ART / Circling the square: As a new exhibition opens at the Whitechapel Gallery, Andrew Graham-Dixon re-examines the work of Juan Gris

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SUSAN SONTAG once wrote that 'interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art', but some art just won't be explained away. Cubism has remained relatively untouched by the herculean attempts at exegesis that it has prompted since the second decade of this century. There is still something difficult and unfathomable at its core, and while there is hardly a major artist of this century who has not in some way been influenced by it, there is still a sense in which it seems never to have been entirely understood. 'Juan Gris', at the Whitechapel Gallery, is a beautiful puzzle of a show - a gathering of works that still have the aspect of unsolved riddles.

Posterity has simplified Gris, who joined the Cubist club late, around 1911, at a time when Braque and Picasso were creating the most hermetic and puzzling of all Cubist pictures: impenetrable, virtually abstract works from whose busily overlapping planes it is almost impossible to extract anything much like the subject of a conventional easel picture. Gris has been remembered as Apollinaire's 'demon of logic', the artist who set himself the task of setting Cubism's shattered bones, of evolving compositions of grand stasis and calm from its fractured maelstrom of a world. But this myth of Gris turns out to be less than completely adequate.

Take Gris's Guitar on a Table of 1915, one of the most seductive paintings in the present show. What the eye sees is a peculiar blend of the imagined and the real which is reflected in its style, see-sawing from the mimetically faithful to styles that self-evidently declare themselves to be mere signs for things, forms of visual code. On a table painted with high-fidelity realism lies a sheaf of papers marked with blank musical staves: a field of visual interruption across which, shifting trickily from opacity to transparency, has been inscribed the form of a guitar. It is not, evidently, a painting of a guitar, but a painting of an idea of a guitar, and as such it could be said to prove Apollinaire's assertion that 'Cubism is the art of painting with elements borrowed not from visual but from conceptual reality'.

The Cubists are often said to have rejected the old, monocular structure of traditional perspective in favour of a new and supposedly more faithful system that presented objects from a multitude of views - seen in this light, Cubism becomes a form of realism. Gris's painting, however, explodes such a notion. What it suggests, on the contrary, is that the new relativism of the Cubists amounts to a denial of the very possibility of realism - for once you accept that any representation of an object offers only a partial view of it, the notion of a comprehensively mimetic art becomes untenable, and even the Cubist solution of multiplied viewpoints only exaggerates the partial, incomplete character of the image.

Gris's ghostly guitar is a model, so to speak, of this perception: an image of the fact that no painting can do more than conjure a dimly imperfect phantom of real, lived experience. This may be the significance of those blank musical staves - reminders that you can never hear the guitar in a picture. Cubism could be described as visual art raging against the sense of its own limitations. Wanting to be everything that traditional painting cannot be, it yearns for release from the stasis of the fixed, painted image, aspires to mobility and sequentiality. But these aspirations cannot be satisfied within visual art and end up migrating elsewhere (to cinema, in particular, whose mobile eye is essentially Cubist). However, Gris himself (unlike Picasso) does not often seem to be raging against art's limitations, but enquiring into them. His art often has a quality of profound meditativeness; the impression is of a man who spent much of his career contemplating just what art might have lost, and what it might stand to gain, with the advent of Cubism.

What it has lost is a firm grasp on the world. This is the message of that ghost- guitar, and even more clearly of his Fruit Dish, Glass and Lemon. Gris has painted the fruit dish partly in profile, partly in the round, and partly in colour, a kind of heavy off-white that plays a large part in Gris's palette. Each style allows us to know the object differently: as line, as mass, as colour and as texture. But none gives us the whole truth: the act of painting is defined, with splendid conciseness, as an exercise in selective lying.

In the foreground of the picture you see a lemon, painted in sharp yellow (the only touch of bright colour), and as the eye travels back into the picture it discovers a sequence of ever more removed and distant simulacra of this same fruit, dim shadows drained of colour and eventually of mass. The painting dramatises the frustration of all art, the nature of every picture as a tantalus: the further you investigate its world, the more you are reminded that its promises of pleasure are feigned. Gris sees this with a clarity and poignancy lacking in the other Cubists, and there may be an element of autobiography here: Gris, who suffered from tuberculosis and died young, may have been dramatising his own as well as art's frail hold on vivid, pleasurable realities.

His most distinctive contribution to Cubism remains the rigorous sense of pictorial order which he brought to it. This, perhaps, was his way of defining what art might stand to gain in the wake of Cubism - a newly revitalised sense of painting as glorious artifice, as a way of creating worlds better and more beautiful than the real one.

His tabletops are landscapes, versions of pastoral life that replace the real world (of the cafe, the city, the pretexts for his art) with Edens of abstract pattern: you note the way in which the strings of Gris's guitars are rhymed (in Guitar on a Table) with the lines of the musical staves, or the way in which (in his Guitar and Fruit Dish of 1919) the hole in its sounding board, flattened to an ellipse, rhymes with the mouth of the glass, itself rhyming with the bowl of the smoker's pipe and the smaller ovals of a bunch of grapes. Perhaps Gris's Cubism aspires less to the busy movement of the cinema than to the lucid, harmonised movement of music.

But interpretation cannot really rest here, because Gris's art remains profoundly ambiguous. His rhyming compositional structures can be seen as a form of painterly redemption, a winning of transcendent pictorial order from the real world. But they can also be seen quite differently. Rhymes, after all, are inherently illogical: whether visual or verbal, they yoke together two disparate objects by virtue of a chance similarity.

So while it is possible to see Gris as the artist who gave grand and lucid form to the world of Cubism, it is equally possible to see, in him, the first stirrings of the Surrealist imagination, which loved to discover peculiar, psychically charged correspondences between unlike things. His paintings of glasses and jugs and guitars are, in one sense, all paintings of mouths, and the psychoanalyst could doubtless have a field day with them: perhaps, given Gris's chronic tubercular emphysema, these paintings are dreams of the unobstructed passage of breath? 'Juan Gris' at the Whitechapel demonstrates that, in one sense, Cubism continues to achieve its stated goal: no matter how hard you try to pin them down, these paintings won't stand still.

For details, see opposite.

(Photograph omitted)