True or false
Still Life: Table, by Juan Gris, is as perplexing an artwork now as it was when it was made in 1914.
I am sitting, long ago, in the teensy, soigné, sunlit library of married friends. We surround a small wooden table, smoking our pipes (the sooty élan of youth). Always on the table stood a collegial populace of wine bottles and books we had taken from the shelf for some passage or picture linked to what we were chatting about. Scattered here and there among the books were antique fountain pens, in the colors of Riviera bikinis, used to sketch a chair or retell a William Carlos Williams poem. If it was Sunday, as it often was, a copy of the New York Times was easily at hand. There was a cat.
Missing from the Gris is a cat. Otherwise, substituting cigarettes for pens, it’s a pretty accurate archive of those discursive and jubilant afternoon hours. What better affords a quick syllabus of who we are and what we love than the things we deposit on table tops?
Beyond the triune café bliss of books, wine and conversation, Still Life is about what’s true and false (le vrai et le faux) and how, for better or for worse, modernity is signed by their inscrutable amalgamation. It can be hard to tell what’s real––sound familiar? The pipe is not real, it’s drawn with a pencil. The newsprint, on the other hand, is real. Pasted on. The wood grain is even trickier, denoting the top of the table, of course, and looking like actual veneer, but no, it’s wallpaper printed to look like veneer. So the wood grain effect is owed to artistic illusion, but the wallpaper itself is real.
Then the question arises, often voiced by my students––why is this so hard to decipher, like some game of find-the-third-cigarette? And why do experts so frustratingly insist that Cubism, drab and unappetizing as it often is, is just so important, indeed the one ‘discovery’ in the arts, since the Renaissance, as important and revolutionary as those of Darwin or Freud? Our one home run.
In a few short years, early in the 20th Century, Cubism dynamited the old ‘single point of view’––that dusty, crumbling bequest of the Renaissance. For centuries, our royal eye had arranged the world as an ocular kingdom, a Brunelleschi diagram where everything had its scale and place. With just a handful of paintings, that ancient coherence becomes obsolete, ushering in new angles, ambiguities and overlappings, all stitched together by some Singer instinct in the mind. Walk through any American airport; it’s not a Raphael world anymore.
Cubism was just a rawer acknowledgment of how we actually see, how we think, how we grasp the world around us and how the brain, rather than being a static mirror, is a magnificent compositor of fragments, illusions and moods.
But enough of theory; right now I prefer the prospect of bliss. Lemon tart and a bottle of your best Bordeaux. Merci. And another absinthe for my wife.