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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Juan Gris

Each of us has an innate sense of fairness, and when we feel we've not been dealt with justly we cry, "That's not fair."  Of course it's commonly pointed out to us that "life" is not fair. The same could be said of history, and by implication, art history as well. When you think of Cubism, what artist comes to mind? Picasso, right? And if you're a particularly astute student of art history perhaps Georges Braque. Would you be surprised to find that there was a third cubist painter, Picasso's next door neighbor in fact. Though not entirely unknown, it seems he may have been dealt with somewhat unfairly by art history in that he's seldom associated with the other two in our pigeonhole minds as an early Cubist explorer. I guess this might not be surprising in that anyone working in the shadow of a man like Pablo Picasso, even Braque, would have a tendency to be obscured somewhat by the man's powerful personal and historic presence. Another reason might be that Juan Gris died at the young age of 39.

Gris (pronounced Greese) was born Jose Victoriano Gonzalez in Spain on March 13, 1887, making him a few years younger than Picasso, but like Picasso, a Spaniard, minus his fiery disposition. Whereas Picasso, and to a lesser extent, Braque, painted instinctively; Gris was known to work much more methodically, intellectually picking up where the other two left off, perhaps what we might call re-mining the mother lode. Art historians have forever had difficulty discerning between the work of Braque and Picasso, and not without good cause. The two for a time worked so closely Braque compared them to two mountain climbers roped together, pulling one another up. In comparing Gris' work with theirs, we could easily, at first glance, find his work also hard to differentiate. He used the same themes, the same wood grain effects, the same newsprint motif, even many of the same colors. But upon closer inspection, there are significant differences.

Portrait of Picasso,1912, Juan Gris
Gris is often, and I think unfairly, criticized as being a mere imitator of Cubism. Yet in many ways he could be considered the most dedicated Cubist of the three. Long after Picasso and Braque had moved on, Gris was still probing and developing the style, discovering new and unique ways to see in a Cubist manner. He watched Picasso, respected him deeply, and paid homage to him in one of his first Cubists works, Portrait of Picasso, painted in 1912 and exhibited along with Picasso's in the first major Cubist show that year. At the time, he was seen as Picasso's equal. Though by no means the leader of the movement, we are only now, in recent years, seeing Gris' deft, Cubist incarnations outside the shadow cast by his more flamboyant countryman. His work is more analytical than Picasso's, more experimental in terms of collage materials, and to some extent more abstract. The problem is, he was not Picasso, and died some fifty years before Picasso.  What could be more unfair?

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