“Pound. Parker. Picasso.” Those are the first three words of art scholar and historian T. J. Clark’s new book Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica, and any book that begins that way immediately has my complete interest, if not my total heart. The three names are poet Philip Larkin’s trio of “twentieth-century destroyers”, Clark tells us, “those who had tried to rob him of the joys of Sydney Bechet and the consolations of Thomas Hardy.” In other words, those three P’s shook up and shattered Larkin’s notions of what poetry, music and art, respectively, could do.
Clark himself adds Jackson Pollock and, “breaking with alliteration”, Samuel Beckett. Personally, and also breaking with alliteration, I might include Henry Miller, though, agreeing with Clark, I’m unsure “what making [such a] list is meant to do.” To exorcise, to stave off the inevitable, to defend one’s personal refuge? No one likes being disabused, especially about such important matters as music, literature or art.
Certainly no one disabused more notions of what was possible in painting than Pablo Picasso. And no one is quite as equipped to parse this disabuse as T. J. Clark. Clark, Professor of Art History at the University of California, Berkeley, has authored at least two of the most important art books in the last hundred years or so: The Painting of Modern Life (revised edition, 1999) and Farewell to an Idea (1999).
Along with being a brilliant thinker, Clark is a greatly entertaining writer. The point of critical writing is not to confuse the issues but to clarify them, and Clark has an acute sense of clarity coupled with a like sense of rhythm, cadence and measure. He doesn’t just know how to think about this stuff, he knows how to get it down in a lively and gripping way. Picasso and Truth is based on the A.W. Mellon Lectures in Fine Arts delivered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and though doubtless Clark reworked the material for readability, he hasn’t lost the lectures’ performative energies.
For example: “[The Three Dancers] is a fiendishly clever performance of visual interlock, analogy, balance, paraphrase, migration and mutation of repeated shapes, kinds of lines, kinds of spatial interval. Only look at the dialogue of the serrated edges with the woman’s spiky fingers and toes! Or the positive-negative switching of her two—or is it three?—breasts. This is Cubism with a vengeance.”
This caliber of art appreciation and assessment entails a well-trained capacity for looking, and Clark is an exceptional art ‘looker’ and, as is clear from the above, a great art describer. His The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (2008) is essentially a journal of looking at two Poussin paintings repeatedly. Looking and writing and looking and writing. The luxury of tenure and fellowships.
In Picasso and Truth Clark works hard, very hard, to give a true sense of what’s actually going on up there on some key Picasso canvases. And, not surprisingly, a lot is going on.
From his introduction, speaking of one particular painting, but appropriate to Picasso in general, and remarking that “it is weird and sad that in Picasso’s case it goes on being necessary to spell it out”:
All the great opposites and ambivalences of subject and object rehearsed in the picture—its undecideables of color and distance and erotic availability—are achievements of painting. And the canvas could hardly state more clearly…that the way to particularity in art… is via absolute aesthetic generality… emotion absorbed in technique. Desire is a generalizing force. Painting’s ultimate coldness is only excusable (only nontrivial) because it follows desire’s path. It mimics the process—the geography—of splitting and projection, but only by having those movements of mind and feeling become nothing but moves in an aesthetic game. ‘Expressiveness’ cedes to choreography. This is a central Picasso dialectic.
Most certainly. And even if it is a spelling out, I’m grateful for this paragraph’s summarized scope and good sense.
Even Clark’s lecture titles are evocative, and concise to say the least: Object, Room, Window, Monster, Monument and Mural. The extrapolations drawn from these deceptively simple words are astonishing in their range, from painters such as Ingres, Cezanne and Goya, to, crucially, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a key source for Clark’s thinking on Picasso and his testing of Picasso’s “Truth”-seeking or, at times, “Untruth”-seeking—that is, the painter’s struggle to render, in paint, nothing less (or more) than the world before him through commensurate (and then some) forms.
The name of this struggle was Cubism, that highly influential High Style, whose striving for “exactitude”, Clark points out, was forced into crisis mode through the travesties and discontents of the 20th century. In this light, Cubism’s earliest innovations were less a commencement than something more nostalgic or “retrogressive”:
Cubism… is a style directed to a present understood primarily in relation to a past: it is a modest, decent, and touching appraisal of one moment in history, as opposed to a whirling glimpse into a world-historical present-becoming-future. It is commemorative. Its true power derives…from its profound belonging to a modernity that was passing away: the long modernity of the nineteenth century.
One of Clark’s central propositions is that in Picasso’s Cubism specifically, this “nostalgia” or reclamation or reaching asserts itself primarily through the creation of interior space, or “room-space”:
…the making of an imaginatively habitable three dimensions, one having a specific character, offering itself as a surrounding whose shape and extent we can enter into. In Picasso’s case, ‘imaginatively habitable’ equals making an interior of sorts […] Being, for human beings…seems to have as its very precondition being ‘in’: reaching out, really or imaginatively, and feeling the limits of a place.
The canvas is not, or not only or merely a repository for psychological dramatizations or expectorations but an enclosure for a material struggle, an attempt to capture or feel out a world in paint that is somehow, in Wittgenstein’s words “attached to reality… laid against reality like a measure.” Clark extends the thought: “Physical reality is something the mind or imagination can only reach out to incompletely, for objects resist our categories; and painting can speak to this ultimate non-humanness of things very well; but only by giving their otherness the form of a certain architecture, a certain rectilinear—indeed, ‘cubic’—constructedness [his emphasis].”
The physical rendering of this imaginative habitat invokes the familiar stuff of Cubism—bottles, guitars, tables, all in a room somewhere—but the implications include not only these “surrounding” things, but the “surrounding” itself. Clark is especially compelling on how Picasso treats space, provides space a “resistant” character: “…space resists [the figures]. It presses in on them with its particular character. It constrains and invades them.”
One entryway for this invasion, Clark asserts, is through Picasso’s picturing of windows, those facilitators of letting the world in, thus giving space a presence, almost a taste, definitely a color: “It all comes back to the blue, the ‘outside.’ The blue is what shapes and penetrates […] the figural character of the blue […] has been made part of the world up front […] it is here with us, inside the room. We can dance it. We can wrap ourselves round it.”
So is the blue outside an intimate roommate or a dangerous invader? Both: It’s an intimate invader.
The lectures are structured as a progression from interior to exterior, moving from object to room to window, to how Picasso peoples or populates his interior space, then through the window into the outside world, a rare Cubist location. (Asked why he painted “so few outdoor scenes”, Picasso replied: “I have such interior landscapes that nature could never offer me ones as beautiful.”) Most of the lectures focus on one emblematic painting correspondent to its title.
“Room”, for example, looks at Guitar and Mandolin on a Table (1924), a painting that stares back cock-eyed at our cock-eyed world. “Window” dissects The Three Dancers (1925), a Cubist culmination generating from Clark some fantastically descriptive language: “A giant head, clamped onto the small one like a mud helmet…with what look to be short rigid dreadlocks exploding from the top…” “Monument” looks at Picasso’s late-1920’s “beach” paintings, with those weird bathing beauties, all boobs, bones and mandibles, resembling both buildings and bodies, architecture and armature.
I was especially intrigued by a lesser-known painting, The Painter and His Model (1927), housed in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Appropriately the focus for the lecture entitled “Monster”, the work is a large and truly odd composition of a floppy-limbed “extracted tapeworm” of a model (Clark’s redolent description of another like-figure) and a purely geometric painter, both overlaid with two oblong shapes that Clark alternately describes as apertures, spotlights, or knife, palette and womb.
Clark concludes his lectures with Guernica (1937), the painting least like other Picassos due to its size and its explicitly political forum.
For all Picasso’s largeness—of personality, of cultural cache and historical achievement—his pictures are mostly close to, proximal, enclosed. Picasso’s version of the world seems, in a sense, a downsizing of his own internal massiveness, a prodigious inventiveness honed to a seize-able size; the largeness, thus compressed, is that much weightier or sturdier.
In Guernica especially, there is a kind of bearing down, a palpable battle on Picasso’s part to both concentrate and enlarge formal ideas generated by the horrific and extremely recent event (Picasso began sketching the work five days after the raid on the Spanish town), while accommodating, not too obviously, the final mural’s political setting, tone or register.
Clark asks a daunting question regarding the project: “Could one have space finally register on the surface, felt as a heavy, breathable, confining reality, without a picture of this size becoming all obstruction—all detail, all brilliant bits and pieces?” Perhaps needless to say, his answer is Yes: “Space, insofar as it survives this abstraction, is here, lower down, closer to us, in the weighted, grounded, bottom-heavy world of the giants […] This was proximity, in a word, but reinvented. It was flatness finding its feet.”
Guernica reconciles Clark’s lecture titles by blowing them to bits, then rigorously re-ordering them for the canvas: objects are smashed, rooms and windows are blown open, monstrous or monstered mothers are transformed into anguished monuments—all of this in a frieze-like processional flow. The whole mural is a monument to painterly space. Picasso shows us our world by pushing it into our faces.
T. J. Clark recognizes the dangers of writing about Picasso (“Anyone adding a book on Picasso to the thousands we have owes his readers an explanation.”), and he’s quite harsh on Picasso-writing predecessors (with a few exceptions, notably the work of Rosalind Krauss and Rudolf Arnheim), deploring the “abominable character of most writing on the artist… it’s prurience, its pedantry, the wild swings between… fawning adulation and false refusal-to-be-impressed…”
What he’s lamenting in part is the tendency to grocery-list Picasso’s mistresses and neuroses, and to over-apply aspects of the artist’s personal life to his art in general through gossipy, multivolume blow-by-blow biographies: On this day Picasso went to the market. On this day Picasso stayed home. On this day Picasso had roast beef…
I understand Clark’s frustrations. Picasso is important, as fundamental to an understanding of the 20th century as Hitler or Chaplin, Kennedy or King. Picasso is the 20th century. Yet his name and persona have become so pervasive that it’s easy to forget how insanely brilliant his work was and is.
I’ve long accepted the genius of the man. I’m not one to hold a popular artist’s commercial appeal against them, and certainly no artist, other than maybe the Beatles, has amassed such crass commercialism around a name. There’s no business like Picasso Business. Yet no matter how many coffee cups, neckties, calendars or placemats, Picasso’s work—absolutely in person, but even in good reproductions, of which there is an abundance in Picasso and Truth—retains its power, its formal inventiveness, its living quality.
So even despite my already open acceptance of Picasso’s genius, T. J. Clark reenergized the artist for me. Every time I return to his paintings, Picasso just keeps looking better and better.