Room for greatness

Pablo Picasso painting ‘Guernica’ in 1937, photographed by Dora Maar

Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica, by TJ Clark, Princeton University Press, RRP£29.95/$45, 352 pages

How good was Picasso? The shaper and saviour of 20th-century painting, sure, but is that enough? One answer, says TJ Clark in this thrilling new reading, is that Picasso’s works themselves declare that greatness “no longer applies. It should not even be tried for. For greatness is a dependency of Truth.” In Picasso’s epoch of terror and totalitarianism, meaninglessness replaced absolute truth. By contrast, however much we may deplore the hierarchical or God-centred world views that produced a Velázquez or a Grünewald, we recognise in these artists “an account of the species in full”. Can 20th-century art reach such heights?

Clark, emeritus professor of art history at Berkeley, is a Marxist who has spent a distinguished career arguing about modernism and its failures. Picasso and Truth, focused on the period 1901-37 and based on his 2009 Mellon lectures at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, extends the thinking in his important Farewell to an Idea (1999) to propose that highlighting modernism’s limitations is “not a judgment brought to the period’s masterpieces from outside” but “the judgment of the masterpieces on themselves”. Faced with European catastrophe, “retrogression”, a retreat within, is art’s deepest, persistent note: Matisse and his armchair, Bonnard in his bathroom, Malevich in his coffin, Duchamp “playing peek-a-boo through a crack in the door”.

These artists, like Picasso, were born bourgeois, and the world, “for the bourgeois, is a room. Rooms, interiors, furnishings, covers, curlicues are the individual made flesh. And no style besides cubism has ever dwelt so profoundly in these few square feet, this little space of possession and manipulation.”

Clark begins with an analysis of “The Blue Room” (1901), the Phillips Collection’s unstable, tilting interior, lately a star loan from Washington to the Courtauld’s Becoming Picasso exhibition. For Clark, this painting’s concerns of “[t]he bed, the body, the window ... the corner of a wall with a little picture canted precariously across it” define “what space is for Picasso” and what he “was capable of saying about being-in-the-world”.

Although distorted, objects in “The Blue Room” are carefully delineated and placed – a precision that became a touchstone of cubism. In the abstracted interiors with which Picasso revolutionised pictorial representation between 1907 and 1914, “the upright loaves ... or the clarinet’s battle for life in the few inches between mantelshelf and wall, would be nothing ... if they did not convince the viewer that in them the actual depth (or shallowness) of the world was disclosed”. Picasso insisted that “it was just at this period that we were passionately preoccupied with exactitude”.

Cubism smashed tradition, but also marked the end of the long 19th century when every new art movement or medium – realism, impressionism, photography, film – turned on perception, the truth of visual experience. It was an obsession that did not survive the first world war: in Picasso’s 1920s nudes, and his 1930s parade of monsters and minotaurs, Clark suggests, “the question of whether the artist believed any more in the cubist machinery he was deploying seemed built into the performance”. The virtuoso return to classicism demands that we “feel the secondariness ... of the idiom”: Picasso as ventriloquist, aping someone else’s language.

Every era reinvents Picasso: in our age of performance and body art, Clark brilliantly posits a Picasso who replaced a truth project with a performance project, playing, dazzling, persuading. Two decades ago, Blue Period Picasso was most favoured by the market; now the acrobatic, transformative late 1920s/early 1930s Marie-Thérèse paintings are most expensive. Discussing one of the best, “Nude on Black Armchair” (1932), Clark explains how such a canvas “is unthinkable without cubism: its opening and closing of spatial positions is still essentially working the machinery of 1914-15. But the syntax is now loosened and simplified ... Wit gives way to infatuation. The body rules.”

Fleshy and gorgeous, the Marie-Thérèse paintings are nevertheless ambivalent in their “undecidables of colour and distance and erotic availability” – sex generalised as “mauve detachment, emotion absorbed in technique”. Picasso liked quoting Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre” (“I is another”). “Nude on Black Armchair” is ominous for “the feeling it conveys of eroticism existing in the face of cold fire on the other side of the window pane,” writes Clark. “What makes Picasso truly the artist of the century ... is his absolute faith in the here and now of pleasure and sex and the painter’s craft, and his absolute lucidity about the circumstance in which these things were now on offer. The room remained, but it was more and more populated by monsters.”

Picasso once wondered to his friend, the writer André Malraux: “When I paint a woman in an armchair, the armchair, it’s old age and death, isn’t it?” How easily Marie-Thérèse’s thrown-back profile would morph, in a darkening half-decade, into a weeping woman or a falling victim in “Guernica”. Picasso now “began to make the outside world his own”. Clark contrasts the way the outside comes as light through a window in 1920s interiors such as the Guggenheim’s incandescent “Guitar and Mandolin on a Table”, with the exterior as “inruption, instantaneity, horror” in “Guernica”. Here, “on a level with the giants” whose forms switch between paper thinness and stamping solidity in a grey world, flattened and vulnerable, we stare death in the face.

If in the attack on Guernica modernity “encountered its future and saw a whole form of life collapsing”, Clark asks, how was painting “to represent such an ending without falling itself into a spatial rubble, a spatial nothing?” Picasso managed it by reconfiguring the interior as “proximity but not intimacy”, a place “neither outside nor in, exactly, but the floor of a world as it might be the very instant ‘world’ was destroyed; and where women and beasts ... still fought to stay upright and see what was happening.” Thus space becomes an arena for truth-telling after all: a conclusion with optimistic implications for the legacies we can still seek in 20th-century art if we explore, as Clark does with supreme insight, the meeting ground between art and politics.

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s chief visual arts critic

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