A true picture of Picasso
The acuity of TJ Clark’s thought, allied to his sweeping breadth of reference, makes him the ideal interrogator of Picasso, argues John Banville
At the heart of this wonderful book there is a telling passage in which the author quotes Picasso remarking to a friend that he preferred his painting The Three Dancers of 1925 to the later and more publicly ambitious Guernica.
“It [the Dancers] was painted as a picture, without ulterior motive,” Picasso said. Clark finds this puzzling, and wonders if the painter meant that “the work happened essentially without him”, and calls to his aid Rimbaud on alienation from the self. Surely, however, the matter is simple. The Three Dancers is a fearsome, indeed a savage, work, but it is pure painting; Guernica, for all its violence and power, was intended as a political statement as well as a work of art, and for that reason it is, essentially, kitsch.
One does not lightly lay such a charge against one of the modern world’s most revered cultural artefacts. However, artists of Picasso’s type, few though they be, are always in danger of imagining that because they have achieved critical success and earned much money and fame, they must have profound things to say about the public life of their times. The inevitable result is either fatuity or bombast, or both. Georges Braque, co-deliverer with Picasso of the coup de grâce to traditional European painting, summed up the matter when he was asked in old age for his opinion of his friend and said, “Pablo? Oh, Pablo used to be a good painter; now he’s just a genius.”
This is spiteful and unfair, of course, but there is a certain truth to it as well. As the critic Cyril Connolly said, the only business of the artist is to make masterpieces. Putting one’s genius – whatever that may be – at the service of Stalin, for instance, as Picasso did in his bumbling way, is always going to be a mistake, to say the least.
TJ Clark is that odd combination, a Marxist and a Nietzschean; he is also a great critic. His love for and understanding of Picasso’s work is evident in every line of this book, which is based on the text of the Mellon Lectures delivered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. He is an incomparably close reader of paintings, and the acuity of his thought, allied to a sweeping breadth of reference, makes him the ideal interrogator of Picasso and his achievement.
Clark opens his introduction with a blistering assault on “the abominable character of most writing on [Picasso],” its “prurience, its pedantry,” and the “wild swings” it makes between “fawning adulation and false refusal-to-be-impressed”. No doubt John Richardson, author of an ongoing, multi-volume biography of Picasso, felt his ears burning when Clark took the podium in Washington and spoke those words. Yet even the most assiduous student of Picasso’s art must surely crave the odd helping of cakes and ale.
Clark’s thesis in these wide-ranging lectures is clearly stated in his introduction. The turn of the twentieth century, he contends, saw “the end of something called bourgeois society”. We might expect a left-wing critic to mark and approve the evidence of this closure in the work of an iconoclastic and radical artist. Clark insists, however, that Picasso “profoundly belonged, for all his living as a young man on the margins of society, to the nineteenth-century civilization in which he was brought up”. Picasso’s lifelong harking back to that vanished world, which he himself had worked so tirelessly to destroy, is apparent, according to Clark, in the importance he attaches to the room.