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
Perhaps the point is not so important as it seems. Clark has a profound and sympathetic understanding of art, yet he wants the artist, despite his “blithe self-absorption”, to be a force in the world of commonplace experience and action, so that out of his work “can come, in times of catastrophe, [one might ask, when has there been a time that was not a time of catastrophe?] the fullest recognition of what catastrophe is – how it enters and structures everyday life.” Hence Guernica. The picture, Clark contends, “makes its giant size . . . work to confirm a wholly earthbound, and essentially modest, view of life.” Picasso does this by domesticating the picture’s gigantism; we are back in the room. Tracing the making of Guernica through a series of photographs taken of it by Picasso’s lover Dora Maar at various stages of its execution, Clark in his utterly fascinating final lecture shows how the artist returned inexorably to the necessary confines of a certain space.
At first the action of Guernica seems intended to take place outdoors, but as the work progresses the scene, such as it is, gradually retreats indoors, a process which is completed, only hours before the completion of the painting, when Picasso grounds his screaming women and tormented beasts on, of all things, a tiled floor, thus “making 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, ‘imaginatively habitable’ equals making an interior of sorts.’
Does this grounding of the picture neutralise the high rhetoric of its political intentions? Does it, in other words, authenticate it as a work of art and banish the element of kitsch? Each viewer will have to decide that question for himself or herself; in doing so, there could be no sounder counsel and guide than Picasso and Truth. And whatever the answer you arrive at, be assured that after reading this book you will not look at Picasso’s paintings, not just Guernica but all his paintings, in quite the same way ever again.
Picasso and Truth: From Cublism to Guernica, by TJ Clark, Princeton University Press, 329pp, $45
John Banville’s latest novel, written as Benjamin Black, is Holy Orders.