cubist artwork by Juan Gris showing a book and a glass and the figure of a man in a suit

Book and glass (1914) by Juan Gris. Artwork held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, USA. Public domain.

At first glance, this artwork is not much to look at. The colours are dull. The bottle is pushed in a corner. There’s an open book, half hidden. And a glass that is hard to spot. Then you see the figure of a man in a grey suit with a brown tie …

And next you read that the ‘collaged pages [of the open book] were taken from the fourth Fantômas instalment, L’agent secret (published in English as A Nest of Spies), a story of stolen military documents and assassination’.

Fantômas!!! I remember him from visits to my grandma’s. I was so desperate for TV (we didn’t have one) that I happily watched old series on French television, although I hardly understood a word of French at the time.

The first book of the Fantômas series of crime fiction appeared in 1911. To keep costs down, the publisher insisted the two authors churn out one book a month. They cooperated so efficiently that they managed to do so for 32 months, between 1911 and 1913.

cubist painting by Juan Gris showing a green cover of a Fantomas book

Fantômas (1915) by Juan Gris. Painting held in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, USA. Public domain.

Largely because Fantômas was such a cruel and evil genius and because, book after book, he kept getting away with his crimes, the series was an instant success with the public. The art world was also taken with him. Another painting by Juan Gris shows a cover of a Fantômas novel — the price is 65 centimes.

As early as in 1913–14, a series of five silent movies based on the books came out and became equally popular. Here is the first movie — without music, unfortunately!