Overlooking the Bay shows many items typically found in a cubist still life – bowl of fruit, glass, bottle and newspaper– set against the blue sea and distant hills of a seascape. Breaking away from the shallow space associated with pre-war cubism, Gris was attempting here to allow foreground and distant background elements to co-exist on a shallow plane without use of a naturalistic perspective or chiaroscuro. It is a painting of controlled internal tension. No obvious logic underpins the relationship of the curtain, which hangs parallel to the picture plane, and the jutting angle of the window frame on the right. The solidity of the glass is contested by the schematically delineated bottle and by the grapes that look as if they are a cut-out illustration of drawn grapes that has been collaged onto the canvas. Yet the image is held together by subtly rhyming shapes and the use of a palette of carefully modulated blues and greens. In this work Gris showed how far he had moved away from pre-war cubism while remaining absorbed in the problems of representation, space and light that were central to the style. He was later to say that cubism was ‘an aesthetic and even a state of mind’ (quoted in Kahnweiler 1969, p.202).
Overlooking the Bay was painted in Bandol, a small port and resort near Toulon in France to which Gris and his wife Josette had gone on medical advice, to avoid the cold and the damp of a winter in Paris. Gris’s first impressions of the town were mixed: ‘The sun is wonderful, but what a sinister landscape. Everything – the sea, the mountains - is as beautiful as can be, but how sad! ... The temperature here is very agreeable, but in bright sunlight the countryside looks gloomy.’ (Quoted in Letters of Juan Gris 1956, pp.85-6.) Juan and Josette Gris rented a room with a terrace overlooking the bay, and Gris found an attic in which to paint. Although he seems to have been sensitive to the contrast between the relative darkness of his apartment and the light outside, and the somewhat depressing nature of the countryside, he set to work quickly. His first pieces were lithographs of local people, including a young boy who worked as his assistant (see Tate P11370-2). However, he soon began to work on Overlooking the Bay and other marine-format paintings featuring still life objects and architectural elements set in front of views of the bay at Bandol. On 15 January he wrote to his friend and dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, ‘the canvases on which I am working are well composed and the colour contrasts are less strong than before. I prefer them as far as the colour goes although they are subtler and less strongly coloured’ (quoted in Letters of Juan Gris 1956, pp.89-90).
Letters of Juan Gris [1913-1927], collected by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, translated and edited by Douglas Cooper, London 1956, pp.85-90
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Juan Gris: His Life and Work, translated by Douglas Cooper, London 1969
Jennifer Mundy, ‘Juan Gris’, in Jennifer Mundy (ed.), Cubism and its Legacy: The Gift of Gustav and Elly Kahnweiler, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2004, pp.34-44, reproduced p.39 in colour
Revised by Giorgia Bottinelli