- 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.
Vol. 36 No. 5 · 6 March 2014
Malcolm Bull’s review of Picasso and Truth is generous (to me, not Picasso) and cantankerous – the kind of response I would have hoped for from the author of Anti-Nietzsche (LRB, 20 February). Here’s where I think he gets things wrong. ‘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.’ Really? How do any of the four key adjectives here help us with the first critical response to cubism, weird as it often was? How Mediterranean was Kahnweiler? (I dare say he thought the Forest of Barbizon was too far south.) Bull’s picture of Picasso’s reception in the 1920s and 1930s will come as a shock to readers of the surrealist magazines, which took Picasso as their revolutionary hero (‘Proudly we claim him as one of us’), and to those of us who thought till now that Carl Einstein’s essays, or Michel Leiris’s, or Breton’s, or Tzara’s, or Reverdy’s – the list of leftists on Picasso is hard to stop – were hugely better, and much more influential, than the forgotten picture book of Eugeni D’Ors. (‘Who they?’ in the case of D’Ors and Evola is a genuine question. Evola, as Bull says, had nil known interest in Picasso; and, as Bull does not quite say, was a virulent lunatic way off in right field. Pound is a different kind of madman, and he loathed Picasso instinctively. One of his bons mots was: ‘Picabia is the man who ties the knots in Picasso’s tail.’) Carl Einstein, the main author of articles on the artist in Bataille’s journal, is as pure an example of ‘left Nietzscheanism’ as one could come up with, and entirely free from fascist sympathies. Certainly there were people seriously engaged with Picasso’s work – in contrast to Evola, I mean – who might have been expected to try the Mediterranean gambit on him if they thought they could get away with it. Tériade and Zervos, for instance. Neither ever dared.
You’d hardly guess from Bull’s account of interwar culture that the lure of fascism for Paris intellectuals was more than countered by the siren-call of Stalinism; or that it is entirely unsurprising – the end of a long, ordinary, all too representative story – that in 1944 when Picasso finally decided to ‘take a position’ it was alongside Paul Eluard and the French Communist Party.
Not that this seems to me the key to the mystery either. Bull’s whole apparatus of guilt by association – it would not be fair to the real thing to call it ‘contextualism’ – ends up leaving Picasso untouched. I’m with Breton in believing that Picasso was ‘a man whose decisions seem in certain respects to have set everything in motion, for only apparently have they decided the destiny of painting; they concern, to the highest degree, thought and life at large’; but also – Breton again – that one doesn’t get to first base with Picasso unless one concedes, a little ruefully, that he was ‘bien au-delà de tous ceux qui l’entourent’. Picasso belonged to his times, not to his (or anyone else’s) miserable art-world. And the more complete an artist’s exposure to the movement of history – the deeper his negative capability, we used to say – the truer it is that our only hope as critics is to focus on the work itself. The risk, I recognise, is to move too close to Picasso’s heightened rhetoric: the risk Bull calls ‘complicity’. But I prefer that to dragging him down among the fascist non-entities.