Juan Gris was born José Victoriano Gonzalés-Peréz, on March 23, 1887 in Madrid. He was the 13th of 14 children. As a child, his talents in drawing were encouraged by an uncle. From 1902 to 1904 Gris studied at the Escuela de Artes y Manufacturas in Madrid. At this art and vocational school he was trained in the applied arts of textile illustration and illustrative drawing. In the time to follow, Gris further developed his painterly skills in the Madrid studio of artist José Maria Carbonero. During that time, Gris’ painting was shaped by Art Nouveau and the »Jugendstil« represented in the magazines »Jugend« and »Simplicissimus.«
In 1906 the artist moved to Paris where he chose the pseudonym Juan Gris. Like Picasso, he rented a studio in the Bateau-Lavoir at Montmartre. Being close to Picasso in terms of space as well as personal relationship, Gris became an intimate observer of the artistic emergence of Cubism. At the same time, he was a member of the Paris intellectual avant-garde of the time. He had access to the salon of writer and collector Gertrude Stein, and in the years from 1906 to 1912 he became an acquaintance of the intellectuals Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, and André Salmon and the artists Georges Braque and Fernand Leger. As a member of the circle, Gris therefore experienced the close cooperation / collaboration??? of Picasso and Braque. At the time, Gris himself worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for Paris newspapers such as »Charivari« and »Cri de Paris.«
The term »cubisme,« coined in 1908 by art critic Louis Vauxelles and then used as a stylistic category for the latest works of Picasso and Braque, was already established by 1910. At that time Gris himself turned towards cubism, initially with drawings and water colors. The basic structures of synthetic Cubism were in perfect accordance with the development of Gris’ artistic approach that was grounded in the line- and contour-emphasizing two-dimensional aesthetics of Jugendstil. Synthetic Cubism relied on the reduction of a naturalist objecthood to basic geometric forms, as well as a spatial configuration beyond the boundaries of mathematical perspective and visual perspective. As pictorial space, cubist reduction produced an autonomous, prismatically ambiguous spatiality in the picture surface. With his first paintings that showed classical motives such as still lives, Interieurs and Exterieurs, Gris’ work was represented by gallery owner Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, who favored the experimental. Until 1912, Picasso, Braque, and Gris were the three preeminent exponents of Paris Cubism that strongly influenced each other. With his portrait of Picasso, Gris honored his great artistic role model, while at the same time turning towards a more independent development of cubist forms in his own work.
Only for a short time Gris followed the palette of earth tones of Picasso’s and Braque’s cubist compositions that were based on light-and-dark contrasts. Soon his compositions showed areas of clear chromatic colors. This was enhanced through his meeting of Matisse in 1914 in Colliure. After that Gris dedicated several paintings as well as homages to the artist with quotations taken from Matisse himself. Gris also used collaged material, or he produced a collaged Trompe l’oeil effect through painting. A basic aspect of Gris’ independent compositions of analytic Cubism is the concentration on illusionist and narrative spaces with the autonomous area in the picture plane. His compositions were classically weighted and determined through clear contours (»schönlinig«) and distinctly boundaried color areas. Objects are presented as the concrete, yet it is broken down into its basic geometrical structure. If no Tromple l’oeil effect is intended, Gris’ application of paint is smooth and even, without building up a specific visual structure. Commenting on his way of painting, Gris stated his artistic aims as follows: »In painting, only the decidedly architectonic means are consistent. I go even further and claim that the only possible technique of painting is a kind of flat, two-dimensional, colored architecture.«
In 1917 Gris met Jacques Lipschitz who inspired him to create a number of plaster sculptures done in color. Gris had his first solo exhibition with 50 works at the Paris Galerie de L’Efferts Moderne in 1919. Already in 1920, however, Gris’ illness started to set in. During that time he repeatedly turned toward the motif of the Harlekin, the figure who quasi-professionally mediated between the bright, cheerful and the dark, sad conditions of human existence. In 1924 Gris settled in Boulogne-sur-Seine, after having done, like Picasso, stage settings for ballets by Diaghilew. In 1925 Alfred Flechtheim exhibited Gris’ works in his Düsseldorf gallery. The two final years of the artist’s life were filled creating etchings and lithographies for texts by contemporary authors like Tristan Tzara and Gertrude Stein.
Juan Gris died on May 11, 1927 in Boulogne-sur-Seine, at the age of 39.
Die Erneuerung des Sehens: Ausst.-Kat. Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Winterthur 2008
Einblicke: Ausst.-Kat. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Osterfildern-Ruit, 2000
Die Sammlung Kahnweiler, von Gris, Braque, Léger und Klee bis Picasso: Ausst.-Kat. Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf, München 1994
Juan Gris: Ausst.-Kat. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart u.a., Ostfildern 1992
Juan Gris: Ausst.-Kat. Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Baden Baden 1974
Four Americans in Paris: The Collection of Gertrude Stein an her Family: Ausst.-Kat. Museum of Modern Art, New York 1970