We Need to Talk about Pablo
Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica
By T J Clark (Princeton University Press 329pp £29.95)
Philip Larkin, who hated artistic modernism with a passion that bordered on (or sometimes crossed the border into) rage, blamed the whole ghastly mess on the three Ps: Ezra Pound, Charlie Parker and Pablo Picasso. Between them, these rotters had taken things that used to be nice - poetry, jazz and painting - and made them thoroughly nasty. 'I dislike such things not because they are new, but because they are irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it.' Worse still, he went on, the three Ps had bred a new class of academic shysters and trendy fools who made cushy lives for themselves by peddling the nonsense that these P-artists were in fact the greatest talents of the age.
Larkin's views on the matter are probably still shared by a great many commonsensical folk around the Western world, and though his present-day epigones are seldom as sharp and funny as Larkin himself (Pound's apt phrase 'senile slobber' comes to mind), the Larkin line still deserves not to be dismissed by those of us trendy fools who think the poet was only seeing part of the picture and that modernism was at least as much of a triumph as a disaster. T J Clark, who begins his study of Picasso and Truth by recalling Larkin's indignation, proposes to be one of the few art critics willing to take the grumpy poet's disdain seriously. His response includes the argument that Picasso came much closer to the realities of 'human life as we know it' than any visual artist of the 20th century.
Would Larkin have been won over by Clark? Almost certainly not, especially as quite a few of Clark's chapters lean heavily on a brace of Germanophone philosophers: Wittgenstein (the Wittgenstein of the early and hard-to-read Tractatus, that is, not of the much more frequently cited Philosophical Investigations, which has been a huge influence on aesthetics for a good forty years) and Nietzsche. More dodgy foreigners to puff the case for dodgy foreigners.
As the presence of these heavy philosophical guns suggests, this is by no means a suitable book for newcomers to the subject, though Clark would no doubt think otherwise: he is scathing, almost on a par with Larkin, when he refers to
the abominable character of most writing on the artist. 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 ('I remember one evening in Mougins ...'); 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.
This is fighting talk, and prompts the response: all right, pal, show us how it should be done. Does he pull it off? Well, yes (to repeat one of Clark's favourite phrases - this book was originally delivered as a set of six lectures, and Clark has not attempted to hush up the fact that they were composed to be read out loud). At his best, he is, simply, brilliant. At his worst, he is also brilliant - the phrases are lovingly crafted, but so gnomic as to border on the puzzling or the downright incomprehensible: 'Strangeness is a value: Guernica speaks to that.' 'Destruction is a life's work.' 'Cubist pictures are the last triumph of the ascetic ideal.' 'The world, for the bourgeois, is a room.' 'The bird in the cage is Picasso himself.'
Read carefully, most of these aphorisms - and the book, following the examples of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, teems with them - will yield up not only sense but enlightenment. They are, that is to say, not show-offish bluster and sleight of hand, but the product of years of hard thinking and rigorous looking, and they set out ideas that are a good deal more far-reaching than their immediate subject: 'The longer I live with the art of Europe and the United States in the twentieth century ... the more it seems to me that retrogression is its deepest and most personal note.' True? Maybe. Worth pondering? Certainly.
The disadvantage of this aphoristic style - heavily spiced with other kinds of idiosyncratic tics and flourishes - is that it arrests the reader so often that the onward march of the argument is often hard to follow and at times imperceptible. Though he talks fairly briefly about Picasso's cubist period, since most of the works he discusses come from the 1920s and 1930s, Clark's general thrust appears to be along the lines of what A-level students are told: that Picasso and Braque were aiming at 'a lie that told the truth', and that the distortions and simplifications of analytical cubism were means of going deeper than the surface verisimilitude of most Western art since Giotto, and probed instead some more adequate - possibly even mystical - representation of reality. Something like that, at any rate.
Chapter by chapter - there are six, each one expanding outwards from impressive and largely persuasive close 'readings' of a single painting - the arguments are usually easier to follow. Some feminist art critics have excoriated Picasso for the one quality he possessed that Larkin might have liked: his unquenchable lust for female flesh (coupled with an equally strong fear of women's erotic power). Clark will have scant truck with this argument, as with any other argument that draws mainly on the life rather than the art: 'Calling Picasso a misogynist, though maybe accurate biographically, has as much to tell us about his achievement ... as calling Velásquez a servant of absolutism has to tell us about Las Meninas. Not nothing, in other words, but precious little.'
Picasso and Truth ends with a passionate reading of Guernica, which is, to be sure, a seriously ugly painting - for more sensitive souls, even a horrific one. But by this stage of the lectures, Clark has made a very strong case for the value of Picasso's fascination, throughout the period, with the ugly, the deformed and the monstrous. (Clark also nods to an important historical consideration: lots of pre-modernist painters were not nice or anything like it - think of Grünewald, Delacroix, Manet and above all an artist whom Picasso revered, Goya.) The shade of Larkin is now grimacing and muttering 'balls', but for those willing to concede that Picasso was talented, more than talented, or prodigiously talented, Clark's book will offer countless small revelations. Did we really need another tome on Picasso? Well, yes.
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Kevin Jackson's latest production is a Kindle Single about the Mayflower. He is also writing a BFI monograph on Nosferatu.