Francis Gruber
Year, Birthplace 1912, France
Year, Place of death 1948, France
Francis Gruber was the son of the famous master glassmaker Jacques Gruber, one of the most talented artists of the Nancy School and, more generally, one of the most important decorative artists of European Art Nouveau. After moving with his family to Paris, in 1914, he enjoyed a new period of artistic acclaim during the Art Deco period. He had two children – Franz and Jean-Jacques Gruber, who also became a master glassmaker and an acknowledged expert in the history of medieval art. Francis Gruber’s childhood was blighted by asthma attacks and he was educated at home, close to his father’s studio and to neighbours such as Roger Bissière and Georges Braque. He began to paint at the age of 12. His brother’s passion for the Middle Ages led him to become interested in painters such as Matthias Grünewald, Albrecht Dürer, Hieronymus Bosch, Jacques Bellange and Jacques Callot. In 1929 he started at the Académie Scandinave, where tutors included Henri de Waroquier, Charles Dufresne and Othon Friesz. He formed friendships with Pierre Tal-Coat, Emmanuel Auricoste and Francis Tailleux, as well as with his father’s assistants, André Civet and Boris Taslitzky. With his father’s help, he exhibited from the age of 18 at the Salons d’Automne and the Salons des Tuileries. The Musée du Luxembourg acquired a still life by Gruber, when the artist was only 20 years old. His first individual exhibition took place at the Académie Ranson in 1936. After the death of his father, in the same year, he took over his large studio in the Villa d'Alésia. There, he grew close to his neighbours, Alberto and Diego Giacometti. Gruber was famous in Montparnasse, both because of his exuberance and his intemperate lifestyle. He was a passionate young man, whose left wing convictions inspired his belief that art and social progress should go hand in hand. Around 1935, he was active in the Maison de la Culture, alongside Louis Aragon, Jean Lurçat, Marcel Gromaire and Jacques Lipchitz, and he took part in the initiatives of the Popular Front. His realist painting underwent a clear evolution from depicting love to dealing with social themes as in Hommage au travail [Homage to Work], death, as in Splendeur et sépulture [Splendour and The Grave] or the condition of the artist and the writer, as in Le Poète, Hommage à Rimbaud [The Poet, Homage to Rimbaud], Hommage à Jacques Callot [Homage to Jacques Callot], both from 1942. There is a great incisiveness to his drawing, in the tradition of ancient Germanic art. Francis Gruber escaped the war due to health problems, yet the following years were marked by depression and loneliness, as evidenced by his scenes of an empty studio. He suffered from tuberculosis. His health progressively declined, particularly since he refused to give up his excessive lifestyle. The pathetic nature of the few works from this time speak of the anguish of a painter confronted by a period of wretchedness. With Liberation came a certain euphoria, as demonstrated by the exhibition Art et résistance, yet a settling of accounts and the voicing of partisan interests could be heard more clearly. Painters, divided into abstract and figurative camps, attacked each other. Gruber became a member of the Communist Party, which supported and promoted him. Francis Gruber died soon after achieving national recognition in France. He was greatly admired for some years, as evidenced by the major retrospective which the Musée national d'art moderne in Paris mounted of his work in 1950. He became an iconic figure of the Salon des jeunes peintres, as the original exponent of miserabilism – a style revived, though not matched, by painters such as Bernard Buffet and Paul Rebeyrolle. AC