Gris' Livre, pipe et verre is a virtual compendium of the artist's compositional practices, his preferred subject matter, formal interests and chromatic concerns, as they evolved within the mature synthetic phase in his distinctive brand of Cubism during the early years of the First World War. Manifest here are Gris' characteristic tilted and angled semi-transparent planes, stacked one atop another like panes of darkly tinted glass, which the artist has contrasted by executing certain areas as flat color zones, others with wood-graining, and there is even a neo-pointillist passage at upper left. Instead of the more common cubist inclusion of a newspaper banner, Gris has here included an open book, which he has placed atop a trompe l'oeil wood table, accompanied by a variety of household wares, including a coffee mill, a peppercorn grinder, two glasses, a tea-cup and his pipe. Gris has dovetailed all of these objects into one another in the most marvelous way; their configuration appears to resemble a cubist jigsaw puzzle. There is nothing random or untidy about this composition--it adheres to the rigorous discipline of an overriding architectural plan which determines the placement of each and every component, and rationalizes in a visually convincing manner the spatial relationships between them. The piercing forms along the upper edge of the picture lend the composition a powerful upward thrust--they crown this still-life like spires, and indeed this composition resembles the plan for a vast Gothic edifice. As if to underscore this spiritual tone, the artist's palette is somber and resonant, like the deepest tones of a cathedral organ. Gris has sanctified the most mundane and profane objects, and has even adorned them with luminous, halo-like auras.
Gris had set the stage for these dazzling visual and spatial effects while working on the collages that had preoccupied him for most of 1914 (fig. 1). The practice of papiers collés suggested new ways of composing his pictures. The technique of combining cut and pasted papers with oil paints and drawing media enabled him to freely mix various objects within shifting spatial contexts. This eliminated the need for transitional passages that would have been required in ordinary representational painting, and allowed Gris to suggest the illusion of depth and low relief while maintaining the integrity of the inherent flatness of his component materials.
By the winter of 1914-1915, however, Gris had grown tired of making collages, as had Picasso, too, around this time. By the end of 1914 it was clear that the murderous battles on the Western Front would not quickly end in victory, as many at first had hoped and believed. In a letter to Maurice Raynal dated 20 December, Gris wrote, "My present life is flat, undecided and sterile and I don't even like reading the newspapers [the primary source of his collage elements] because I am so depressed and terrified by what is happening" (quoted in Letters, XXV). Marc Rosenthal has noted that "the privations of war-torn Europe must have made their reflexive collage games seem out of step with the times" (in Juan Gris, exh. cat., University Art Museum, Berkeley, 1983, p. 65).
These were indeed trying times: there were wartime shortages of all kinds, and during the especially cold winter of 1914-1915 coal for heating was prohibitively expensive and difficult to obtain. Paris was subject to bombardment by distant German guns, and nighttime Zeppelin raids over the city terrified its inhabitants. Many of Gris' colleagues, such as Léger and the poet Apollinaire, were at the front and in harm's way, and Gris became distraught when he learned that his good friend Braque had been badly wounded at Carency in May 1915. Gris followed the terrible news of the day in Le Figaro or in Le Journal (fig. 4), whose banners often featured in his paintings and collages.
Gris had his share of personal difficulties as well. His neighbors in Montmartre ostracized him for not donning a uniform and fighting the Germans, even if, as a citizen of neutral Spain (like Picasso), he had no obligation to do so. Even worse, however, was that before the war he had worked with the dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who as a German national had been forced to leave France at the outbreak of hostilities, and was then living as an exile in Bern. It was widely rumored that they were still communicating with each other, which was true, for they kept up a correspondence, and some speculated that Gris must be a foreign agent or spy. Gris wrote Kahnweiler on 19 April, "You who are absent cannot imagine how every foreigner here is suspect, no matter what his nationality is. They say appalling things in the canteens of Montmartre and make terrible accusations against myself and against anyone who has had dealings with you. So I have not been able to go and eat in them life at this moment is not much fun and although I used to be very fond of Paris I would gladly leave it now" (Letters, XXXII). He was unfortunately stuck in Paris for the time being. As a young man he had evaded his obligatory military service in Spain, and did not pay the exemption tax; consequently, he could not return to his family home in Madrid.
Picasso had substantial savings from earlier sales to draw on, but Gris found himself in deeply straitened circumstances. He struggled to make enough money for his wife Josette and himself to survive on. Kahnweiler had to temporarily cut off the monthly stipend as provided for in their pre-war contract. There was briefly the possibility of a promising deal with Gertrude Stein and the American dealer Joseph Brummer, who began to collect Gris' work in 1914 and could have opened a valuable American outlet for the artist's paintings. This arrangement came to naught, however, when Stein found out that Kahnweiler had resumed sending small amounts of money to Gris via the artist's parents in Madrid. Léonce Rosenberg, an erstwhile antiquities dealer, was seeking to fill the void left by Kahnweiler's departure, and made overtures to Gris in early 1915 to buy his paintings. The deeply conscientious Gris scrupulously adhered to his obligations under his arrangement with Kahnweiler and declined. It was not until April of that year that Gris and Kahnweiler mutually agreed to suspend the terms of their contract, leaving Gris free to sell pictures to Rosenberg. Now working with a French dealer, the source of Gris' income was above board and beyond reproach, although it was still hardly adequate for his needs.
This new arrangement was an important factor that encouraged Gris to begin painting again in early 1915. He completed the iridescent still-life Le livre in January (Cooper, no. 123; fig. 2). As the spring arrived he began to work at an accelerating pace. Gris wrote to Kahnweiler on 6 March, "I think I have really made progress recently and that my pictures begin to have a unity which they have lacked unto now. They are no longer those inventories of objects which used to depress me so much. But I still have to make an enormous effort to achieve what I have in mind. For I realize that although my ideas are well enough developed, my means of expressing them plastically are not. In short, I have not got an aesthetic, and this I can only acquire through experience" (Letter XXXI). Gris was characteristically being overly critical of his efforts, for if he lacked an "aesthetic", it is hardly apparent in Livre, pipe et verre. In fact, during the spring of 1915 he was racking up one masterly painting after another (Cooper, nos. 127 and 131; figs. 3 and 4). This fertile period extended well in the summer (nos. 143 and 144, figs. 5 and 6), with the result that 1915 ended up being one of the most productive periods in his entire career.
Gris carried over several significant aspects of the collages done in the previous year to his new paintings. He continued to explore the interaction of contrasting objects, and he further experimented with the layering of planes, giving deference to the flatness of the picture surface. He left behind, however, the neutral tonalities of the collages, and now worked again in rich and varied colors. Although he had given up "those inventories of objects," Douglas Cooper has pointed out that "This did not prevent Gris from undertaking still-life compositions with more objects than before, because he enjoyed the challenge to his inventiveness and sense of logic of the need not only to re-create their forms and volumes but also to establish the complex spatial relationships between them" (in The Cubist Epoch, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1970, pp. 221-222).
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Livre, pipe et verre is the white highlighting of contours that contrasts starkly with the dark tonality of the underlying composition. These jagged, white-hot linear arabesques traverse the canvas like bolts of lightning in a night sky, and appear to electrify the objects that they delineate; the composition seems charged with the energy that they impart to it. This phenomenon may have been derived from Gris' observation of objects lit from behind, where light appears like an aura emanating from a dark silhouette. Linear patterns in white against a prevailingly dark ground are just the opposite of the dark lines that normally mark contours in modernist paintings, and in this way, Livre, verre et pipe resembles a photographic negative, in which light areas have become dark, and the darkest parts have turned in highlights. This pictorial idea is also visible in Moulin à café et bouteille, 1917 (see lot 49), where it functions as a spectral and starkly dramatic version of traditional Old Master chiaroscuro.
It is illuminating to compare Livre, pipe et verre with a still-life that Picasso also completed in early 1915, Compotière et verre (Zervos, vol. 2, no. 537; fig. 7). Picasso worked within a fairly readable horizontal space, a tabletop placed in front of an unadorned interior wall. Within this context he has rendered a profusion of objects and forms. An underlying structure is difficult to discern, and it does not appear that Picasso was interested in inferring that one actually existed. Such pictorial abundance without the imposition of a clearly articulated organizational logic, and lacking carefully controlled and modulated spatial subtleties, would probably have appeared like mere clutter or even chaos to Gris. While the manifold forms in Picasso's still-life are busy and visually exciting in their profusion, the composition is actually rather static in its overall impact. One cannot help but admire how Gris, on the other hand, has created unifying rhythmic patterns within his composition, giving an impression that is no less lively, by building on a sophisticated and intuitively derived architectural substructure. As Kahnweiler observed, "Hitherto his pictures had been absolutely static. But during 1915 he produced pictures which are full of movement" (op. cit., p. 126). Gris himself noted with some pleasure that his work had become "less dry and more plastic" (quoted in D. Cooper, The Cubist Epoch, p. 223).
Gris' use of dramatically deep and sonorous color in Livre, verre et pipe, seems typically Spanish, and follows the example of the baroque masters Velázquez, Murillo and Zurburán. Matisse is often credited with having kept alive an interest in the potential of color as an integral aspect of modernism, especially during the pre-war phase of analytical Cubism, when Picasso, Braque and other painters had largely relegated color to a secondary role. The evolution of color in Matisse's paintings served as a guiding light at the time when the Cubists reintroduced chromatic values during the synthetic phase of their work. Gris was perhaps more than any other Cubist a superbly varied and subtle colorist, and he had commanded this position from nearly the very start. When it became Matisse's turn to experiment with Cubism, he no doubt looked toward Picasso and Braque, but the example of Gris appears even more detectable in the hard-edged structural logic and the carefully judged use of color that informs paintings like Matisse's Nature morte d'après 'La Desserte' de Jan Davidsz. de Heem, 1915 (fig. 8).
Livre, verre et pipe showcases Gris in his most richly imagined and profoundly inventive synthetic cubist manner, infused with the subtlety and resonance of a master colorist. Less than a year later, a new classicism would enter Gris' work, influenced by the sense of ambiguous stability and unsettled permanence that he observed in Cézanne's great still-lifes. This, in turn, would point the way to the clarified, crystalline style that had a significant impact on postwar Cubism (see lot 7). James Thrall Soby has written, "If Gris' mood was unrelentingly black in 1915, as his letters attest, his paintings through some blissful irony became more opulent than before. For sheer variety his work in 1915 is outstanding" (in Juan Gris, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1958, pp. 48 and 50).
(fig. 1) Juan Gris, Bouteille et verre, August-October 1914. Private collection. BARCODE SALE 1831 - 25239775
(fig. 2) Juan Gris, Le livre, November 1914-January 1915. Private collection. BARCODE 25994803
(fig. 3) Juan Gris, Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux, March 1915. Private collection. BARCODE 25994810
(fig. 4) Juan Gris, Nature morte et paysage (Place Ravignan), June 1915. Philadelphia Museum of Art. BARCODE SALE 1831 - 2523 9782
(fig. 5) Juan Gris, Verre et carte à jouer, July 1915. Sold, Christie's New York, 1 November 2005, lot 26. BARCODE 24257572
(fig. 6) Juan Gris, Le pot de géranium, July 1915. Sold, Christie's New York, 9 May 2007, lot 59. BARCODE 24158381
(fig. 7) Pablo Picasso, Compotière et verre, Paris, winter 1914-1915. Columbus Museum of Art. BARCODE SALE 1831 - 25239799
(fig. 8) Henri Matisse, Nature morte d'après 'La Desserte' de Jan Davidz. de Heem, 1915. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE SALE 1831 - 25239805