If fame eluded Gris during
his lifetime, now thanks to
Leonard A. Lauder, his Cubist
work is poised for
Leonard Lauder's Cubist Collection contains works by two Frenchmen, Georges Braque and Fernand Léger, and two Spaniards, Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso—artists described by the dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler as "the pathfinders of Cubism." Of the four, Picasso continues to loom large in the public imagination, while Juan Gris is less widely recognized. He died young, lamented by the few who most appreciated his work, among them the American expatriate Gertrude Stein. She composed an elegy for the artist in 1927: "As a Spaniard he knew cubism and had stepped through into it," she wrote. "He made a thing to be measured." If fame eluded Gris during his lifetime, now thanks to Leonard A. Lauder, his Cubist work is poised for renewed appreciation.
The Metropolitan Museum owns several fine examples of Gris's art, owing to the generosity of the Alex Hillman Family Foundation, Jacques and Natasha Gelman, and Florene M. Schoenborn. However, the sheer number of exceptional pieces by Gris in the Lauder Collection—ten works on paper and five paintings—creates a unique and exciting opportunity to reconsider the artist's work both monographically and within a larger Cubist context.
Gris's origins as a caricaturist inform his Cubist oeuvre, and like his Cubist brethren, his art is infused with playfulness. If the objects he depicted are clearly recognizable, his compositions reward careful looking. One of the most recent additions to the Leonard A. Lauder Collection is a magnificent painting by Juan Gris from 1915, Still Life with Checked Tablecloth, which marks the culmination of his Cubist-period work. In the midst of wartime chaos and personal uncertainty, Gris created an orderly, measured space. We can identify coffee cups, wineglasses, a bottle of ale and one of Beaujolais, a compote of fruit, and the shadowy outlines of a guitar. Our identifications are confirmed by the historic descriptive title. The objects are arranged in an unusual triangular form. But why? Take another look. Seen from a different perspective, that mass of café clutter comes together to represent a bull's head. The coffee cup at lower center doubles as the animal's snout, a black-and-white concentric circle at left is a "bull's eye," the bottle of ale is an ear, and the sinuous edge of the guitar a horn. In finding the bull, we share a brief bond with the artist. We recognize his humor, his wink of approval, and realize that he has laid bare a universal truth, namely that things are rarely what they first seem.
Leonard A. Lauder Curator of Modern Art, Curator in Charge of the Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art
Department of Modern and Contemporary Art