clarity of his work are proved in his pencil drawings of 1916. He refused to move too fast from one idea to the next. He explored and consolidated. In that year he went back to one of the prime forebears of Cubism and examined his debt to C'ezanne - that similarly patient, deliberate artist to whom the structure of the object painted was of absorbing importance, rather than its fleeting appearance alone.
Looking at ``Still Life: Teapot and Glass,'' one can see how Gris was developing the idea of remaking his subject matter in terms that are true to the means of drawing. It's as if he says to himself that drawing is made of areas and shapes of differing tone, darker or lighter, flat shapes on a flat surface. Using these simple means, how can he describe objects that are solid, rounded, have interiors and exteriors? His answer is amply given in the calm structure and organization of these drawings. But he also explained in words.
Talking about painting a table, for example, he states: ``... For a painter [a table] will quite simply be a grouping of flat, colored forms. And I mean flat forms, for it is more a sculptor's business to think of these forms in terms of space.'' So his flat forms made of graphite shadings, ranging from light to dark, interpenetrate, interlock, overlap, or angle subtly away from each other as they describe teapot, glass, and other objects. Space between shapes is described with the same interest and precision as the shapes themselves. But both shapes and spaces remain just as flat as pieces of cutout paper stuck to the drawing would. His drawing has the immaculate crispness of a collage.
The extraordinary thing is that out of these flat, incisive relationships emerge forms of sculptural complexity. The transparency of the glass is suited to this Cubist technique, because it does not hide its own form. But Gris is still not primarily concerned with its glassiness. As he also wrote: ``The man who, when he paints a bottle, attempts to express its material substance rather than paint a group of colored forms, should become a glass-blower, not a painter.'' Gris knew which he was.