T J Clark: Picasso and Truth: from Cubism to Guernica

Published by Princeton University Press, £29.95 hardback

Picasso has always divided opinion: was he one of the great masters of the 20th century, or was the early promise of the Blue Period and Cubism sold short by subsequent decades of wilful distortion? Was Guernica, his monumental work of 1937, a masterpiece or a cop-out?

In this book, based on his six A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts delivered at the National Gallery of Washington in 2009, T J Clark sets out to explain and defend Picasso’s development in the 1920s, culminating in a powerful exposition of the development of Guernica. It is a wonderful book by a great art historian, offering some profound insights into our age.

Clark writes lucidly and with a passionate belief that art addresses our deepest issues. Scholarship underpins his work, but above all he looks. Eschewing the trivia of Picasso’s biography that so often tries to turn every painting into autobiography, he makes the works speak for themselves. Above all he wants to argue that, if Picasso’s works are pathological, they are the pathology of his age, not of the artist himself.

Key to Clark’s argument is that there is a philosophical break in Cubism after the First World War. Although Cubism 1907–14 is often seen as the birth of modern art, Clark argues that it is also the end of nineteenth-century positivist certainties. Pre-war Cubism, although fragmenting appearances, was always the record of a specific, lived encounter of the artist. It represented a truth claim – about the intersubjective reality of the world that the artist painted, about objects that could be touched, in a space that could be experienced.

By the early 1920s, Clark argues, that certainty had disappeared from Picasso’s art. Picasso continues with the visual language of Cubism, but to quite different effect. Picasso finds the external world to be ungraspable, mentally and artistically. It is ‘other’, strange and monstrous. He tries to break out of the closed space of the typical Cubist interior, setting still-lifes and figures against open windows, but everything presses up against the picture plane, all flat outward appearance. There is no substance, and the artist often actively obstructs any connection with the world of the viewer.

To explain these works, Clark relates them to the philosophy of Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, and above all to Nietzsche. Reality may be there but it is ungraspable, and there is no meaning, no purpose, no ideals, no beauty. Things just are.

Pessimism, Clark suggests, is what gets us closest to Picasso’s worldview. It is not, he grants, a lovely vision, but it is honest. It is the truth, as he sees it. Much of Picasso’s work may be superficially bright and happy, but ‘grimness’ is the bass-line of the music. All we can grasp of external reality is its appearance. And all we can know is our own experience, pleasant or unpleasant.

And if the external world in its unknowableness seems fundamentally hostile and threatening, so too do the people who live in it. They become ungeneralisable, inconvenient, unlovely monoliths. Some are fragmented figures, tinged with the fragility of bone or the eroticism of flesh. Others are hideous monsters, overtly threatening, arrayed with very sharp teeth not just in their mouths but in their sexual organs: the longing for union and our fear of it, the joy of sex and the fear of castration, are closely linked in the artist’s mind.

So Picasso’s struggle with the outdoors seems to be a kind of spiritual agrophobia – an attempt to grasp what little reality is knowable to the individual. And his population of monsters is a reflection of human nature: in extremis, that is what we are. His view of humanity is tinged with compassion: his monsters seem to be unaware that they are monsters. But Picasso offers them no hope. They just are what they are.

Which brings us and Clark, in his excellent final lecture, to Guernica. Picasso had been reluctant to take on the commission from the Spanish government. They, embroiled in ghastly civil war, wanted agitprop. But when the work was unveiled it was widely criticised for avoiding any specific references to the war – no planes, bombs, swastikas. Just an image of universal suffering. That, Clark argues, is Picasso’s point of view, established through the 1920s. He was personally sympathetic to the Republican cause, but his art was never political, nor moralising. It offers nothing more than sympathetic hopelessness. Death is more obscene in some instances than others, but what did you expect? Life and death is what is.

Clark does not explore the reason for the change in philosophical outlook. He seems to regard Nietzsche’s and Picasso’s outlook as an unavoidable conclusion. One can applaud, as he seems to do, this courage in facing the consequences of one’s beliefs. But Clark’s study provokes many fruitful questions. Isn’t pessimism based on a wilfully narrow selection of evidence from human experience? Doesn’t it ring falsely with other parts of our experience? If humanism, as Picasso concludes, effectively denies the possibility of beauty, why do we still hanker after it? Given Picasso’s spiritual agorophobia, is there something particularly Christian about the love of landscape, so open-ended and infinite, something that can be known if not grasped, and known to be good, inspiring our love and worship, not fear?

[This review was first published in Third Way, November 2013]

© 2015