Property from the Collection of Katharine and Morton G. Schamberg
For most of 1914 Gris made only collages, combining cut and pasted papers with oil paints and drawing media. This technique enabled him to freely mix various objects while eliminating the transitional passages that would have been required in painting, and to play off the illusion of depth or low relief against the inherent flatness of his component materials. The practice of papiers collés suggested new ways of composing his pictures. By the winter of 1914-1915, however, Gris tired of making collages, as did Picasso 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 assumed. 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).
Gris returned to painting in the spring of 1915. During this time he was still corresponding with his dealer D.-H. 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. On 26 March Gris wrote, "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 the summer of 1915 his quest for an 'aesthetic' was bearing fruit, and in the course of July alone he painted nearly a dozen pictures, including Verre et carte à jouer, one of his most productive periods to date.
This progress is all the more remarkable in view of the difficulties that Gris faced at this time. His neighbors in Montmartre ostracized him for not donning a uniform and fighting the Germans--as a citizen of neutral Spain, like Picasso, he had no obligation to do so--but even worse, he had worked with the German dealer Kahnweiler before the war, and some were aware that they were still in communication with each other. 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). Gris was unfortunately stuck in Paris for the time being; having evaded his obligatory military service in Spain as a young man, he could not return to his family home in Madrid.
Gris struggled to make enough money for his wife Josette and him to survive on. Kahnweiler had to temporarily cut off the monthly stipend as provided for in their pre-war contract. Then a promising deal with Gertrude Stein and the American dealer Joseph Brummer, who began to collect Gris' work in 1914, fell through when Stein found out that Kahnweiler had resumed sending small amounts of money via Gris' parents in Madrid. Léonce Rosenberg, an erstwhile antiquities dealer, was seeking to fill the vacuum left by Kahnweiler's departure, and made overtures to Gris in early 1915 to buy his paintings. Gris, scrupulously citing his obligations to Kahnweiler, declined. It was not until April that Gris and Kahnweiler mutually agreed to suspend the terms of their contract, leaving Gris free to sell to Rosenberg. Now working with a French dealer, Gris' dealings were above board and beyond reproach. This new arrangement was another factor that served to encourage Gris to renew his efforts at painting.
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, whose specificity he now reworked as more generalized forms, and he further experimented with the layering of planes, with deference to the flatness of the picture plane. He left behind, however, the limited tonalities of the collages, and now worked again in rich, varied colors. Two paintings done in June paved the way for the July series. Kahnweiler singled out Nature morte (Cooper, no. 130; fig. 1), "an oval inscribed on a rectangular canvas. The objects no longer stand upright on the base of the rectangle, solid and motionless as usual, held in place by the frame; they have lost their footing on the slippery surface of the oval and are whirling around like mad things" (in Juan Gris: His Life and Work, New York, 1969, p. 126). This was perhaps Gris' most hermetic and abstract painting. The second picture returned to the world of real, identifiable objects, Nature morte et paysage (Place Ravignan) (C., no. 131; fig. 2). Here Gris simultaneously depicted a still-life in an interior, superimposed on a view of his street in Montmartre. By eliminating the convention of a window connecting the two subjects, created the effect of a picture within a picture.
Gris returned in Verre et carte à jouer to the juxtaposition of rectangular and oval forms seen in Nature morte (fig. 1), and retained some degree of ambiguity in his component shapes, but the glass is easily identifiable, together with a book cover and the repeated forms, variously scaled, of playing cards. He topped off this composition with a rectangle of pigments mixed with sand and sawdust, an additive technique that Picasso had utilized in paintings of 1912-1914, and Braque in 1912-1913. Gris first introduced sand into one of his paintings in April 1913 (C., no. 38), and again in a handful of paintings done around the time of the present work, in May-July 1915.
Like Nature morte et paysage (fig. 2), the present painting is comprised of a picture within a picture. The glass and playing card sit within a picture plane defined by an imitation rattan background, supported at bottom by a blue oval frame. Behind it lies an intermediary plane, an oversize card, arrayed in a pointillist, confetti-like design. There a full-size oval frame, that perhaps holds a wall mirror, in the background. The overall effect of the composition is that of cascading movement, of planes generated from planes that appear to unfold and then tumble toward the viewer. As Kahnweiler observed, "Hitherto his pictures had been absolutely static. But during the summer of 1915 he produced pictures which are full of movement." (P. 126).
Verre et carte à jouer shows Gris in his most dynamic and ebulliently footloose synthetic cubist manner, in which he playfully experimented with superimposed planes, like cut sheets of papiers collés, that coyly engage the viewer's perception of depth vs. flatness. Only a month later, a new classicism would enter Gris' work, influenced by the ambiguous stability and sense of unsettled permanence in Cézanne's great still-lifes (C., no. 146; fig. 3). This, in turn, would point the way to the clarified, crystalline manner 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, Nature morte, June 1915. Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. BARCODE 23659445
(fig. 2) Juan Gris, Nature morte et paysage (Place Ravignan), June 1915. Philadelphia Museum of Art. BARCODE 23659452
(fig. 3) Juan Gris, Pipe et journal, August 1915. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. BARCODE 23659469