Artist brushes away a world of certainty
Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica
By TJ Clark Princeton University Press, 333pp, $74 (HB)
IT’S hard to imagine, after the endless words that have been written, the countless reproductions printed, the sensational gossip recycled, the popular elevation of his name to a stand-in for the concept of genius, that anyone could have anything new to say about Picasso.
TJ Clark has. The British art historian is best known for his bravura treatment of modernism in Farewell to an Idea, which came out in 1999 and became a classic. In it, he analyses modernism in his trademark episodic style, arguing it has become our antiquity and that postmodernism cannot succeed in probing the collapse of modernity because its premise is wrong. Modernity hasn’t collapsed at all: we are living through its triumph.
Clark is known as a Marxist theorist, though it needs to be repeated that he deploys the critical techniques of Marxism without endorsing the catastrophic 20th-century interpretations of its recommendations: two distinct ideas that some can’t seem to hold in their minds concurrently. In fact, the critique that emerges in Farewell to an Idea is more Weberian that Marxist, with its emphasis on the consequences of the secularisation and routinisation of modern life.
Clark’s emphasis on the sheer materiality of art — its manipulation of canvas and paint alongside cognitive understanding of space and representation — as well as its political and social implications as a means of production is, if anything, stronger in his new book than it was then. In Picasso and Truth, based on a series of lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Clark identifies himself not as a Marxist but as an atheist and socialist — perhaps a distancing from the connotations of that constantly misused word.
A theme emerges, though, of modernism, and cubism in particular, as the death throes of the 19th-century bourgeois world with its emphases on ownership and propriety, something Clark explores through the picture plane, what is happening on the surface of the painting as it transmits the subject from artist’s handiwork to the eye of the beholder, and the juxtaposition of interior and exterior spaces.
According to Clark, modern art reacted to the end of the bourgeois era by looking back ironically on both its assumptions and its bohemian critique, and by reducing its imperious — and imperial — world view to the contents of a room: Pierre Bonnard with his bathtub scenes, for example, or Henri Matisse reassembling Morocco in his apartment.
Clark sees the apotheosis of this trend in cubism: the intensification of modernism’s disruption of seeing, which Picasso would abandon, return to, rebel against and reuse for the rest of his career. It was a rupture with the touchstone of reality. It was, in fact, another farewell: to the belief in truth.
Parsing key works by Picasso, one per chapter, beginning with the segue into cubism in The Blue Room (1901), which prefigured it, working through Guitar and Mandolin on a Table (Still Life in Front of a Window) (1924), which postdated it, moving on to Three Dancers (1925), which introduces the grotesque, and The Painter and his Model (1927), to the 1929 paintings that cloak the lines of cubism with the look of sculptured stone, Clark culminates his argument with Guernica, that stupendous cry against the physical horrors of war.
In his examination of Guitar and Mandolin, he asks how Picasso worked on a technique, once World War I blew bourgeois assumptions apart, to bring the outside into the stuffy enclosure of rooms. In Guernica, he asks how Picasso induced claustrophobia by reversing that direction, showing the world as inescapable, ‘‘ a new kind of human proximity’’, full of violence and monstrosity on a scale that his Freudian flirtations with it had barely touched. How can this almost 8m-wide mural, filled with agony and dignity and fear, manage to represent such a thing ‘‘ without falling itself into a spatial rubble, a spatial nothing’’?
Picasso did this, Clark concludes, by making the women and animals he depicted approach us, and by placing them on ‘‘ a ground which is neither outside nor in, exactly, but the floor of a world’’ in the very instance of its destruction. Where, Clark adds poignantly, ‘‘ women and beasts, in spite of everything, still fought to stay upright and see what was happening’’.
Clark invokes his own isms to underline his perception that Picasso, at the head of the modernist tribes, destroyed truth in the world. ‘‘ Seeing through the picture plane had been, in practice, the last refuge of Truth in depiction, and here finally no such refuge remains,’’ he writes of The Painter and his Model. A few pages later, he writes: ‘‘ Speaking as a socialist atheist, I would say that the world views of Grunewald and Velazquez are as uncongenial to me — to me as a citizen, to my everyday sense of human possibility — as anything I intuit Picasso to be proposing. But assent is not it. I recognise in Grunewald and Velazquez — I fully enter into, in the act of looking — an account of the species in full.’’
Clark has written another exciting and insightful study of something that threatens to become stale as a field of inquiry and yet which has never been fully explained. He