Juan Gris

Art on This Day

Juan Gris was born on this day, 1887, in Madrid.

He was given the name José Victoriano Carmelo Carlos González-Pérez, the thirteenth of fourteen children. He attended Madrid’s Escuela de Artes y Manufacturas from 1902-4, studying maths, physics, and mechanical drawing. He was a strong student but his natural ability in drawing prompted him to shift his focus to the arts; he studied painting under the tutelage of José Moreno Carbonero who also taught Salvador Dali and Picasso. The name change to Juan Gris came during this period.

In 1906, after the death of his father, Juan made the radical decision to sell all of his possessions and move to Paris. As he was thus dodging Spain’s obligatory military service, he had no passport, so could never again return to Spain nor leave France at all. During his early years in Paris, he dabbled in illustration and satirical cartoons for magazines and periodicals. He settled in the artist commune Bateau Lavoir in the Montmartre area where he met Picasso, Braque, Matisse and writer Gertrude Stein. These friendships inspired him to devote more energy to his own painting.

He began working in the style later coined Analytic Cubism, the defining features of which are monochromatic colour, use of linear grids, and the breaking down of a subject into geometric planes. His paintings combine different viewpoints of a subject in one image, calling attention to the limitations of traditional perspective and striving toward a new way of seeing that reflects the complexity of the modern age. One of Gris’ most famous pieces is a portrait of his respected mentor Picasso, who may either have felt threatened by the younger’s talents, or simply annoyed by his flattery; Gertude Stein noted that “Juan Gris was the only person whom Picasso wished away.”

He died young, aged just 40, in 1927 of renal failure. He left quite a legacy behind him: Gris is one of the artists responsible for popularising the avant-garde movement for his work’s relatively accessible nature in comparison to, say, Picasso and Braque. Where they delighted in destroying the conventions of painting, Gris aimed to please the eye, using well-balanced compositions, saturated colours, and traditional subjects. He is an important forerunner of Dada and Pop artists such as Duchamp, Warhol, and Lichtenstein in his usage of brand logos and newspaper typography. He also had significance influence on Dali, who wrote “my first cubist paintings… were directly and intentionally influenced by Juan Gris.”