In the 1930s, the art historian Meyer Schapiro, at odds with Alfred Barr and the apologia for abstraction made by the recently founded MoMA, wrote about the importance of the theme and of studying the choices made by artists painting Cubist still lifes, as a way to trace the thinking and private life of the artist. This process is especially revealing in the case of Juan Gris. In his still lifes he favours objects that reflect human activity, instead of traditional motifs such as fruit and flowers; the human condition is, therefore, involved. His choices are made based on his knowledge of pictorial tradition but they are renewed in his working method, which departs from abstraction to arrive in a sensitive world with rhythms and movements that are specifically pictorial. In the paintings of this period, the selection of objects has quite an allegorical meaning. The books suggest poetry to someone who was very close indeed to poets such as Pierre Reverdy or Vicente Huidobro; the instruments allude to music, and the pictorial plane, where the transformations and reverberations occur, is a metaphor for painting itself.
Along with references to the arts, Gris added elements that are traditionally indicative of the senses, such as grapes, pipes or playing cards. Gris, like Picasso and Braque, also invented new combinations of conventional allegorical attributes. Rarely did he include the symbols of the five senses in a painting. In their place, he composed objects that symbolize a basic dichotomy that can be summarised as follows: life as opposed to art; the sensual as opposed to the intellectual and the anecdotic as opposed to the sublime.