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
Technique and condition
The painting was executed in oil colours on a single piece of light-weight linen canvas which is attached to a pine stretcher with copper tacks, neither of which are original. The width of the original stretcher bars was likely to have corresponded to the severe linear cracks now seen in the paint approximately 40mm from the top and bottom edges. The canvas is now fairly weak and brittle and its edges have been strengthened with the attachment of strips of a stronger linen canvas.
The canvas is not primed and the paint was therefore applied directly to the fabric. On the reverse of the canvas the stained outlines of the forms are clearly seen, which were formed by the soaking in of the oil medium and indicate that the composition was established on the canvas. The paint was applied exclusively by brush in a very fluid manner, often in thin layers which barely cover the canvas, but also in brushstrokes of appreciable thickness, especially at the main outlines of the forms. The painted border was probably one of the last areas to have been painted and the paint used for this appears a slightly thicker paint to the rest. It is likely that originally this border would have been parallel to the outer borders of the stretcher.
The painting is varnished and this layer is possibly the original. It is now rather yellowed. The painting is signed and dated in the bottom left corner. The wooden frame is gilded. It is not known whether it is original to the work. The painting is in overall fair condition, despite the rather weak and brittle nature of the canvas and the development of several cracks in the paint layers. The painting has been treated at least once in the past to secure areas of loose paint. However, the paint now appears well adhered to the canvas support, and if the painting is now kept under stable environmental conditions and is protected from mechanical abrasion the likelihood of further damage should be dramatically reduced.