Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jonathan Harris reviews T.J. Clark’s Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica

T.J. Clark. Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2013. 329 pp. Hardcover $45.00. 

Reviewed by Jonathan Harris

T.J. Clark’s account of Picasso’s paintings from the 1920s and 1930s, based on a series of lectures given at the National Gallery in Washington in 2009, exemplifies in two ways Edward Said’s idea of a ‘late style’ manifesting a ‘nonharmonious, nonserene tension,’ a kind of ‘deliberately unproductive productiveness going against…’ (On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain Bloomsbury, 2007: 7) Firstly, because Clark’s virtuoso readings of a number of key artworks – themselves going against Cubist painting’s own deep commitment to a final truth to reality lodged in what Thierry de Duve called their ‘“retinal” legality’ – threaten to sabotage presuppositions of description’s usual corrigibility. Clark asserts, for example, that the ‘pale mauve’ of the woman’s body in Nude on Black Armchair (1932) ‘is as otherworldly a colour – as unlocatable on the spectrum of flesh tone – as the yellow and orange in the sky. Maybe in the picture night is falling. The blue wall to the left is icy cold […] Blacks encase her as if for eternity.’ (10) Clark had deployed a variant of this manoeuvre in a previous book, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (2006), wherein, however, the foregrounded subjective voice signalled a provisional suspension of usual art-historical (and Clark’s own social art-historical) procedures.

A complementary ‘unproductive productive’ jam or block located in modernist artworks themselves had centrally concerned Clark in his earlier studies of canonical paintings by Courbet, Manet and Pollock. In Picasso and Truth – whatever Clark’s other objectives – this dis/identification resurfaces, again bound up with its author’s own ‘eye’ and ‘word’. ‘Meaning,’ ‘truth,’ ‘reality,’ and social engagement are not denied in this critical process, but rather held under a form of erasure: this time the jam or block is lodged, constitutively, between Clark and the modernist artwork. While Nietzsche’s speculations on post-Christian ‘untruth’ in The Genealogy of Morals feature as a kind of parallel text or allegorization of the jam or block in early chapters (begging questions of Picasso’s relation to 1930s rightist political and cultural movements), reference to this in any case ambiguously dragging philosophical anchor fades by the time Clark turns to Guernica, in a final chapter which restates a defence of the painting as Picasso’s last masterpiece.  

Picasso and Truth manifests a second form of ‘unproductive productiveness’ when set against Clark’s achievement over a forty-year period. This is because it exists, along with The Sight of Death, in a highly tensioned, non-harmonic relation to the arguments and objectives of the practice of the social history of art that Clark had set out in his ‘conjunctural studies’ of Courbet in 1973 and Manet in 1984. (Some would also exclude from this practice the extraordinary essays, or large portions of them, that made up his 1999 Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism – though these may be better seen as ‘works of the break’.) If the jam or block in paintings by Courbet, Manet and Pollock functioned for the Marxian Clark as an aesthetic brake on dominant ideologies operative in capitalist social order, then the ‘unproductive productiveness’ of Picasso and Truth lies squarely in its own brilliantly articulate elision of what Theodor Adorno, discussing Beethoven’s late works, called the ‘subjective and objective. Objective is the fractured landscape, subjective the light in which – alone – it glows into life.’ (Essays in Music, ed. Richard Leppert, University of California Press, 2002: 567)