From Kitsch to Cool: Picasso and Modern Art

Among art historians, T.J. Clark made his name as a radical outsider. Once a member of the Situationist International, he has since preferred to follow his own peculiar path. This he did at Berkeley as a professor of modern art, until his recent retirement. He has been more an essayist around art than a scholar of art. Indeed, he is almost as well known in English departments as he is in art history departments. He also writes poetry; he has escaped from academia and become a literary figure. Now he takes on Picasso. He finds that most writing on the artist has been “abominable”. It tends to “gossip or hero-worship”. So he will talk about Picasso’s actual work — Picasso and Truth (Princeton, £25.95) prints a series of lectures given at the National Gallery of Art, Washington — avoiding biography as much as possible.

Clark is obviously enthralled by Picasso’s paintings, and he has thought long and hard about them. His enthusiasm draws him into the details, every one of which he likes to describe, but he manages to keep sight of the grand narrative too: the development of Picasso’s representations of space up to Guernica. 

The book is impressively illustrated. Its generous reproductions trace Picasso’s enquiry, making its original energy so apparent that even the most familiar pictures seem fresh again. At the same time these reproductions usefully remind us that Picasso’s progress was often rigorous and even slow. The very layout of the book, then, quells the lazy temptation to think of Picasso as a blustering genius forever following his fancy. And the bigger problem of whether Picasso’s disparate works live up to his giant artistic promise is indirectly addressed, as Clark’s arguments always return to rest on a handful of Picasso’s grandest works. 

We see how, having explored all the possibilities of a new style, Picasso summed up in these larger, denser, most ambitious paintings which were probably always intended for the museums. However, it is still difficult to think of Picasso as a painter of masterpieces. Picasso’s art must be as much between his pictures as in them — how are we to understand a Cubist painting on its own? Therefore Picasso’s art remains inseparable from his extraordinary career, and our knowledge of it. Perhaps that is another reason — apart from the fact that Picasso almost insisted on his art being treated as an anthropological document — why critics retreat into biography. Clark may have resisted restating the gossip but, though he wishes to deal directly with the painting, he cannot avoid navigating from canvas to canvas and weaving his narrative around what is supposed to be the artist’s lifelong project.

Before examining that narrative, it is necessary to mention Clark’s writing style. It can be defiantly inelegant. The average reader may struggle to continue past the suggestion that Picasso would come to turn Cubist space’s “nearness to face us”. Or: “[Interiors] . . . keep wildness and otherness within bounds: they allow them to be figured and drawn into a totality.” He describes “a non-interior, but, just as much, a non-outside; a here in which all possible theres are suspended”. Clark, like some other popular academics of his generation, is fond of these facile paradoxes, self-contradictions: “‘Marie-Therese’ is both there and not-there in the space provided . . .” From the same page: “The paintings in question destroy the I-figure at the same time they produce it.” Such writing is a shame, not just in itself for asking such patience of us, but also because this should be a serious book. It need not have seemed so pretentious. The language disguises the thought, and at times even lays waste to it.

But if you persevere you may detect arguments of baffling scope. Picasso is “Nietzsche’s painter”, giving us “the most unmoral picture of existence ever pursued through a life”. Clark wants to see Picasso’s representations of space in parallel with, and explained by, Nietzsche’s “crisis of Truth”. “The will to truth” becomes, in Picasso’s art, the will to pictorial space. The paintings illustrate the battle with scepticism. And more.

For Clark, Cubism was the “last effort in art at truth-telling”. And he really believes in Cubism, finding in it “a claim to have gotten the structure of the world right in ways that no previous picturing had”. “Space had a specific character in 1908 and 1915. Perhaps it had always had this character really and truly, but it seemed that certain possibilities of painting at this moment — and even of being-in-the-world at this moment — made the character newly accessible to consciousness.” 

Even though he brings philosophy into this book, with Clark the history of art is always most important as an explanation of socio-political history. And Cubism came at what was, for him, a special moment. He enjoys surprising us with the assertion that Cubism was essentially “retrogressive”. Bohemians like the young Picasso lived “instinctively within the limits of bourgeois society”. Holed up in gloomy garrets, with wallpaper peeling and plasterwork crumbling, “they felt this society was coming to an end” and so they looked back on it, ironically, painting artefacts and personal objects — that is possessions, property. “Cubism was Bohemia’s last hurrah”, the last critique of the bourgeois world — that was its essential truth to tell.

Clark is best known for his work on 19th-century Realism, and now he has come to Picasso to write its final chapter. Cubism is retrogressive in that it looks back to Realism’s cause — its social cause, not its stylistic cause. It is suggested that Cubism is at base a revival of old modernism. Then after the First World War “Cubist space disintegrated . . . [as] Bohemia disintegrated . . . The long form of life that Bohemia had represented — represented by opposing — had been irrevocably destroyed.” This “domestication” of Cubism is “to be regretted when set against the century’s first hopes”.

The Marxist dream for art was dying. Clark defines Marxism as the theory of how “bourgeois society . . . would come to grief”. It is that. But for anyone who is not a Marxist, Marxism’s real distinction is its yearning to bring bourgeois society to grief. Modernism gave up on the Marxist ideal — that is what we are supposed to see in the changing depictions of space by Picasso, the “artist of the century”, who painted “the pathology of an age, not an individual”. In Clark’s formulation, true modernism is revolutionary, perhaps inseparable from Marxism. What is so precious in Cubist art is that the painter had “disappeared into the style”. Picasso said, “We were trying to set up a new world order”. With this book Clark hopes for nothing less than to “to keep a kind of resentment at modernism alive, in order to keep modernism alive” — to keep the struggle alive. 

Clark broadly approves of Clement Greenberg’s assessment that “Picasso was a very great artist between 1906 and 1926 . . . But . . . a very uneven artist since then, and in the last twenty years [up to 1956] not even a good one on the whole”. Greenberg attributed Picasso’s decline to his “pursuing expressiveness and emotional emphasis beyond the coherence of style”. I take the point; but it does not worry me. It seems right that a painter should pursue expressiveness and emotional emphasis. Coherence of style is the preoccupation of painters caught up in dogma — the sort of dogma that Greenberg liked to lay down for them. By now, I suppose, we have tired of that pretend valiant struggle against arbitrary, narrow, self-imposed artistic idioms. I suspect Picasso tired of it too; but Clark, of course, still believes in it — that is why he complains. 

During the 1930s, Clark feels Picasso’s painting suffered “a massive drop in aesthetic temperature” — this would be the result of his having neglected the true modernist cause. Picasso began to draw and paint the old myths. “A token exterior has won.” Or, as I see it, art has won. This is the point where Picasso becomes more interesting to me — I think I would rather look at the Vollard Suite etchings than any Cubist work. Picasso grew up into an artist, from being merely a modernist. Clark is indeed aware of another view of Picasso. He says perceptively of Guernica that “our culture clings to it, as if in reaction to everything else Picasso stands for.” He may prefer Picasso as Nietzsche’s painter, the unmoral painter, for ideological reasons, but nowadays most people do not. Most people, outside universities, want more from art than the embodiment of radical theories.

“The price of presence, then, in a disintegrating bourgeois world, is brashness.” I am not sure what the disintegrating bourgeois world has to do with it, but brashness is certainly how modern art has sustained itself. Cubism seemed to argue that “beauty and desirability in painting now stood in need of the grid and the monochrome if they were to be anything but Renoir kitsch”. Perhaps Picasso adopted the argument because he noticed the kitsch in his “blue” and “rose” period works. But by now the argument seems feeble — an excuse. This will be modernism’s lasting problem. So frightened of “bourgeois” kitsch, modern artists protected themselves from it with the yin to kitsch’s yang: brutality, “cool”. I hope that one day “cool” will become as toxic a concept as “kitsch”. Kitsch was the 19th century’s aesthetic disease; cool is the 20th century’s aesthetic disease — still dangerous. 

Often the artists who feel themselves most susceptible to sentimentality choose to pursue brutal styles (I suspect this of Lucian Freud). “I don’t find any face charming,” lied Picasso. Clark reproduces a deft ink drawing of Marie-Therese’s face in an unforced, traditionally figurative style — a private work — which shows Picasso to have been a blandly sweet observer of nature. Instead of confronting this weakness of his, Picasso blamed nature for it; he disdained observation, and he ridiculed nature by mutilating bodies and absurdly over-emphasising genitalia. “What is beauty anyway? There’s no such thing.” Such posturing can only be tedious now, and it makes it more difficult, in spite of that tremendous imagination, to take Picasso seriously.

Clark also worries about Picasso’s reputation and his artistic legacy. Accepting, as we all can, Picasso’s creative force, he asks: “But is origination greatness?” Clark rather fudges the answer. “Greatness is a dependency of Truth,” and so, since Picasso’s painting charts the crisis of Truth, he thinks the question should not be asked — Picasso’s art stands as the disqualification of “greatness”. But the question, I feel, remains crucial. Is Picasso’s art, in all its styles and subjects, too private and too perverse? Or, to ask another way, is it — using Greenberg’s formulation — too self-critical for us now? Too modernist? Can we ever enjoy it just as art if we disregard Picasso the phenomenon, artist of the century? 

Believing so much in Cubism, Clark — as far as I can discern — thinks that Picasso used pictorial form as more than an equivalence to reality: pictorial form would be reality’s actual proof. With this Clark’s speculative criticisms seem to coalesce into a jumbled allegory. He says his preoccupation is “Picasso’s understanding of space, and therefore of history”; and his narrative takes a leap we may not want to follow. “Cubist space is Picasso’s worldview. It is his interior — the depth he allows himself.” Is he referring to physical space — bourgeois space — or pictorial space? Is it where Cubists painted or what they painted? Or the style in which they painted it? We cannot know; he will not distinguish. We may accept discussion of space in a picture as enabling the expression of a worldview; or discussion of the very achievement of a pictorial space, and its particular character, as demonstrative, or even symbolic, of a worldview; but I, at least, cannot accept pictorial space as the worldview itself. Clark takes the intelligible depth in a Cubist picture, or the very intelligibility of that depth, as precise measures of the painter’s modern attitude. And he jumbles further. “Opacity” becomes “outwardness”, which represents the escape from Bohemia. When Picasso’s space constricts and his pictures flatten, it is to mean that “there is nothing behind the mask” — and so Picasso is made into Warhol. To paint Guernica Picasso had to “reinvent his whole worldview” (his style?), because, “How on earth was painting to represent such an ending without falling itself into a spatial rubble, a spatial nothing?”

To treat the means of art as a direct explanation of the subject is a fundamental error that Clark has often committed, throughout his career, for the sake of his arguments’ momentum — a momentum which can, admittedly, be quite exciting. He has written that the face of Manet’s barmaid is painted to show how she had to present herself to the world: two-dimensionally. Clark seems to imply — whether he believes it or not is another matter — that the barmaid hides her lowly social class, in public, behind Manet’s impasted paint. (Then for what reason did Manet make his portrait of Emile Zola so two-dimensional? Zola’s face almost seems flatter — would that mean he hides his class better than the barmaid?) Clark enjoys his game of descriptively assimilating the quality of painted marks with a painter’s conscious attitudes. We may suspect those conscious attitudes to be more Clark’s own than the painter’s; but either way, Clark argues as if the painting medium itself were capable of being didactic. 

He has found a more suitable subject in Picasso, the ultimate modernist, whose work so often explored how meaning is controlled by making. But still Clark has too little concern for the actual making of art; he will not appreciate how strange or how simple it can be. Picasso himself was frequently disingenuous, or seriously pretentious; he claimed to use his “psycho-physiological dynamism” to come at his subjects — the kind of claim of which Gombrich was understandably suspicious. 

That Picasso spoke this way of course helps Clark’s arguments no end. Clark turns Picasso’s brightening of colour, inclusion of windows, and his eventual painting of outdoor scenes into a dramatic tale of philosophical shift. But it is obvious that Picasso, more than anyone else, was never the sort of painter to be contented by remaking the same pictures; he would inevitably have a painterly response to new situations, new stimuli. 

So we should see that these changes in his paintings’ content were also practical. Picasso lived in a city, and he painted monochromatic interior scenes — Clark refuses to take him at all literally when he claimed not to paint landscapes because he “never saw any”. Picasso moved to the beach, and into his paintings came blue skies, the outdoors. Yes, the style changed too, and Clark is right to observe that the paintings became more sculptural, less Cubist. They had to: the new subject demanded it as Cubist landscape was not found to be practicable. That the stylistic progress took time, and went through awkward stages, says nothing in particular about Picasso’s commitment to the idea, or its validity. Soon after Brunelleschi had invented linear perspective, all the painters could convincingly arrange figures around architecture on a checkerboard floor; but it was another two centuries before we saw, with Poussin, the painting of a landscape with a completely convincing recession through the middle-ground. That does not mean that the men of the 15th and 16th centuries were yet to discover the countryside, or to feel for it; it simply means that they had not yet understood how to paint it. Cubism is, as far as I can see, little more than an ironical cant derived through a reductive inversion of that proper language of perspective. No wonder, then, that its limits of expression were so quickly tested. Thankfully, Picasso had more to show us than dingy shatterings of form. But in showing us more, he happened to betray Bohemia.

Clark can riff endlessly on Picasso’s shattered forms. “The idea of ‘in front of’ especially interests me. How far in front? Gaining what from the proximity? Inside or out? These are the painting’s questions.” Perhaps what interests him most about Picasso is the ambiguity in the pictures, because it leaves so much space for riffing. All this riffing confuses Clark’s arguments, and he tends to lose his aim just as he comes to his point. For example, one of Picasso’s paintings “challenges us to resist its inventiveness, but does it not at the same time admit its own forced quality — its theatricality, its framed and concocted stunts?” It may do, I suppose. But then this could easily be asserted about any other painting ever. Strangely, it is often in his most emphatic moments that Clark is least precise. When he escapes from his tangle of concepts and conceits, he sometimes stumbles into extraordinarily banal conclusions. At the end he declares that “there is one thing painting finds indispensable: namely, space”. Did that need to be argued?

There are platitudes, but there are insights too. Coincidentally or not, Clark’s book is effective rather like a Cubist painting: the overall picture it gives is fragmented and obscure, frustrating our approach; and yet it promises real depth. And its actual subject is not what it so obliquely yet fervently describes; Clark is using Picasso in his own curious attempt, as a disappointed Marxist — or “socialist atheist” as he calls himself in this book — to represent the last century. He implores us to ask ourselves: “So what is modern art but a long refusal, a long avoidance of catastrophe, a set of spells against an intolerable present?” (But I wonder if modern art might not come to be seen as the most terrible sign of the catastrophe, the fantasy of that intolerable present.) Picasso and Truth should stand as a brilliant example of how 20th-century man could think. It is as much the anthropological document as was Picasso’s art. Clark turns out to be a “post-Truth” writer.

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