Between December 1913 and October 1914, Juan Gris executed forty-one works on canvas in a novel, hybrid technique, in which he extensively employed papiers collés—cut and pasted papers—with oil paint, gouache, and various drawing media. These pictures accounted for the great majority of the artist’s production during this remarkably prolific period. Completed in Paris during May, La table de musicien established many of the significant, fundamental pictorial elements and compositional devices seen in the rest of the series.
Gris’s papier collé paintings constitute a signal contribution to the radical achievement of the Cubist enterprise prior to the beginning of the First World War. These works have been lauded as the summit of the artist’s oeuvre. John Golding declared, “The papiers collés of 1914 represent the climax of Gris’ exploration of the intellectual possibilities of Cubism and of the new techniques it had introduced” (Cubism: A History and an Analysis, London, 1968, p. 133). James Thrall Soby described these pictures as being “magnificently adroit” and further claimed that “From 1914 date some of the finest pictures of [Gris’s] career—those breathtakingly inspired collages which are assuredly among the most perfect works of our time” (Juan Gris, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1958, pp. 26 and 35).
The Cubist still-life, landscape and figure paintings that Gris produced during the previous summer and fall in Céret, near the Spanish border, where Picasso was then also staying, stand forth as his first absolutely mature and distinctively personal works. Gris had discovered his strong suit in the more open forms, the clearer manifestation of real objects, and the renewed appreciation for color that defined the new “synthetic” approach Picasso and Braque had introduced into their Cubist pictures.
“Gris, who had always been an original painter,” Golding stated, “had during 1912 asserted himself as an important influence on the minor figures of the Cubist movement. Now in 1913, he was executing works which match the contemporary paintings of Picasso and Braque in quality of invention…[showing] a steady progression toward an increasingly accomplished and commanding kind of painting” (op. cit., 1968, p. 129). Gris had become Cubism’s “third man,” and according to John Richardson, Picasso regarded him as “a sorcerer’s apprentice—doubly dangerous for his mastery of the sorcerer’s secrets” (A Life of Picasso: 1907-1917 The Painter of Modern Life, New York, 1996, p. 282).
From Céret, Gris returned to Paris in November 1913. Gertrude Stein made her first purchases of his work, and eventually collecting seven pictures in all; the dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who had taken Gris under contract earlier that year, was making well-placed sales among his select German clientele. As he had done with Picasso and Braque, Kahnweiler kept Gris away from the commotion and controversy of the public salons. One had to make the effort to see Gris’s paintings in the dealer’s small gallery, which only added to the mystique and desirability of his work. Gris was already famously methodical: his production became known for its purity, preciseness and clarity. The poet-critic Guillaume Apollinaire dubbed him the “demon of logic” (L.C. Breunig, ed., Apollinaire on Art, New York, 1972, p. 254).
The development of synthetic Cubism stemmed from the invention and use of collage and papier collé during 1912. Picasso produced the first collage in May of that year, when he pasted down within a painting on canvas a section of oilcloth printed with a chair-caning pattern, and framed the completed oval composition with a length of hemp rope (Zervos, vol. 2*, no. 294; Musée Picasso, Paris). Collage subverted the traditional notion of la belle peinture, the use of fine materials and time-honored, specially perfected media. The artist need no longer through such conventional means seek to create a simulacrum of reality; he may instead, with the use of real, extraneous, ordinary, non-artistic objects and materials, postulate an alternative, analogous reality with its own objective significance. In early September, working in Sorgues, Braque made the first papier collé composition, a collage of paper on paper, applying sections of an oak grain patterned wallpaper to a sheet, then drawing over and around them to represent a still-life with a fruit-dish on a table (Romilly and Laude, no. 150). Picasso made his first papier collé composition a few weeks later.
The use of newspaper clippings allowed the artist to insert timely events and topical issues into his pictorial world. Faux-bois patterns and fragments of wallpaper evoked the typical Parisian interior and its furnishings. Plain or colored papers could be cut into forms and planes, to establish a spatial context and generate shapes that might evoke recognizable objects, serving as signs to represent them. During the previous phase of analytic Cubism, color had been regarded, in the pursuit of form, as a dispensable distraction. The use of cut, colored papers demonstrated that color and form could exist and function independently of each other, an idea that led to the reappearance of color in Cubist painting, now free to act in as arbitrary or as non-descriptive a manner as the artist pleased. Gris proved to be the most striking and adventurous colorist among his colleagues.
As ever, Gris was quick to seize upon these ideas, fully appreciate the intellectual implications, and then carry them to their fullest logical realization. In various canvases he completed during late 1912 and early 1913, the collaged element, though of limited size and presence, nonetheless acted as a key signifier within the painted composition (e.g. Cooper, nos. 27, 32, and 42). Gris was not content, however, with a casual, occasional, or side-line engagement with such a potently game-changing means of representation. By the spring of 1914, following a series of still-life paintings executed purely in oils (nos. 65-67 and 69-73), Gris decided to make papier collé the very foundation of his art, creating fully integrated and exquisitely orchestrated compositions, conceived on a substantial scale. La table de musicien is among the larger of the 1914 papier collé paintings; David Rockefeller’s brother Nelson also owned an important work of impressive size, Guitare et verres (no. 91), done in Paris during June 1914, also on the theme of music. Such large compositions, layered with papers, glue, and paint, required the strength and durability of stretched canvas supports.
The striking V-shaped composition in La table de musicien is comprised of pieces of cut paper, printed and plain, applied over and around the black-painted rectangle of the canvas support that delineates the tabletop. The blue ground that fills in the corners of the composition is also composed of paper glued to the canvas, trimmed to skirt the edges of the black table. Against this darker periphery, Gris contrasted the concentration of his motifs—drawn in shaded, illusionistic relief on the cut papers, with highlights in white paint—which flatly represent the three-dimensional forms of a bottle, glasses, and the lower part of the musician’s violin. The effect is as if Gris were shining a single, strong light on the tabletop in a darkened room. To complete the paper collé construction of the lower part of the instrument, Gris drew on the blue ground the upper body, neck, and scroll, which rises like a disembodied spirit into the ether. Anchoring the composition at lower center is a cut paper polygon painted white, on which Gris inscribed an abbreviated version of musical staves.
An actual clipping from a copy of Le Matin, one of the four most widely read newspapers in Paris before the First World War, provided the musician’s table reading. This issue was published on 10 May 1914, suggesting the dating of this work. Gris is known, moreover, to have deposited the completed La table du musicien with Kahnweiler before traveling at the end of June with his companion Josette to Collioure, where he completed the balance of his 1914 papier collé paintings. The fragment of the headline at left (“[L’enqu]éte atroce”) pertains to the strife in the Balkans which preceded the outbreak of the First World War.
More mysterious is the article beginning “Explorateurs en disaccord: Ils s’accusent de n’avoir rien explore rien” (“Explorers in disaccord: They accuse one another of having explored nothing”). This headline refers to a dispute in which a Brazilian army colonel accused the English explorer Henry Savage Landor of falsely claiming to have discovered previously traveled territory. Gris is thought to have been alluding, by analogy, to infighting among the Cubists over taking credit for various innovations in their picture-making (exh. cat., op. cit., 1994, p. 279). To counter such discord, Gris appears to advocate in La table de musicien the peaceable enjoyment of musical harmony, together with the ordinary, congenial sharing of a bottle of absinthe or wine at a café table.
Gris remained in Collioure following the declarations of war in August 1914, and continued to create his papier collé paintings. When he and Josette returned to Paris in early November, he experienced a complete downturn in his fortunes. Kahnweiler, whose stipends had freed Gris from want, was a German national and fled to Switzerland, leaving the artist without financial support. Having evaded obligatory military service as a youth, Gris could not return to his family in Spain. By the end of 1914 it was clear that the murderous battles on the Western Front would not quickly end in an Allied victory. In a letter to Maurice Raynal dated 20 December, Gris lamented, “My present life is flat, undecided and sterile and I don’t even like reading the newspapers [an important source of his collage elements] because I am so depressed and terrified by what is happening” (quoted in, D. Cooper, ed., Letters of Juan Gris, London, 1956, no. XXV).
Gris and Picasso ceased making papiers collés during the war. “The privations of war-torn Europe,” Marc Rosenthal noted, “must have made their reflexive collage games seem out of step with the times” (Juan Gris, exh. cat., University Art Museum, Berkeley, 1983, p. 65). Gris’s magnificent papiers collé paintings, together with Picasso’s joyously luminous canvases created in Avignon during the summer of 1914, provided the final glorious chapter, the culminating flights of fantasy and invention, in pre-war Cubism.
Peggy and David Rockefeller had known G. David Thompson, the Pittsburgh industrialist and financier, for many years and admired his collection, which concentrated on modern artists. Following his death, many of Thompson’s holdings were sold at Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., New York in 1966. “We bought several of his paintings,” David Rockefeller has written, “one of them Gris’s ‘Musicians Table’, a collage which I think is the finest Gris we own” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1994, p. 95).