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
“I cannot avoid the conviction that somewhere at the heart of Picasso’s understanding of life . . . lay an unshakeable commitment to the space of a small or middle-sized room and the little possessions laid out on its table. His world was of property arranged in an interior: maybe erotic property . . . but always with bodies imagined in terms that equate them with, or transpose them into, familiar instruments and treasures.”
This may seem a simple, even a homely, insight, nevertheless it allows of a profound reading of Picasso’s aesthetic and opens up a broad critical approach to his paintings, certainly in the period covered by these lectures. That period is only about half of the artist’s working life; much more was to come, especially the various serie sof etchings, such as the Vollard Suite, which some, including this reviewer, consider to be among his finest achievements.
In the second lecture, Room, Clark offers a reading of Cubism, its sources and aims, that to many will seem paradoxical. The movement came, he says, out of Bohemia, and was, indeed: “Bohemia’s last hurrah, its summa; and in this last flaring it laid out before us – lovingly, ironically – the claim that the life of art had made to the pleasures of the middle-class [that is, the nineteenth] century. The pleasures, the decencies, the self-possession – above all, the sense of being fully and solely a body in a material world, and of this as the form of freedom.”
Cubism, therefore, is at once laying waste to a world – the nineteenth-century bourgeois world – and at the same time celebrating it and mourning its passing. The result is “this proximity, this tactility, this coziness”, which is “the condition of endless mad inventiveness”. Indeed, one of the notable features of Clark’s book is the pleasure it takes in the gaiety, energy and abundance of the world according to the Cubists. This certainly is a welcome and refreshing change from the usual po-faced treatment of the subject. Here is one critic who never loses sight of the fact that what art, even the darkest art, offers us first and foremost is delight.
But then there is Nietzsche, somewhat aided and abetted by Wittgenstein – yes, we are in the high places, here. Clark fixes on a typically overwrought, knotty passage from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals in which the philosopher mocks “these hard, strict, abstinent, heroic spirits who constitute the honor of our age, all these pale atheists, anti-Christians, immoralists, nihilists” – some may think this a fair description of the genus to which Nietzsche himself belonged – who imagine they have freed themselves from the shackles of “the ascetic ideal” but who “are by no means free spirits, for they still believe in truth”.
It is at this point that a certain confusion seems to enter into Clark’s argument. Nietzsche says that by becoming conscious of it we moderns have made a problem of the “will to truth”, and “it is from the will to truth’s becoming conscious of itself that from now on . . . morality will gradually perish . . .” Clark seems to read these admittedly opaque passages as some kind of denial of truth itself. He quotes a note he made when he first read the Genealogy: “So what will Art be . . . without a test of truth for its findings, its assertions; without even a will to truth?” But surely Nietzsche is saying the opposite, that art – and, not incidentally, morality – will be challenged not by a withering away of truth but precisely by our having become conscious of the will to truth in ourselves and thereby making a problem of it?