Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. By T. J. Clark. (Princeton, 2013) 

T. J. Clark is arguably the best close reader of paintings in the last half century, indeed perhaps ever. His A. W. Mellon lectures on Picasso remind me of Helen Vendler’s book on Keats’s odes: both beget nearly one strong perception per sentence, with inexhaustible acumen. A pressing examination of art doesn’t get any better. For that reason, and because it is splendid with color reproductions, his new book, Picasso and Truth, is a must-have book. Nonetheless, to me it is not altogether satisfactory. It examines Cubist objects as the natural phenomena of rooms, which they usually are. But Clark cozies up to the idea, and even blows it up into a law of painting: on the penultimate page (281), he remarks: “There is one thing painting finds indispensable: namely space—the making of an imaginatively habitable three dimensions, one having a specific character, offering itself as a surrounding whose shape and extent we can enter into. In Picasso’s case …..” But if the statement is true “in Picasso’s case”—and Clark shows how intricate and varied this being “in” can be in his case—it is patently not true of, say, Pollock’s masterpieces, or the paintings of Twombly or Rothko, or some of those of Maria Lassnig and Martin Kippenberger, as demonstrated in this issue. Clark’s Picasso—who is the real one, all right—struggles to retain “a room” (genealogy: Montmartre’s Bohemianism, out of wall-papered parlors), even while flattening objects in a way that brings them smack up against the picture plane. This impossible “space”—both open and shut, not Truth (pace the title) but the imagination’s Untruth—is nostalgia for the primal shelter of the womb at its most desperate and inventive. 

But Cubism, I suggest, was after the crunching of space, not the opening of space or the opening that space is. In the interest of what? Of keeping it crowded out. Space is terror (a la Pascal), whereas objects faceted back on themselves, elongated so as to be even more of themselves, crammed together, heaped up vertically (as in the great Guitar and Mandolin on a Table, 1924, about which the 2nd of the lectures is absolutely superb), are stoppages of space’s ultimately wild extensivity, its blankness, its not anything. Guitar and Mandolin offers a face-off to space, as distinct from intimacy or the truth of objects-in-relation—two of Picasso's concerns, according to Clark. Clark adroitly demonstrates how in a number of Picasso’s paintings the outside plies its light through windows or apertures into the object-clogged inside—enters unreally or with difficulty and ambiguity. This ingenious, begrudging welcome of the outside’s luminous leakings-in focuses (for me) Picasso’s bad faith about excluding it—excluding, that is, what he cannot objectivize, contain. 

In Guernica, by sharp contrast, the intermixture of inside and outside has become a nightmare. The Spanish Civil war naturally explains the violent confusion, which the geometrical shapes and sharp silhouettes contest even as the seeming hodge-podge of objects—horse and bull, fallen warrior, woman and child, lamps, window, etc.—exaggerates it to the limit. But the chaos is the longstanding spectre underlying Picasso’s defensive devotion to architecture-bound, soldered-together objects. Wrenched out of him in five weeks the commissioned painting exposes fear that to admit the outdoors risks destroying the finite and infantile order of Woman and Painter-child, or the order of Playable Objects and Table of Goods. (These were the Cubist Picasso’s heart code.) Van Gogh famously braved the outside, wagered, and both won and lost. He put the inside (his own) into it, terror to terror, exaltation to exaltation. The Impressionists brought it inside the palette, as it were, and subjected it to the brush’s incessant dabbings, before projecting it back without destroying its character as the outside. Clark has nothing to say for these artists in the lectures and almost nothing to say about them. He stays inside the subject of Picasso’s rooms as if in a room of his own. (Naturally, he has to acknowledge that Picasso’s somewhat Cubist women on beaches put the human figure, or something like it, outdoors; but, well, they are safely made of stone. And he is of course right to point to the featureless sands and featureless seas: innocuous outsides with filler-ground and filler-extensions.) 

Picasso and Truth? Is that the right title for an examination of Picasso’s Cubism, circa 1910-1929? Clark honors Picasso’s claim that the Cubists enter- tained “the hope of an anonymous art,” as if impersonal depiction equals truth—an ascetic’s assumption. But Picasso’s objects are very much his own, objects warped Picasso-wise. Clark: “Part of what makes the achievement of his high Cubism so irresistible, in the sternest canvases of 1910 and 1911, is the way they seem to add up to a last effort in art at truth-telling—at a deep and complete and difficult encounter with things as they are” (130). “Things as they are”? Things, rather, manipulated to be puzzle-refracted, overlaid, stacked. In any case, the “truth” of the paintings of objects-in-rooms, I suggest again, is that they shrink from Space-in-the-large. Moreover, when the recessed inner Picasso—his infant-crazy psyche—presses into the Cubist room, we find Truth of another ilk. To my mind, Clark doesn’t emphasize enough the shock and significance—the tear—of this tremendous turnabout in Picasso’s relation to Truth. He is nonetheless wonderful on Picasso’s monster-women, who look very odd there in Picasso’s rooms. Look convincing? Clark devotes most of one lecture to The Three Dancers (Young Girls Dancing in front of a Window), agreeing with others that the “maenad” on the left terrifies. I find her flat and cartoonish: exaggerated; “terror” tarted up. And the monster in The Painter and His Model (1927) would interest me more if she were not a bold outline on the picture plane. as well as ambiguously pushed back. She has no guts. No bowels in which the womb is buried. Even so, something of the child’s monster-seeing psyche is projected there. “Truth” is now inward before it is outward, stalking in the room. 

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