The stark contrast between black and white forms in this still-life composition, set against a somber background, is profoundly Spanish--Gris transformed the old master practice of painterly chiaroscuro into a visual allegory that symbolizes the contending forces of darkness and light. This dramatic aspect serves as a powerful reminder that Gris executed this work during the height of the First World War, which in early 1917 had gone on for more than two-and-a-half years and become bogged down into a hopeless stalemate of mutually murderous attrition. On a more mundane and personal level, this humble and Chardinesque arrangement of ordinary still life elements--a coffee mill at lower right, a compotier beside it and a bottle behind--betokens the artist's sincere gratitude for the most rudimentary pleasures of daily living. Gris has evoked the presence of these objects by means of the purest and most consummately transfigured forms, as he contemplated a realm where he believed the human intellect and spirit would abide and triumph, beyond the barbarity and senselessness of worldly strife.
As Spanish nationals, Gris and his compatriot Picasso were not subject to French military conscription, and they could continue to paint while many of their colleagues were away at the front. These were nonetheless trying times: there were wartime shortages of all kinds and there was little heat during the winter. Paris was periodically shelled and bombed. Having dodged his military service in Spain, Gris could not now return there and stay with his family in Madrid. He remained cooped up in Paris (fig. 1), where as a foreigner his loyalty was always under suspicion. He began to avoid his favorite haunts in Montmartre, because people talked in accusatory tones about his pre-war relationship with the German-born dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who had to leave France as an enemy alien at the beginning of hostilities, and was now living in Swiss exile.
An artist as successful as Picasso could count on his savings to get by, but wartime conditions left Gris in deeply strained circumstances. Kahnweiler continued to send Gris 125 francs a month, through his sister in Madrid, so that the artist did not appear to receive aid from a German source. In return, Gris felt duty-bound to honor their pre-war contract, which gave Kahnweiler sole right to buy up his paintings. For this reason Gris rejected the dealer Léonce Rosenberg's offer in early 1915 to acquire some pictures. Kahnweiler subsequently released the painter from his contract and Gris began to sell work to Rosenberg, finally signing an exclusive agreement with him in October 1917.
Gris's wartime correspondence with Kahnweiler ended in December 1915. In his last letter, the artist wrote: "I have worried so much that I am now going to shut myself off and think of nothing but my work. I don't want to hear anything more, especially as everything which is now happening seems to me to be both useless and devoid of good sense" (D. Cooper, ed. and trans., Letters of Juan Gris, London, 1956, letter XL). This statement reveals much about Gris' dedication to his art, his ability to focus on his goals amid increasing privation and self-doubt, and points to a guiding principle that he practiced in his art: he tolerated nothing that seemed to be "useless and devoid of good sense." Of all the cubists he was the most consistent from start to finish, and he never relented in the rigorous demands he placed on himself and his art. He strove always for intellectual lucidity, pictorial directness and clarity, and was committed to a straightforward concreteness in image and form. The integrity that he displayed in his ideas and his painting, the unity of his thought and practice, were unfailing and unimpeachable.
During the pre-war period Gris' refined and rational architectural manner had been a beacon to the mathematically minded painters of the Section d'Or group who gathered around the Duchamp brothers. Now Gris stood at the leading edge of the new classical mode in Cubism that emerged in 1916-1917. The classical cubists, or "crystal" cubists as they were sometimes known, soon became the leading force in the wartime avant-garde. The group included André Lhote, Jean Metzinger, the former Futurist Gino Severini, the Mexican painter Diego Rivera, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, most of whom, like Gris, showed at Rosenberg's Galerie de l'Effort Moderne. At the same time a related, but partly dissident movement was gathering, led by Amédée Ozenfant and Charles Jeanneret (later known as Le Corbusier), which became known as l'esprit nouveau or Purism. These painters were also strongly object-oriented, and acknowledged their roots in Cubism, but they decried the cubists' deformation of subject matter, an approach they considered to be willfully arbitrary, irrational and disorderly. In response to the war, both groups issued their rappels ordre, their "calls to order," for a new rationalistic humanism in painting, in which they espoused the puristic formal ideals that Gris' paintings had largely embodied all along.
In response to a questionnaire on his art published by Jeanneret's journal L'Esprit Nouveau in 1921, Gris wrote: "I work with the elements of the intellect, with the imagination. I try to make concrete that which is abstract. I proceed from the general to the particular, by which I mean that I start with an abstraction in order to arrive at a true fact. Mine is an art of synthesis, of deduction I consider that the architectural element in painting is mathematics, the abstract side; I want to humanize it" (trans. D. Cooper, reprinted in H.C. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, 1968, p. 274). Moulin à café et bouteille manifests Gris' art of synthesis in an especially clear and direct manner. Here, Gris has taken ideal, abstract forms and fashioned them into everyday, recognizable objects, as he proceeded from the general to the particular. His conception is thoroughly unified; he has fused both objects and ground. Reduced to flat planar forms, both angular and curvilinear, the elements in this painting have been superimposed on one another; yet by virtue of their transparency, the structure of this spatially complex composition is clearly legible and displays a perfect and convincing pictorial logic of its own, even if it is technically implausible in reality. Cooper illustrated a drawing related to this composition (his catalogue no. 217a; fig. 2), which, with color absent, plainly demonstrates the crystalline clarity of the architectural structure that underlies the artist's conception.
Here Gris has employed thin, overlaying linear contours, in white on a dark ground, or black on a light one, which may run as a single continuous outline while appearing to alternately advance or recede, and create stitch-like arabesques that bind together the various elements in the composition. This was an effect he developed in 1915 (see note to Livre, pipe et verre, lot ___). These spectral lines appear to emanate from the idealized forms that are the basis of the composition, and foster the illusion of a densely interwoven, multi-layered pictorial structure, even while the composition appears absolutely flat and outwardly simple to the eye. Color planes morph into forms, and forms then spin off into radiating lines. In his 1921 statement Gris went on to say: "I compose with abstractions (colors) and make my adjustments when these colors have assumed the form of objects" (ibid).
This method was capable of generating compositions of great complexity (Cooper, no. 239; fig. 3). There was surely no other cubist who was so resolutely drawn to the idealized and eternal forms that constituted the ultimate reality in Platonic philosophy. In the present painting, cast in Gris' most Spartan classical cubist manner, his perception of ideal form and the concrete world of objects are inextricably intertwined. He eliminated transitional space between objects, which he merged by extending color planes across their contours. Gris has avoided almost all suggestion of surface texture and detail. The palette is generally subdued, but is emboldened by the dramatic contest between pitch black and the most brilliant white, an effect that harkens back to the chiaroscuro painting of the Spanish baroque masters Velázquez (fig. 4), Murillo and Zurbarán.
Gris and Kahnweiler resumed their correspondence following the end of the war. Gris wrote to his friend on 25 August 1919, telling him about his first retrospective exhibition, which Léonce Rosenberg had mounted earlier that year. The artist offered his own assessment of his painting at this point:
"I would like to continue the tradition of painting with plastic means while bringing to it a new aesthetic based on the intellect. I think one can quite well take over Chardin's means without taking over either the appearance of his pictures or his conception of reality... For some time I have been rather pleased with my own work because I think that at last I am entering on a period of realization. I have also managed to rid my painting of a too brutal and descriptive reality. It has, so to speak, become more poetic. I hope that ultimately I shall be able to express very precisely, and by means of pure intellectual elements, an imaginary reality. This really amounts to a sort of painting which is inaccurate but precise, just the opposite of bad painting, which is accurate but not precise" (D. Cooper, ed. and trans. op. cit., letter LXXX).
(fig. 1) Juan Gris at Place Ravignan in Montmartre, 1917, in a photograph by his wife Josette. BARCODE 25594780
(fig. 2) Juan Gris, Moulin à café et bouteille (étude), 1917. Private collection. BARCODE 25594797
(fig. 3) Juan Gris, Violon et journal. November 1917. Sold, Christie's London, 4 February 2008, lot 43. BARCODE 25994773
(fig. 4) Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, The Waterseller of Seville (detail), circa 1620. The Wellington Museum, London. BARCODE 25994766