Pure Mediterranean

Malcolm Bull

  • BuyPicasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica by T.J. Clark
    Princeton, 352 pp, £29.95, May 2013, ISBN 978 0 691 15741 2

‘There are the Alps,’ Basil Bunting wrote on the flyleaf of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, ‘you will have to go a long way round/if you want to avoid them.’ T.J. Clark is an Alpinist of distinction: Courbet, Manet, Pollock, Poussin, no foothills, no detours (apart from Lowry). And now Picasso. There are the Alps.

‘They don’t make sense,’ Bunting claimed. But Pound made sense. Some people still understand him. The members of CasaPound, Italia, for example, a far-right social centre inspired by the poet’s political message. One of them (Gianluca Casseri) shot two Senegalese street vendors in Florence in 2011. Had he got the wrong idea? According to the leader of CasaPound, he had rather. Racism is not the answer: Mussolini had a Jewish minister of finance in 1933. ‘Our Mediterranean culture,’ claimed the man from CasaPound, ‘was always a melting pot of diverse cultures.’

But for Pound, the Mediterranean was not so inclusive. Its culture was ‘untouched by the two maladies, the Hebrew disease, the Hindu disease’. Only between these diseases was there ‘Mediterranean sanity’, seen in the proportions of Romanesque architecture, which set the standard in both art and politics. Manet passed the test, and so did Mussolini: ‘You ought to go down on your knees and … thank God an Italian, possessed of Mediterranean sanity, showed the first ray of light in the general darkness.’

Clark quotes Bunting’s poem in the opening paragraph of his latest book, but after that, he scarcely refers to Pound again. After all, what has Picasso, the painter of Guernica, to do with the traitor shrivelling in his Pisan cage? Nothing, it would seem. But to those who survived them, the terrors of modernism and fascism were sometimes difficult to keep apart.

In an interview with Bruno Latour, Michel Serres talks about his boyhood in France in the 1930s: ‘The return to savagery – to the Minotaur, for Max Ernst, to Picasso’s paganism – I still see these today as the atrocious forces unleashed on society during that era … my generation still sees Guernica falling on painting … the way the Nazi planes bombarded the town.’ Latour, slightly bemused: ‘You’re saying that these works are symptoms of the evil and not an analysis of those symptoms?’ ‘Yes,’ Serres replies, ‘symptoms and not reactions.’

In the interwar period many leading figures of European modernism positioned themselves on the radical or reactionary right: D’Annunzio and the Futurists; Wyndham Lewis, Eliot and Yeats, as well as Pound; in France, Braque, Le Corbusier and the former Fauvists. All of this is well known, but there is a tendency to see political alignment as being to some degree extraneous to literary or artistic achievement. The idea that major works of modernism might somehow be considered symptomatic of the history of fascism, broadly conceived, is rarely countenanced. To entertain this possibility, it is necessary to think back to a time when fascism could still be associated with pleasure rather than perversity, and accept that when, in 1927, a friend wrote to Picasso from Salsomaggiore that here was ‘Italy at its purest, its richest, liveliest, most fascist’, ‘fascist’ was not necessarily the odd word out. As Camus noted a decade later, fascism didn’t wear the same face in Italy as in Germany: ‘What you see first in a German is the Hitlerian who greets you with a “Heil Hitler”. In an Italian, it is the man, affable and cheerful.’

That was, as Camus put it, the ‘miracle of the Mediterranean’. It was the miracle that Nietzsche had experienced too: ‘The return to nature, health, cheerfulness, youth, virtue!’ To capture that experience, Nietzsche proclaimed, ‘il faut méditerraniser la musique.’ Right from the start, Mussolini had recognised the significance of this. Nietzsche was not really German, he was ‘too southern, too Mediterranean’. The Italian racial scientist Giuseppe Sergi might have developed the idea of a ‘Mediterranean race’, but Mussolini acknowledged that races were perhaps in some sense elective. As for himself, Mussolini said: ‘I have chosen the Mediterranean race, and here I have a formidable ally in Nietzsche.’

Of course, Nietzsche did not invent the Mediterranean by himself. The idea of a distinctive Mediterranean or Latin civilisation had several sources: one was anti-German sentiment in France, fuelled by the Franco-Prussian conflict and the First World War; another was the aesthetic of neoclassicism as a reaction to romanticism and symbolism; and a third was Provençal and Catalan regionalism, which claimed a Mediterranean identity in contradistinction to the national characters of France and Spain. All of these were relevant to Picasso, and the affinity between Picasso and the Mediterranean or Latin ideal was recognised by both Spanish and French commentators throughout his career.

From 1906 onwards, the Catalan critic Eugeni D’Ors was promoting ‘the Mediterraneanisation of all contemporary art’, and Picasso’s work often seemed to be in keeping with this ambition, not just during the summer of 1906, when it gravitated towards the classical values of D’Ors’s Noucentisme, but his cubist work as well, which D’Ors interpreted as a step in the direction of a Mediterranean ‘structuralism’. In France, the context was different, but the judgments similar. Apollinaire identified cubism and futurism with ‘Latin civilisation’, and Picasso’s heavy neoclassicism of the 1920s (partly inspired by Maillol’s female figure of 1902-5 variously known as Latin Thought, or The Mediterranean) was widely interpreted in terms of Cocteau’s conservative ‘return to order’. It was no wonder that in the 1930s D’Ors linked Picasso not to Spanish artists but to Italians like Giorgio de Chirico and Gino Severini. ‘Whether you are, in fact, an Italian, or a Malagan, or a Catalan,’ D’Ors wrote in an open letter to Picasso, ‘you are in every way a pure Mediterranean.’

The fit was not perfect. Picasso never liked being pigeonholed and tried to distance himself from Nietzsche’s followers. By 1930, the fascist critic Waldemar George, who had championed cubism, had begun to feel that Picasso’s works were unsuited to becoming ‘the foci of a Mediterranean civilisation’. But there can be little doubt that the overarching context for the reception of Picasso’s work in the first four decades of the century was the Mediterranean one – in varying degrees, neoclassical, Nietzschean and reactionary. Despite all its dramatic stylistic changes, the artist’s work never completely leaves that frame.

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