Retrospective for a modern master
Though Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque may have founded the Cubist school of painting, and Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger wrote the manifesto for the movement, it was Juan Gris who truly mastered the Cubist aesthetic and pushed it as far as it could go, creating beautifully intricate paintings in which logic and lyricism compete to compose symphonies of spatial manipulation. A fitting monument to this master’s genius, the book simply entitled Juan Gris was published in 1992 by Yale University Press to accompany a retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. This substantial 9” x 11” tome contains 118 plates of Gris paintings and drawings from all stages of his career. Almost all are reproduced at a full page in size, and all are in full color unless the original work was in black and white. Around another 75 smaller black and white images illustrate the book’s roughly 200 pages of essays.
While this book succeeds as a beautiful coffee-table showcase of Gris’s work, it also contains a complete and thoroughly detailed scholarly monograph on the artist and his art. The text by Christopher Green, who curated the exhibition, is written by an art historian for art historians, with little attempt made to make it accessible to a lay audience. (I have an art degree, and I found it tough going.) This is not a biography but a critical study, and Green expects his readers to come readily armed with extensive prior knowledge of Gris’s life and career. (He does include a four-page biography of Gris as an appendix. I would suggest you read that first.) Some topics Green covers include the chicken-and-egg balance between visual analysis of form and intellectual synthesis in Gris’s painting process, the role of Platonic philosophy in his art, and the personal meanings behind particular objects or figures he chose to depict in his paintings. Green analyzes numerous writings by contemporary critics and friends of Gris, often reconciling conflicting statements in order to elucidate insight into Gris’s life and art. The prose can be tedious and repetitive at times, as it is written in the case-building style of academic argument. Though the text delves into more theoretical hair-splitting than this general reader was looking for, I did learn a lot about Gris’s artistic process and pictorial techniques.
In addition to Green’s contributions, the book contains two additional essays. Karin von Maur writes about “Music and Theatre in the Art of Juan Gris,” including his set and costume designs for various ballet productions. Christian Derouet provides an essay discussing a recently discovered correspondence between Gris and one of his art dealers, Léonce Rosenberg. Both contributions help broaden the reader’s understanding of Gris, in particular von Maur’s essay, as it brings to light Gris’s work in a medium for which he is little known.
Even though it was published a quarter century ago, when taking into consideration both the value of its authoritative text and the exceptional reproduction quality of its images, Green’s book is still likely the best book available on Gris. Its prohibitive price may put it beyond the reach of many readers’ private collections, but any respectable university library with a decent art department should have a well-loved copy on their shelves. Any artist or art lover with an appreciation for Cubism should seek it out.
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