‘En fin, il n’y a que l’amour’: T. J. Clark on Picasso and Truth

As part of Bristol’s Festival of Ideas, T. J. Clark returned to the city of his school days to discuss the subject of his new book, Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. In his previous examination of Picasso’s classic Cubism between 1909 and 1913, Clark argued that the aim of Cubism was not to display an object from all angles upon a two-dimensional surface as we are taught, but in fact to do the exact opposite. In Farewell to an Idea, Clark’s preoccupation with Picasso’s works stemmed from the argument that he played upon the bourgeois desire to see illusionism in art: representation of familiar objects and bodies.[1] He now returns to Picasso with a different agenda, seeking to ‘re-frame’ a familiar artist through examining a neglected period – the 1920s – and his method in doing so requires the complete rejection of biography.[2]

Clark is well known for his radical thinking (indeed, he was introduced to us by Paul Gough as ‘the bad boy of art history’), and the moment he referred to Iconography as the ‘curse’ of the discipline, I was hooked. His latest research sets out to re-examine our perception of Picasso as an artist through his lesser studied works, rather than through anecdotes, as so frequently incorporated into ‘trivialising celebrity literature’. As he argued, Picasso has frequently been painted as a madman in ‘a frantic parade of eroticism’, but when we glance at his works from the 1920s, we are given a very different picture of the artist. Clark rejects the hero worshipping, biographising of the artwork, simply asks us to look at Picasso’s paintings, and question how this transition came about.

Picasso, ‘The Three Dancers’, 1925
Oil on Canvas, 215.3 x 142.2 cm
Tate Britain, London

Picasso, ‘Guitar and Mandolin on a Table’, 1924
Oil and Sand on Canvas, 140.7 × 200.3 cm
Guggenheim, New York

With regard to the two works above, Clark’s emphasis was not upon the representation of the female body, nor the depicted objects in relation to the twentieth century. His preoccupation was with the notion of proximity. In both paintings, the subject is depicted in front of a window (in fact, Three Dancers also went by the name of Jeunes filles dansant devant la fenêtre). Through both windows all we glimpse of the twentieth century world outside is a plane of vibrant blue. Behind the dancers, it bursts through the window; although supposedly a receding colour, the outside world is utterly penetrating. What does this tell us about the way in which Picasso was coming to terms with the rapidly changing world outside his window? The subjects of these paintings are undeniably framed by the windows behind them, and moreover founded within a framework of the twentieth-century world: riddled with anxiety and, in Clark’s words, ‘lacking a culture of truth’.[3]

Clark refers to Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, in which he reflects upon the end of the ‘ascetic ideal’ – the human need for purpose – and what this means for the artist.[4] According to Nietzsche, the ascetic ideal encompasses the artist’s need for some sort of ideology to rely upon. Clark questions what function art was to play within Nietzsche’s predicted ‘spectacle’, in which we no longer feel this need to have a purpose. Where would this leave art?

Clark’s conjecture is that Picasso was the artist Nietzsche was waiting for – he is the revealer of Untruth in a world where artists strived to reveal Truth. For Nietzsche, Truth was unobtainable, and we couldn’t handle it even if we could access it. For him, this is what led us to worship a God and seek salvation. But with Christianity’s golden age coming to an end, where would we be left? For Nietzsche, existence is appearance: he refers to ‘that bloodless Plato’ as the ‘enemy of art’ and indeed makes frequent references to the Republic, in which the artist is condemned as a deceiver, and an unreliable guide to the natural world.[5] Art’s didacticism is emphasised, and its effect is perceived as damage.

For Clark, Untruth is the recognition of the world as fragile, lacking structure, and Picasso’s paintings reveal a world in crisis. Examining the works following the First World War, we see how they are steeped in intimacy, proximity and nostalgia. He presents Cubism as a ‘backward-looking’ homage to the intimacy of the nineteenth century; even the artist’s seemingly radical collages derive from a nineteenth-century bourgeois feminine activity. Through examining Picasso’s pictorial arguments and leaving biography behind, he presents paintings such as Three Dancers and Guitar and Mandolin on a Table as a registration of the dramatic changes taking place during the 20th century. His approach is admirable, his writing beautiful, and his argument is wholly convincing.

[1] Clark, T.J., Farewell to an Idea (1999)

[2] Clark, T.J., Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica (2013)

[3] A brief reference to Victor Stoichita’s examination of the window frame within paintings would be useful here. According to Stoichita, the depiction of a frame, be it the frame around a painting, a door or window frame, or even a niche or embrasure, puncture the picture’s surface and demonstrate its self-awareness. Through the depiction of a frame, the painting becomes aware of its own status as a work of art. By framing the three dancers, they become part of ‘A Picasso’, itself being a declaration. This self-awareness greatly relates to the Nietzschean argument to come. See: Stoichita, V., The Self-Aware Image (1996).

[4] Nietzsche, F., On the Genealogy of Morals (1887)

[5] Plato, Republic (380 BC)


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