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Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica by T. J. Clark

Alex Danchev applauds a study of one of the 20th century’s greatest thinker-painters

How to talk about painting?” asked Paul Valéry. T.J. Clark’s answer to that question is downright and uplifting. Clark cleaves to the work, and its view of the world, perhaps even its world view. His Picasso is no lofty agnostic, as he puts it, who accepts that the nature of the world is unknowable and all approaches to it equally valid. “His god is exactitude. And exactitude for him (as for Wittgenstein) is a transitive notion. Representations are true or false, accurate or evasive. The world appears in a painting - if it didn’t, who would bother to look?”

Picasso and Truth, then, is a study of art and thought - “the century’s most difficult pictorial thought”, asserts Clark, and also the most influential, “as Picasso’s fellow-artists acknowledged (often against their will)…decisive in changing the language of poetry, architecture, music, sculpture, cinema, theatre, the novel”. More precisely, it is a study of thinking-in-painting, of the thinker-painter. It is centrally concerned with what Clark calls Picasso’s conceptual horizon; “but concepts for Picasso are nothing unless they are kept alive in pictures - entertained on paper, as things or ‘states of affairs’…that might actually be the case”.

Such a study is a mighty undertaking. It is no surprise that this makes for an intensely, almost thuggishly cerebral reading experience - a mix of exposition and excogitation - an intellectual high-wire act, commanding, compelling, thought-provoking…thrilling.

So what will Art be, as part of this spectacle - along with all the other practices of knowledge on which it fed, from Giotto to high Cubism - without a test of truth for its findings, its assertions; without even a will to truth?

Clark takes no prisoners. He remarks on “the abominable character of most writing on the artist”, excoriating “its prurience, its pedantry, the wild swings between (or unknowing coexistence of) fawning adulation and false refusal-to-be-impressed, the idiot X-equals-Y biography, the rehearsal of the same few banal pronouncements from the artist himself; the pretend- moralism, the pretend-feminism, the pretend intimacy…and above all the determination to say nothing, or nothing in particular, about the structure and substance of the work Picasso devoted his life to”. He names names. Or blanks them out: John Richardson, author of three volumes of biography, rates two mentions in this book, both of them in the endnotes.

He appeals instead to Nietzsche, and also to Wittgenstein. “Is not Picasso Nietzsche’s painter? Is not his the most unmoral picture of existence ever pursued through a life?” There is something of a Nietzschean echo in Clark himself (and not only in the rhetoric). He tells of reading On the Genealogy of Morals and being struck by the concluding passages on “these hard, strict, abstinent, heroic spirits who constitute the honour of our age, all these pale atheists, anti-Christians, immoralists, nihilists…these last idealists of knowledge in whom the intellectual conscience today dwells and has become flesh…These are by no means free spirits, for they still believe in truth.” The will to truth, says Nietzsche, poses itself as a problem. From this there is no going back - “morality will gradually perish: that great spectacle in a hundred acts that is reserved for Europe’s next two centuries, the most terrible, the most questionable, and perhaps also the most hopeful of all spectacles”.

“Perhaps,” comments Clark, the self-confessed socialist atheist, laconically. “We have roughly a century to go.” He quotes the note he scribbled in response: “So what will Art be, as part of this spectacle - along with all the other practices of knowledge on which it fed, from Giotto to high Cubism - without a test of truth for its findings, its assertions; without even a will to truth? It seems to me that Picasso and Matisse made just that question their life’s work - and gave the question real aesthetic dignity - in ways that mark them off from the artists who first posed the question (Nietzsche’s contemporaries), for whom it seems to have made painting either a brilliant charade - I think of Gauguin - or an unsustainable agony - I think of Van Gogh.”

The note is revealing. It is the germ of the book, or rather the lectures on which the book is based, as Clark himself concedes. This applies equally to its principles (painting as a practice of knowledge) and to the pattern of its attention, for the artist who posed the truth question most fundamentally is strangely absent: Cézanne. Cézanne had no time for charades, as Picasso surely knew.

Picasso and Truth focuses on the painting of the interwar period. It concludes with a bravura treatment of Guernica (1937); yet much of the book is devoted to Cubism, in particular to Picasso’s “three great reimaginings of Cubism”, Guitar and Mandolin on a Table (1924) in the Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Three Dancers (1925) in Tate Modern, and The Painter and His Model (1927) in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. On this account, Picasso’s truth is founded on the Cubism originally developed in concert with Braque (whose truth goes unexamined) in the years before the First World War. The maturation of this project is what Clark calls high Cubism. “If high Cubism was not true,” he writes in typical style, “it was nothing. Of course even high Cubism was engaged in constant negotiation with painting’s limits, with painting’s playfulness, with its necessary offer of pleasure and its need to draw back from the black hole of analysis. But always at its finest and freest moments…there is a claim to have gotten the structure of the world right in ways that no previous picturing had”. Cubist space is Picasso’s world view. For Clark, the emphasis is on the room - the Cubist room - a room with a view.

Clark’s treatment of Guernica is a kind of rejoinder to Nietzsche, and incidentally to Clausewitz. “The horror and inquisitiveness of the women - their bearing witness even at the point of extinction - have been given sufficient substance. What fixes and freezes them is felt as a mechanism, a rack. The bomb is the abstractness of war - war on paper, war as war rooms imagine it, war as ‘politics by other means’ - perfected. Here is what happens when it comes to earth.”

Where is the Picasso of the drone?

Picasso and Truth is a magisterial work: in many ways a summation. It retains its character as a spoken text; it is full of marvellous obiter dicta. “Every age has the atheism it deserves.” “Nostalgia can be enervating or electrifying. It depends on the past one harks back to, and whether in practice it can be made to interfere with the givens of the present.” “The Communist Manifesto, we see in retrospect, is as much under the spell of Adam Smith and Balzac as looking for a way to set the world on fire. It is the great poem of capitalism’s potential.”

It is a measure of the power of the work that the conclusion is reminiscent of another great artist. “Providing room - the sine qua non of the human for Picasso - just is, for him, providing a room, a specific and familiar floor, wall, wainscot, window…” In the Duino Elegies, Rilke asks:

“What if we’re here just for saying: house, bridge, fountain, gate, jug, tree, window, at most: column, tower…but for saying, understand, oh for such saying as the things themselves never hoped so intensely to be.”

The author

Author Timothy James Clark

Until his retirement in 2010, Bristol-born scholar Timothy James Clark held the George C. and Helen N. Pardee chair of art history at the University of California, Berkeley.

Today, he says, “I live in London (for the past three years, after 30 years in the US) with Anne Wagner”. What he finds most notable about the city is “the possibility that the reality of London as a ‘world city’ might one day defeat ‘Britishness’ “. Were he to live elsewhere, it would be in “New York, where an analogous victory took place long ago”.

Clark was (“briefly”) part of the Situationist International, a network of radical artists, intellectuals and political activists. It was, he says, “an intense, indelible experience - it still is basic to my view of politics. For 30 years the name of the SI was unspoken (unspeakable) in the academy and most other places. That it now has its moment in the sun is, well, a mixed blessing.” Asked whether those in the later punk movement who cited Situationism as an inspiration were its worthy heirs, he says, “the Gang of Four and the Mekons (way before the Situationist ‘boom’) did manage to give the SI’s ideas a good beat”.

This book emerged from his 2009 A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts. “I try to make everything I write be a version - obviously an artificial version - of spoken English. Lecturing breeds all kinds of bad rhetorical habits, but it can, with luck, keep academic prose at bay. I hope it has in Picasso and Truth.”

“I guess I saw Picasso first in books, as a schoolkid; it was Cubism’s strangeness and coolness and optimism and analytic temper that were exciting,” he recalls. “They still are, but I suppose that now I am more interested in why and how the coolness and optimism gave way to monstrosity. I’m still not sure which, in the end, is Picasso’s deepest note.”

Asked about non-academic pastimes, Clark says his current hobby is “torturing myself with the spectacle of present-day ‘politics’”.

Karen Shook

Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica

By T.J. Clark
Princeton University Press, 352pp, £29.95
ISBN 9780691157412
Published 5 June 2013

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