Juan Gris (1887-1927)
This is our way into George L.K. Morris’s second half of his ‘Art Chronicle review of MoMA’s Bauhaus exhibition. Here he turns, by way of comparison, to the Jacques Seligmann Galleries, to assess the work of Juan Gris (1887-1927). Gris was a Spanish artist who lived in Paris most of his career. He and Picasso and Braque created or invented the school of Cubism, and Picasso was said to have at times been very competitive with Gris. The lithograph in front of us hangs in the kitchen galley of our studio in the Barbican. My mother bought the lithograph, No.38 of a series of 50 of Jean Le Musician, in Paris, 1938 just before she returned to New York after a Carnegie Fellowship in Paris. I don’t know why, but I began to love him — Jean, that is — from the age of about 8, and over the decades, whenever I visited New York to see my parents, I made sure to spend time studying his face. London’s Tate Modern has No. 48 of the same series in its collection: the note that accompanies it explains its content and context:
“Jean the Musician depicts a young man named Jean-Claude Brune. Gris refers to him in a letter of 19 March 1921, describing him as ‘a young man from a family which is very important locally – he’s the son of a conseiller général of this department he’s a good musician and a very intelligent boy who I think would like to own something by myself.”
“The concentration on likeness ….can be seen as part of a widespread return to realism in France and Italy in the early 1920s. The prevalence of a classicising style at this time reflected the desire of many artists, including Amédée Ozenfant (1886-1966), Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), Gino Severini (1883-1966) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), for a ‘return to order” in the arts. This change in style has been understood in terms of a widespread desire for stability and tradition after the disruption and chaos of the First World War.”
Morris has moved from the modern, technological, and antiseptic Bauhaus to the classicism of Juan Gris. He upbraids the viewing public for ignoring the show of Juan Gris’s work by contrast to the popularity of the Bauhaus exhibition: and reads his work in comparison with the Cubists. “Gris has never been easy to write about. He did not assault the public with anything comparable to Picasso’s sensational impasto, nor does he lure the spectator with the engaging succulence of Braque. His work was always very reticent.”
Morris takes Gris as his example of the triumph of ‘art’ over ‘method’ and carries into his analysis his programme for aesthetic excellence, and is grounded in his own participation in the world of the “Park Avenue Cubists”: Gris is praised for that ‘reticence,’ for ‘charm and. monumentality’ associated with the Spanish aristocracy, which he names as ‘an aristocratic suavity’ still unsurpassed. Morris shifts Juan Gris technique and execution of form back to his being: “Only years of culture and an inborn feeling for style can dictate what [that form] should be”.
Morris’s argument, in both parts of his commentary, manages to avoid giving any considered criteria by which to make either aesthetic or methodological judgments. He falls back on his own ‘inborn feeling for style.’ The enigma remains. Bauhaus and Juan Gris both win.
Next Week: Sean Niall, PARIS LETTER