Artist brushes away a world of cer­tainty

Pi­casso and Truth: From Cu­bism to Guer­nica

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.