:: Article

Outside in, inside out

By Daniel Fraser.

T.J. Clark, Picasso and Truth (Princeton University Press)

My father once told me a story about a Picasso drawing that hung on the wall of the house of his friend Richard Cork. Cork had been sitting in a café in the south of France, had seen the elderly Picasso drinking at one of the adjacent tables, and begun to draw him. At some point the painter had got up and walked past the table, seen the drawing and asked if he might have it in exchange for a drawing of his own. Cork immediately tore the sketch from his notebook and handed it to him. Picasso thanked him before leaning down and, in a matter of a few seconds, drawing a waveform shape consisting of barely more than a single line, signing it and then leaving the café.  It was this drawing which now adorned the wall of Cork’s living room. Even though it was little more than a line, everyone who saw the picture was adamant about one thing: the signature was entirely irrelevant. That line – with its hovering form between the figurative and the abstract, between precision and wildness, its odd sense of space – was undoubtedly Picasso’s.

In his extraordinary new book Picasso and Truth, T J Clark examines the work of Picasso as he begins to move away from cubism and into somewhere new, a change of location rather than objective. After dismissing the fawning and the salacious readings which seem to dominate large swathes of the biographically-obsessed critical material on Picasso, Clark begins to construct his own ideas about Picasso’s work through a series of close readings which have as their focus a particular concept of pictorial space. Based on a series of lectures Clark gave, the book is segmented under headings which signify an element of Picasso’s attitude towards spatiality: Object, Room, Window, Monster, Monument, and Mural, the first four of which focus on a particular painting which Clark thinks exemplify this relationship to space and the last of which focuses on one of Picasso’s last truly remarkable achievements, Guernica.

Clark’s conception of space in Picasso’s work centres on a tension between solidity, presence, tangibility, and extreme fragility, absence, fading. This tension, Clark asserts, is representative of the painter’s struggle with the disappearance of the 19th Century and the death of bourgeois society whose very room space was the dwelling place for all his works. As “the room”, and “the studio” began to be disrupted by the space outside, something monstrous began to emerge. Picasso’s work is then, retrogression: a looking back which rejects the upheaval of the 20th Century. A reasonable response to a time of violence and catastrophe where the revolutionary potential of Marxism and Socialism that spilled over from the 19th Century became completely deformed, only destroying the bourgeois society after a catastrophic collapse into Stalinism and National Socialism. The world fell into dissolution. This manifests itself directly in his works. No matter how many monsters begin to appear, no matter what the threat of the exterior starts to bring into the frame, most of Picasso’s work remains contained inside the four walls of a room.

Immediately then Clark interposes a relationship between space and time (history) in Picasso’s work. His complex relationship to space is a physical manifestation of the time he lived in.  The correlation between space and truth becomes concrete when very early on Clark casts Picasso as “Nietzsche’s painter”, one who painted the erosion of truth, who saw the movement beyond it yet still cleaved to its beguiling quest for certainty. Collapsing truth was, for Picasso, a collapse of physical, determinate space.

From the outset Clark’s prose sparkles with both a lightness of touch and seriousness of depth which are entirely complementary to one another, allowing him to develop an argument across the book which, despite its wide-ranging application of philosophy and theory, never feels forced or coerced beyond the evidence gathered from the works themselves.

One of the first paintings chosen by Clark is the 1901 painting The Blue Room:

Describing it as ‘emblematic’, Clark sees the memorialisation of the previous century in its sense of a space of belonging, an inhabited interior with which Picasso ‘expresses all of what he has to say about being-in-the-world’.

One might further argue the fact that hidden beneath this room is an unidentifiable bourgeois figure, his head resting on his hand, eyes in a Manet-esque languid interrogation of the viewer, provides an appropriate metaphor that only serves to heighten the fragility and sadness to which Clark attests. Overlaid on the shifting substrate of modernism, the outward gaze that broke the relationship between painting and observer, is one great painter’s attempt to hold the space he knows even though the ground is already coming loose. Picasso could not afford to abandon an old medium, he had to overlay what was already there.

The presence of the word emblem is a touchstone that highlights Clark’s overall thesis: this picture is not a ‘base’ onto which an argument is built up, it is a perfect manifestation of the truth which Picasso is striving for but which he feels being eroded over time. The ideals of Picasso’s work are not ‘developing’ in any linear sense; each work under consideration adheres to the  same notions of space and truth but each responds to their destruction in a different way.

From here the book moves on to look more closely at the conception of ‘room’ before beginning to examine the encroachment of the exterior represented by the window, most notably of all in the magnificent Three Dancers:

Along the way, Clark sets up a kind of aesthetic dialogue between Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, holding up in relation to one another the former’s virulent attacks on ‘the will to truth’ alongside a number of the latter’s aphoristic assertions about the nature of objects: situating Picasso’s work as a point of resistance existing between the two.  These two figures who are now often drawn together, occasionally under the label of anti-philosophy, are often said to share a sense of the world as being ‘held captive by a picture’, but here this utterance is given its most literal application.

In his reading of the above painting, he sees Nietzsche’s Untruth there on the surface, the ideals of cubism turned against the ascetic ideal, of the idea of reality as appearance and yet this untruth, this assertion of truth as being unknowable is only interesting in the aftermath of truth. Picasso, in order to imagine space had to enclose it in an interior, however distorted it may have appeared. The opening of this interior onto the outside was done from the inside, through the window.

Reflecting Clark’s analysis throughout are his continual references to the actual sizes of the paintings reproduced in the book. This creates a distance between the work in itself and the reproductions available to the reader which is vital in the understanding of his project. This slippage between the work of art and its reproduction enforces the idea that not only does the ‘effect’ of experiencing an original work of art not translate entirely to its reproduction, but what can be read or understood from that work of art is also tied, by the notion of determinate space, to the original authentic work rather than its copy.

Before he reaches Guernica, Clark has to engage and battle with Picasso’s warped studios and deformed bathers, his exteriorisation. It is in this area, covered by the chapters titled “Monster” and “Monument”, where Clark’s talent as a writer really comes to the fore. Initially focusing his attention on Painter and Model he describes it as a picture that had for Picasso:

‘brought cubism to an end and that in the three or four years following he searched for ways out of its confinement—not just ways to bring the outside into the room, as we have seen him doing repeatedly, but ways into the outside’.

Clark attempts to deal with Picasso’s attitude to the monstrous as the oscillation between ‘a threatening but precious form of the human, which all cultures hem in with taboos’ and ‘a mechanism to put us back in touch with the real and the everyday, the mere body, the body as it is’.  This draws him once to Nietzsche who (quoting Pascal), asserts that without God and Christianity: ‘you, no less than nature and history, will become for yourselves un monster et un chaos’, something Nietzsche, and for Clark, Picasso embraced. The task for art was to ‘shape the monstrous, the illusory but to keep it in check’.

The difficulty in analysis of this period of Picasso’s work is reflected in Clark’s prose, the text becomes more theoretical, the language less assertive and more fragmented, the reader feels Clark struggling too, trying out different formulations and leaving the conclusions in play. This conveys a feeling that, even with the astuteness of his observations, there is something unmanageable about Picasso’s space which neither the author or even the painter could quite reach; but it is enough to know it is there. In a sense, his language here reveals Picasso to be the painter Clark claims him to be most clearly, his own textual resistance a translation of Picasso’s pictorial resistance.

This is why though there are some obvious compositional similarities between Painter and Model above and Guernica below: colour palette, the flatness of the space, and the sense of light; it still feels like there is a gap, a leap forward for Picasso, his sense of space and understanding of paint.

In the final chapter of the book, Clark utilises the thoughts he has developed and the series of photographs which follow Guernica from drawing to completion to shed new light on the mural’s exhausting power and its importance as a record of the event which helped usher in the state-sanctioned terror which overshadows the world to this day, as well as the painting’s ability to bear witness. Recalling Kertesz’s words on the importance of the same concept:

‘One should strive for formulations that totally encapsulate the experience of life (that is to say, the disaster) …but what I see increasingly is that only bearing witness is able to do this’.

Clark sees a modesty of life in the painting, a life which is carnal, ordinary, and real. In life human beings keep death close to them as a comfort, but this attack broke that kind of contact. Life should not end this way. Death here  ’comes from nowhere’ and ‘has nothing to do with the human’. Underpinning all this is an incredibly astute sense of space, of a world the viewer can enter into and yet at the same time has the flat brutality of newsprint. Guernica is still as able to shock and still as prescient in today’s world, as it ever has been. The most obvious example of the power of this enduring aura being the concealment of a tapestry reproduction of the work in 2003 when Colin Powell made the case for war in Iraq.

Bluntly, this book has changed how I will look at all paintings from now on. There are one or two areas which might want to be addressed, most notably there is an untapped current of the thought of Heidegger running throughout the text, a recurrence of terms such as ‘being in the world’ and ‘readiness to hand’ which are unattributed. It would be interesting to uncover why Clark has knowingly employed Heidegger to great effect yet omitted his name, whether to set oppositional versions of those concepts in the Marxist school of thought or merely that the implication was thought too obvious to mention, it would be worth investigating. I also think the book’s engagement with Bataille could be fleshed out as, though Clark briefly refers to some of Bataille’s comments on Picasso, more could be made about his conception of the ‘Rotten Sun’ which seems to me to, in some sense refract Clark’s thesis of space into being one about light. Bataille sees the sun as a double being, simultaneously the ‘most elevated concept’ and its rupture, the madness and blindness of staring directly into it, for instance, a rupture which finds its expression in the decomposition of forms.

Regardless, it is difficult to describe this book as anything less than astounding. Rather like the drawing hanging in Richard Cork’s home (in the living room no less!), the author’s name on the cover is irrelevant. In its astute observations, application of philosophical thought combined with a beautifully readable and engaging style, Picasso and Truth is, undoubtedly, Clark’s.

Daniel Fraser is a writer and critic living in London. He is a writer for The Quietus, 3:AM, Tremors, and Ready Steady Book, among others.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 14th, 2014.