La lampe is an exquisite example of Juan Gris’ mastery of papier collé, one of the Cubists’ favoured artistic techniques, in which layers of found paper are arranged across the surface. Executed between May and June of 1914, La lampe comes from an important period in the evolution of Gris’ work; though the artist had experimented with papier collé previously, in the spring of 1914 he turned almost exclusively to this medium, creating works that display a masterful artistic inventiveness and a refined subtlety. La lampe has been hailed by the cubist scholar and collector, Douglas Cooper in the exhibition catalogue of the seminal Cubism show he co-organised at the Tate in London in 1983 as ’an exceptionally fine example of what Gris could achieve in papier collé’ (D. Cooper, The Essential Cubism 1907-1920, exh. cat., London, 1983, p. 158). Considered to be among Gris’ greatest contributions to Cubism, the papier collés from the spring and summer of 1914 established the artist as a leading innovator of this revolutionary movement, placing him alongside Picasso and Braque. La lampe has belonged in some of the greatest collections of early twentieth-century art, including that of the major modernist patron, American lawyer John Quinn, André Lefèvre, one of the most significant early collectors of Cubism, and prominent German-born collector, Jacques Koerfer, from whose descendants this work is now offered.
La lampe is a carefully conceived combination of interlocking, overlapping pasted papers, which the artist further brought together through details in gouache and over-drawn delicate charcoal shading. For this collage, Gris used four distinct types of paper: a cutting from French newspaper Le Journal, a piece of textured wall paper with a vertical pattern, a scrap of plain brown paper and a marbled paper, hand painted by the artist. A number of objects are arranged on a tabletop. Le Journal lies horizontally across the composition; the right hand corner appears as if it is gently turned up, and a soft charcoal curve added to the side, as if it were folded in half. A bottle and glass stand to the left of the lamp. Depicted three-dimensionally, their volumetric and material qualities remain intact; they are rounded and transparent. The lamp stands in the centre of the image. Gris has presented both the side of lampshade, depicted naturalistically with brown paper, while also illustrating a view of the top of the lamp, so imparting a sense of the volume of the object. Fragments of paper, such as the shard of hand-painted marble paper on the right of the lamp, lie across the image, with shadows and reflections of the surrounding objects drawn on them. Gris used papier collé, as well as traditional artistic processes of drawing and shading to demonstrate the nature of individual objects and forms, so creating a richly multifaceted, complex cubist image.
Papier collé was first introduced by Georges Braque in the autumn of 1912, when he incorporated pieces of ‘faux-bois’ wallpaper into his cubist compositions. Picasso quickly followed, creating compositions that amalgamated pieces of newspaper, wallpapers, and hand-painted papers, with drawn lines and forms. Gris’ approach to Cubism had always been deeply analytical and methodical. In La lampe, the paper has been carefully cut and overlapped to fit a very specific, premeditated compositional plan. In contrast to Braque and Picasso who inserted fragmented pieces of paper into their compositions, Gris covered the entire surface of the canvas in layers of different papers, some cut to correspond directly to a shape, others overlaid. This enabled him to render objects from multiple viewpoints, such as the lamp, and also invoke the representational, material quality of objects, such as the newspaper. A sense of increased solidity and exactitude is therefore introduced into the composition. These compositional characteristics reflect the shift that had begun to appear at this time in Gris’ work from Analytical to Synthetic Cubism. Analytical Cubism, which dissected and fragmented objects, developed into a more balanced, intuitive synthetic style that Gris’ art embodied throughout the First World War.
In La lampe, a copy of Le Journal, dated from 24th May 1914, crosses the width of the canvas, the dominant horizontal position lending it prominence within the composition. Newspapers or printed labels feature in nearly all of Gris’ papier collés from this period in 1914, and were used as a means to invoke puns and double meanings; witty comments on the nature of his art and the techniques he used. Gris carefully blocked certain parts of the newspaper so to draw the viewer’s attention to snippets of news items on the front page, revealing contemporary occurrences that often have a double meaning relating to Gris’ artistic practice. In La lampe light is very clearly thrown onto a certain headline on the front page of Le Journal: ‘QUI INVENTA le télégraphe multiple? Baudot ou Mimault?’. This is a reference to the nineteenth-century controversy as to who was the first inventor of a telegraph communication system that could transmit multiple signals. Within the context of Gris’ work however, one could interpret the word ‘multiple’ as an indirect hint to the cubist invention of the depiction of multiple viewpoints. The capitalised words, ‘QUI INVENTA’, moreover, seems to allude to the question of the ‘invention’ of the papier collé technique, hinting at the playful rivalry and artistic camaraderie between Gris, Braque and Picasso. Like the layers of paper, layers of meaning were built up, awaiting scrutiny by a discerning viewer.
La lampe comes from an intensely creative and productive period of Gris’ career. Shortly after completing this work in June 1914, Gris went to Collioure in the South of France where he spent the rest of the summer. The imminent outbreak of war had a great impact on Gris, and as a result his artistic output dwindled. On his return to Paris in November of the same year, he found the city a deeply changed place. His German-born dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, was in Switzerland where he would remain in self-imposed exile for the duration of the war, and many of his friends were scattered across France. After November, Gris never made another cubist collage, returning to oil paint. His experience with collage, however, unequivocally altered every aspect of Gris’ work, paving the way for Synthetic Cubism, of which he would become the lead proponent throughout the war years. La lampe is therefore a seminal work, rich in texture as well as meaning, illustrating not only Gris’ incredible artistic inventiveness, but also his direct contribution to the development of Cubism. James Thrall Soby, curator, writer and critic of modern art, surmised that works such as La lampe belong to, ’some of the finest of [Gris’] career – those breathtakingly inspired collages which are assuredly among the most perfect works of our time’ (J.T. Soby, Juan Gris, exh. cat., New York, 1958, p. 35). The majority of Gris’ 1914 collages now reside in major museums around the world, such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia; and Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, a testament to their unparalleled quality and important position within the development of Cubism.