Gris' Pot de Géranium is a virtual guidebook to 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. Manifest here are Gris' characteristic tilted and angled semi-transparent planes, stacked one atop the other, which the artist has contrasted in places with more decorative shapes bearing a neo-pointillist pattern. Note the typically cubist inclusion of a newspaper banner set atop a trompe l'oeil wood table, accompanied by a variety of objects and household fittings, including the flower pot, a glass and a section of wall molding. These aspects of the composition emerge from under the umbrella of the spreading branches of the geranium plant, which Gris has painted not in any generalized way, but leaf by leaf. This painting mingles nature vivant with the genre conventions of the classic nature morte. The corner of a windowsill is visible at upper left, which appears to let in some summery light and air. The background actually resembles a landscape, with green foliage set against a bright cerulean blue sky. Are we inside or outdoors, standing in a room or in the yard? The artist's palette is rich and varied, in his most delectable manner. This is indeed an exceptionally rich, deeply intriguing and truly rewarding painting.
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 around this time as well. 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, including coal for heating during the cold winter of 1914-1915. 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 he became distraught at learning 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 (as seen in the present painting), or in Le Journal (fig. 4).R
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 he had worked with the dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who as a German national had been forced to leave France at the outbreak of the war, and was then living as an exile in Bern. It was widely rumored that they were still communicating with each other, which was true, and some assumed 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. Gris scrupulously adhered to his obligations under his arrangement with Kahnweiler and declined. It was not until April 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, Gris' dealings were above board and beyond reproach.
This new arrangement was an important factor that encouraged Gris to begin painting again in the spring of 1915. By the middle of the summer he was completing new canvases at an accelerating pace--there had been six in January through March, none in April, only one in May, two in June, then thirteen more by the end of the July, including Le pot de géranium. Gris wrote 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). By July, however, this quest for an "aesthetic" was bearing fruit, and the summer of 1915 would end up as 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, with deference to the flatness of the picture surface. He left behind, however, the limited 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).
An important still-life that Gris painted in June and set the standard for subsequent works is the often cited Nature morte et paysage (Place Ravignan) (Cooper, no. 131; fig. 2). Here Gris depicted a still-life in an interior, superimposed on a view of his street in Montmartre, without the convention of a window connecting the two subjects, thus creating the simultaneous effect of a picture within a picture. As previously noted, Gris employed a similar idea of ambiguously mixed settings in Le pot de géranium. Rosenthal observed that "the still-life almost seems to have left the interior for an existence in the landscape" (op. cit., p. 70).
It is illuminating to compare both Nature morte et paysage (Place Ravignan) and Le pot de géranium with a still-life that Picasso completed earlier in the year, Compotière et verre (Zervos, vol. 2**, no. 537; fig. 3). 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 carefully controlled and modulated spatial subtleties, would probably have appeared like mere clutter or even chaos to Gris at this stage. 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. On cannot help but admire how Gris, on the other hand, has created perceptible and pleasing rhythmic patterns within his compositions by building on a sophisticated but no less spontaneous and intuitively felt substructure. As Kahnweiler observed, "Hitherto his pictures had been absolutely static. But during the summer of 1915 he produced pictures which are full of movement." (op. cit., p.126). Gris himself noted his work had become "less dry and more plastic" (quoted in D. Cooper, The Cubist Epoch, p. 223).
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 when the Cubists reintroduced chromatic values during the synthetic phase of their work. Gris was perhaps more than any other Cubist a superb 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 structural logic that underlies a still-life such as Matisse's Nature morte d'après 'La Desserte' de Jan Davidsz. de Heem, 1915 (fig. 4).
Le pot de géranium showcases Gris in his most richly imagined and profoundly inventive synthetic cubist manner, infused with the brilliance of a master colorist. The American collector, doctor and writer Philip Sandblom, the previous owner of this painting, has noted "its cool colours around the edges are fanned into the glowing Spanish ardour at the centre. The intricate composition, with many exciting details, has even so a natural, self-evident greatness, comprehensible even to those who have difficulty in appreciating Cubism in general" (op. cit., p. 17). Only a month later, a new classicism would enter Gris' work (C., no. 146; fig. 5), influenced by the sense of ambiguous stability and unsettled permanence 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. 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 25239775
(fig. 2) Juan Gris, Nature morte et paysage (Place Ravignan), June 1915. Philadelphia Museum of Art. BARCODE 25239782
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Compotière et verre, Paris, winter 1914-1915. Columbus Museum of Art. Copyright 2007 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York BARCODE 25239799
(fig. 4) Henri Matisse, Nature morte d'après 'La Desserte' de Jan Davidsz de Heem, 1915. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Digital image Copyright The Museum of Modern Art/Licensced by SCALA/Resource, NY BARCODE 25239805
(fig. 5) Juan Gris, Pipe et journal, August 1915. National Gallery of Art,
Washington, D. C. BARCODE 25239812