Checkerboard and playing cards 1915 is a typically Cubist table-top arrangement of objects, including not only a checkerboard and playing cards as the title suggests, but also a pipe, wine glasses and a newspaper, Le Journal. These are familiar enough things, but are here described in an uncommon way. Space is compressed and planes overlap so that the leading edge of the round table on which the objects rest, the blue wainscoting behind the table and the blue floorboards, are all pressed up against the picture plane. Spatial relationships are observed, but without the traditional priorities of foreground and background.
This still life is a dazzling display by Gris of painterly virtuosity as well as wit. The painting is based on a calculated system of contrasts: colour is keyed to the brilliant whites and velvet blacks through the diminishing scale of high and low key hues—from lemon yellows and baby blues to deep maroons and acid greens. Curved and acutely angled shapes are played against each other, likewise transparent planes vie with opaque ones. Climaxing this bold balancing of elements is the juxtaposition of ambiguous forms and unequivocal detail, such as the markings on the cards and the improbable wood graining.
Checkerboard and playing cards acts both as a paradigm of Cubist achievement and as an intensely personal statement by Gris. His best works were painted between 1914 and 1917. Ironically these were the years, as we know from his letters, of his greatest privations. In 1915 he began to simplify his compositions, aiming for structural clarity and monumentality in the still-lifes he painted with almost monastic devotion. Gris, as an artist in France, admired Chardin and revered Cézanne; nonetheless he remained a Spaniard. Indeed, suspect as a foreigner in wartime, he was acutely aware of his nationality at this time.
The painting maintains a Spanish sense of realism, reinforced by dramatic light and brooding shadows to effect an austere solemnity. Ostensibly a formal exercise in the placement of shape and colour, Checkerboard and playing cards carries the weight of a moral allegory. The objects on the table are diversions of contemporary life—yet there is the ascetic clarity of a vanitas. The checkerboard was a useful and much-favoured conceit for the Cubists, particularly for Gris. But in 1915, when daily newspapers carried plans of the conflicts at the front and posted lists of casualties, the checkerbaord was more than just a campaign map for aesthetic battles. With his combination of games of strategy and chance with the fleeting pleasures of wine and tobacco, Gris presents a lugubrious reflection on life.
Adapted from Michael Desmond, 'A major acquisition, Juan Gris: Checkerboard and playing cards' in National Gallery News, Novermber-December 1993, pp.14-15, by Christine Dixon
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010