In a Dark Mode

Lawrence Rainey

  • Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism by T.J. Clark
    Yale, 451 pp, £30.00, April 1999, ISBN 0 300 07532 4

The grainy photograph shows the doorway of a house, the double door itself scarcely visible, obscured by a row of three huge paintings, all four to five feet in height, which have been carefully posed on the doorstep. Each boasts an almost illegible array of shaded polygons. On top of the central painting a fourth is stacked, and flanking that, two more, both oval in shape, suspended either side of the doorway. As the eye labours across this improbable heap of images, it gradually discerns a series of masterpieces in the history of modern art, all of them by Picasso. In the row on the doorstep are the Aficionado, Man with a Guitar and The Model; flanking the doorway are the two ovals both known as Guitar; suspended between them and perched on the others sits The Poet, a debonair figure who wryly surveys the assemblage. Is the snapshot intended simply as an inventory of the work that Picasso achieved at a modest villa in the town of Sorgues in the summer of 1912, or is it a mad altarpiece of some sort, ‘an unholy polyptych’, as T.J. Clark calls it, with its wings unfolded as if ‘for Easter or Pentecost’, the ensemble crowned by The Poet, ‘raised high in place of the pantocrator’? And what should we make of this mixture of farce and metaphysics, a mixture raffishly recapitulated in the painting of The Poet, where the sombre browns are flamboyantly punctuated by black impastos, thickly ridged, shiny, almost gelatinous, which signal brilliantined hair and waxed mustachios? Clark is willing to concede its unmistakable ‘jauntiness’; but that is not enough to redeem it from what he calls ‘an impacted, melancholic severity’. Nor, he adds, was it ever intended to do so. But ‘melancholic’ about what? About modernity, it seems at first glance. For plainly, in Clark’s masterful engagement with the canonical moments of Modernism in the visual arts, modernity is always and everywhere an unremitting, irredeemable horror. Yet that is too glib – better to follow his discussion of Cubism a bit further, to tease out the darker, more compelling sources of that urgent, wistful grimness.

The paintings of 1911 and 1912, the years of ‘High Analytic Cubism’, or even ‘Hermetic Cubism’ as older art histories once called it, are among the most haunting works in the Western tradition. Objects, or fragments of objects, shimmer amid a dappled luminescence that both beckons and repels, that seems to hold the promise of understanding and to withdraw the offer the moment the eye begins to act on its invitation to scrutiny. Perhaps the contradiction resides not in the luminescence itself, but in the edgy interaction between the inviting luminosity and the forbidding opacity of the monochrome colours – stark browns and cool greys that soften into sandy beiges or stiffen into metallic silvers, retaining a peculiar density, a power of resistance, and throwing up a veil which inhibits comprehension. Or perhaps the contradiction has to do with the tensions between the luminous and the monochrome, and with the grids of black-edged faceting that mount upwards in pyramidal constructions, floating on the canvas, suspended in that spectral light. Wherever we locate it, contradiction seems essential to the effect of these paintings.

One way of accounting for the mysterious inner light of the High Cubist paintings is that it is ‘ultimately a metaphor for human consciousness’, so turning them into metaphysical meditations and locating their obscurity in the mystery of inwardness. The phrase belongs to William Rubin, the former curator of 20th-century painting and sculpture at MoMA, but the tradition extends back to Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Braque and Picasso’s dealer, who offered his own accounts of Cubism in terms derived from Kantian metaphysics. That tradition, Clark objects, too swiftly dispatches the ‘dark side’ of Cubist practice, its resolutely ‘clotted, sedimented, schematic and grim’ dimensions – what Picasso later termed its ‘base kind of materialism’.

Another account of Cubism has dismissed its referential or descriptive dimensions altogether. In the Cubist works of 1911 or 1912, objects or even objecthood may still be denoted through tokens and fragments – the famous stencilled letters; the mustachios of The Poet; the moustaches, buttons and sleeve ends of Man with a Pipe – but they have been wholly overtaken by signification itself, by an ever freer play of the signifier, as painterly marks seem to discover that the differences between them are enough to constitute a world. Elements of this account, too, may be traced back to debates that opened up in Picasso’s day and they recur in the classical formulations of Clement Greenberg. But their most systematic exponent in recent years has been Yve-Alain Bois, who has argued that Picasso’s development from 1907 to 1913 represents a coherent and unified evolution, marching briskly forward from an interest in African masks around 1907 to the famous maquette for Guitar of October 1912, in which a projecting cone is indicated by a void, while other voids are used to signal solids, so establishing a play of differences which acknowledges the essentially arbitrary character of any representational code.

Bois also relies on Kahnweiler’s account of Picasso’s work and gives only glancing attention to the so-called hermetic works of 1911 and early 1912. For him, as for Kahnweiler, the decisive moment occurs in July and August 1910, when Picasso was staying at Cadaqués and produced several paintings with which, Kahnweiler recalled, he felt ‘little satisfied’. (The best-known are (Wo)man with a Mandolin, now at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, and The Guitarist of 1910, at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.) Despite Picasso’s dissatisfaction, Kahnweiler was convinced that he ‘had taken a great step’ forward that summer, having finally ‘pierced the close form’. Bois elaborates on this remark, claiming that the scaffolding of these paintings is independent of any figurative function. All that remains for Picasso is to adopt the famous trompe-l’oeil details, and the hermetic paintings will achieve their uneasy splendour, staging ‘an indefinite struggle between illusionism and anti-illusionism’.

Clark reverses every point in this account. The hermetic paintings are best understood ‘as not issuing from the process of inquiry of the previous three years’. We should attend, not to Kahnweiler’s ‘great step’ forward, but to his report of Picasso’s dissatisfaction. Yes, the Cadaqués paintings had ‘an evenness and openness of touch, of arrangement of elements, of colour and light, which must have made a lot of Picasso’s previous painting look decidedly cluttered’, but they also entailed ‘emptying, reducing, diagrammatising, blanking out’. The new paintings courted ‘elegance and suavity’ – and above all, the risk of achieving just that and nothing more, the danger of ‘thinning and repetitiveness’, surely Picasso’s greatest fear. The paintings were plainly not failures, but they were, in Clark’s words, ‘the wrong kind of success’, and now Picasso set about making his way ‘back to the world of phenomena’, putting together ‘a counterfeit of everything that had, at Cadaqués, evaporated under his brush’. But what was that?

In the three years before the summer of 1910 at Cadaqués, Picasso had been probing the basic procedures that ground the tradition of Western illusionism and the device which he had seized on as an emblem of those procedures was the reversible cube. In Picasso’s hands it came to stand for ‘the minimum conditions of illusionism in painting’, and became, at the same time, the basic principle that takes salience or convexity to indicate presence, and which therefore requires that the presence of every object can be secured only if something else is absent. Even Cubism’s much noted representation of parts of an object which are normally hidden to the eye – the back shoulder, say, of a person who is otherwise depicted frontally – was part of that effort. It was not an attempt to destroy one-point perspective, as so often claimed. (That task had already been comfortably assimilated into avant-garde practice.) Nor was it designed to reveal a ‘fourth dimension’ or disclose features otherwise hidden by conventional representation. It was meant to challenge ‘the whole notion that convexity is the aspect’ of objects ‘on which being-to-the eye is grounded’, to complement, in other words, the probings of the reversible cube.

Which explains what went wrong at Cadaqués. In the course of its mutation into diagramming and geometricisation, the pictorial ‘density’ of the reversible cube had evaporated into the ‘cold, simplistic grip/grid’, while shading had become ‘nerveless, truly academic’. Reversibility, in other words, had been displaced by transparency. After a good deal of uncertainty that lasted through the winter of 1910, Picasso groped his way backwards and forwards, hitting his stride in the paintings that he began the following summer (July-August 1912) in Céret and which culminated almost a year later (May-June 1913) in the works assembled in the mock-altarpiece at Sorgues. In these works, the ‘airless, impacted quality’ of the pre-Cadaqués period is ‘somehow combined’ with the leaner geometry and weightlessness achieved at Cadaqués. Reversible cubes reappear, but now they are ‘dimpling and evaporating in front of our eyes’. Yet much rests on that adverb ‘somehow’.

It is here that Clark departs so decisively from previous readings of Cubism. Already commentators in Picasso’s day noted the unmistakable pipes, ties, crossed hands, buttons and sleeve ends which are so sharply delineated over the flickering surface of the canvas, seemingly denoting or describing a recognisable world of ordinary experience. But in Clark’s view ‘it is exactly the picture’s task to insist or insinuate that nothing could be further from the truth.’ The buttons and pipes are too sharply delineated, too easily recognised, altogether too mechanical: they announce themselves as mere bluff. Genuine description, real denotation must be located elsewhere, these tokens proclaim; and where else can description and denotation be, if not in ‘the overall play of light and shade in the picture, the intersection and overlap of planes, spaces and directions’, or in the interchange of opaque reversibility and transparency which has been ‘worked to the point of undecidability’. The painting hints at another language that might take up the task of particularisation and ‘articulate an order made out of perception’. But simultaneously it acknowledges its own pretence: the ‘other language’ it has created is a counterfeit language. Here, then, is one source for the ‘impacted, melancholic severity’ of the so-called hermetic paintings.

But there is another. Nothing is more striking than the ‘immense, unstoppable relish’ with which Picasso puts ‘the means of illusionism through their paces’ for one last time in the paintings from Céret and Sorgues. Why did he do so? In part, he was reacting to the ‘nerveless academicism’ of his own work at Cadaqués. More important, he was testing the ways in which those means ‘might form a different constellation, the ways they could possibly be recast, in some overall recasting of social practice’. Is that last claim just a vestige of Clark’s Marxism, a residue of utopian longing now projected backward over the Cubist experiment? In the year from 1911 to 1912, the pictures of Picasso and Braque were largely indistinguishable and, notwithstanding the chiding of professional art historians, many sophisticated viewers have caught themselves more than once in the halls of MoMA thinking that they were looking at a work by Braque, only to find that the painting was assigned to Picasso. Or vice versa. Visiting one another almost daily, typically not signing their paintings until requested to do so much later by dealers or clients, they nurtured a collectivity of two. Their later remarks about their collaboration reveal an abiding affection, but the project was illusory. For that brief moment they may have believed that this common quest for a sort of anonymity, beyond the otherwise irreducible principle of the individual, was what the recasting of social practice could entail. It proved as evanescent as the procedures which they marshalled to give the appearance of a new language.

Cubism, in short, was not, as Clement Greenberg and others have insisted, the moment when modern art found its subject-matter in itself, and in doing so ‘found an idiom adequate to modern experience’. And far from advancing briskly towards a recognition of the ‘arbitrary nature of the sign’, as Bois has argued, Cubism was ‘fiercely unwilling’ to recognise it. When finally and reluctantly it did so, Clark urges, it was ‘always in a dark mode’. The work that Picasso achieved at Céret and Sorgues was indeed a way of positing ‘a re-enchantment of experience’, but as Clark insists again, ‘always in a dark mode’. The repetition of that phrase is an indication of the strength of feeling behind Clark’s insistence on ‘Cubism’s deep, wild, irredeemable obscurity’. Cubism didn’t represent the beginning of a modern tradition: it was one of the many ways in which Modernism has repeatedly ended. And that is why its celebration of transparency was always shadowed by ‘an impacted, melancholic severity’. Cubism knew that its claim to offer a language was fraudulent – yet what a glorious fraud it was.

Clark is acutely, almost painfully aware of that glory. Citing The Architect’s Table and Man with a Pipe, two of the best works from the years 1911 to 1912, he describes the new appearance now assumed by the compositional grid:

It is filled with the luminous, the dappled and glistening, the chequered shade, the translucent and half-penetrable – indicators that geometry had somehow now been divulged by seeing. Lines are invaded by light. The grid shivers again with Cézanne’s perceptual uncertainties ... [and] is now replete, and not just replete but ‘one’.

Throughout Farewell to an Idea, there are passages like this, in which a lyrically meticulous prose hovers so close to a painting’s texture that it seems to be running its fingers over every brush-stroke. At times the book harks back to an older tradition of descriptive connoisseurship, and no doubt some readers will charge Clark with having abandoned the more documentary and resolutely historical approach that was so praised (and damned) in his earlier books. Yet it is the very keenness of observation that anchors the book’s brilliant and original argumentation.

The sweep of the work is extraordinary and the chapter on Cubism underscores one of several themes that tie it together: the ephemeral collectivities of two that offer momentary refuge from the irresistible power of capital’s increasing penetration into the texture of human dealings. For Clark this motif finds its most arresting formulation in the subjects of Camille Pissarro’s Two Field Women (1892), exemplary members of ‘a community of two’ whose dialogue conjures a world in which labour and leisure, individuation and collectivity, are not antithetical terms, but reciprocal ones. Yet as Clark also recognises, what sustains that imagined world is neither pastoral fantasy nor condescending sentimentalism, but the fragile plenitude of Pissarro’s coloration, a generosity that is ultimately inseparable from the artist’s anarchism – his openness to ‘the welter of ideological struggle’.

Clark’s reflections on the obscurity and privacy of Cubism are balanced by a chapter on UNOVIS, the Soviet acronym for Affirmers of New Forms in Art, a group which in 1919 and 1920 included the visionary nihilist Malevich and his star pupil, Lissitzky. The goal of UNOVIS was to make ‘production propaganda’, posters and signs that would urge the working class to return to the factories, which had become virtually idle in the course of the civil wars. Their collusion with the state, their vexed and ultimately compromised endorsement of its aims, or what might have been understood to be its aims, provide an occasion for sombre meditations about guilt and accountability: one version of the Modernist dream has become real, with nightmarish results. The focus then shifts to Jackson Pollock, whose drip paintings become a variant of the dilemma that had faced Braque and Picasso: irreducible difference confronting anonymous identity, a dilemma restaged in a different key of agonised inquiry. Pollock, in turn, is followed by a reconsideration of Abstract Expressionism. There are also earlier readings of the various Large Bathers by Cézanne and of the Death of Marat by David, a painting trotted out and unveiled to ‘the people’ in a public ceremony that took place only a few hours after Marie-Antoinette was beheaded. Revolution, murder and martyrdom – with blood congealing around the means of representation – these are the founding emblems of modernity and Modernism in Clark’s lacerating vision.

Though the full ethical and aesthetic dimensions of that vision are made clear only over the course of the book, the chapter on Cubism epitomises its most distinctive features, remarkable as it is for the topics it pointedly neglects and which have been at the centre of critical writing on Cubism in recent years. Scholars such as Patricia Leighton, for example, have laboured to show that Picasso was sympathetic to contemporary anarchism and to discern those sympathies in the populist undertow of the collages made from 1912 to 1914. Others have focused on the misogyny and voyeurism in the studies of prostitutes that precede the Demoiselles d’Avignon and which allegedly persist in High Cubism and beyond. (Picasso’s private life provides fertile ground for this line of argument.) Others still have simply abandoned the ‘élitism’ of the ‘hermetic paintings’ and concentrated on the more demotic vigour of the later collages, with their witty evocations of popular culture and their pungent dismissal of ‘high’ painterly tradition. But Clark does not bring any of this into his treatment of the earlier works: yes, the title Ma Jolie echoes one of the period’s popular songs, but that is a case of period bric à brac, a dapper wink intended to signal ‘contemporaneity’, not an indication of where the painting’s real work is being done. Others again have stressed Picasso’s ‘primitivist’ fascination with African masks and sculpture, a topic that allows the writer to condemn the artist’s ethnocentricity or to celebrate his turn against the Eurocentric tradition in order to effect the heroic dispatch of Western illusionism. Clark is having none of that, either. Picasso’s engagement with African sculpture served him ‘as an aid to understanding illusionism, not disposing of it’.

Clark has nothing to do with the banal ‘political correctness’ of recent years, but it is difficult to imagine a book more deeply vexed about the correctness of its own politics, more compulsively concerned to reflect on how its procedures and premises can be situated within the unravelling history of modernity. Unlike many critics of the Left who write as if 1989 had never happened, Clark cannot stop raising the questions that face any cultural criticism that seeks to remain anchored in political commitment. And though he is finally unequivocal in asserting that the myth of socialism ‘will survive its historical defeat’ – the book’s penultimate sentence – the texture of his many discussions on the subject reveal more probing doubts.

He is an incessant rewriter of the history of socialist thought in ways that attempt to free it from its moorings in a Leninist genealogy: a project that entails renewed attention to classical 19th-century anarchism and its early alliance with socialism. Anarchism, as it was understood in 1891 in the circles frequented by Pissarro, may have been a bizarre and eclectic doctrine, but its ‘foolhardy inclusiveness’ was better than ‘the philistinism and sectarianism that passed for knowledge on much of the Left’. And it is in anarchism that one can locate ‘an image of possible moral (human) consistency’ which was soon bracketed out of official socialism, forever unable to bridge the gap between its ‘discourse of denunciation ... and that of class consciousness’, between a rhetoric of human sympathy and a grim scientism. This line of argument culminates in Clark’s heroic chapter on Malevich and Lissitzky in 1919-20, the moment when Leninist orthodoxy is throttling the dwindling anarchist presence in the Soviets while Malevich and Lissitzky, each in different ways, briefly strive to reconcile their visionary nihilism with the demand for ‘production propaganda’. It is the beginning of ‘bad faith’ and the ‘day-to-day turning a blind eye’ to the murders happening around them.

Seldom has a work of art history so often invoked the notion of ‘horror’. The chapter on Lissitzky and Malevich is intended as a study in ‘the horrors of modernisation, and of so many of the efforts (even the best and most ruthless) to imagine modernity otherwise’. Pissarro’s pastoral vision could only dimly ‘imagine the horrors’ of agribusiness that lay ahead. Or still more bluntly: ‘The horror of the present’ is simply ‘vicious and drivelling – and Modernism has made it its endless business to show what those two adjectives mean’. In the face of all this, nothing suffices except a politics – or perhaps an aesthetics – of agony. One name for that aesthetics might be ‘Modernism’: ‘Anyone who cannot hear the shouting and arguing still going on in a Pollock or Picasso has, to my way of thinking, a tin ear for agony.’ Pissarro may ‘prettify’ or ‘sentimentalise’ his field women, but such terms scarcely ‘describe the agony – the inevitable ruthlessness – involved in keeping a dream of humanity alive’. Elsewhere, ‘horror’ and ‘agony’ are attended by adjectives such as ‘grim’ and ‘melancholic’ or ‘ruthless’ and ‘severe’. Almost desperately, Clark wants to believe in his claim that socialism ‘will survive its historic defeat’. But the language of Farewell to an Idea suggests otherwise: it registers with frightening power the anguish of utopian yearning as it struggles to keep itself alive – a yearning almost unbreathably pure, a last gasp of oxygen before the plane goes down.

That, in Clark’s view, is also the power of Modernism. It ‘asserts the beautiful as its ultimate commitment’, and simultaneously discovers that the beautiful is ‘nothing but mechanism, nothing but matter dictating (dead) form’. As capital and modernity deepen disenchantment of the world, leaving intact only a pervasive materialism which casts aside the ‘the human, the social and the discursive’ as so much detritus, Modernism is fatally driven to discover the truth of its own condition: its ‘metaphors of agency, mastery, and self-centredness’ are revealed to be just that – metaphors, illusions, self-deceptions. The impulse to the lyrical, and to the integrity and authority of the self, survives only in the ludicrous form of The Poet’s waxed mustachios. ‘The deep ludicrousness of lyric’ turns out to be the real subject of Modernism, the one to which it obsessively returns, ‘like a tongue to a loosening tooth’.

Such contradictions lie at the heart of this book’s achievement. The luminous lyricism of its accounts of individual paintings is always vying with the implacable pessimism of its vision of modernity. Clark has found a way of writing that is wholly commensurate with its subject, every bit as incandescent, every bit as dark and tangled as the paintings and the world he discusses. Modernist art at its best, he argues, thrives on ‘the power of the negative’, a deep sense ‘that any imagining of utopia – dreaming of contact and equilibrium – had to have its own counterfactual status written into it. It had to speak its own factitiousness’. Much the same might be said for Clark’s own work, and for its aching utopianism.

In the complacent narrative that governs the cultural history of the 20th century within the academy, a benighted Modernism is depicted as the last redoubt of an outdated commitment to the aesthetic, which then happily collapses and gives way to Post-Modernism’s more benign embrace of popular culture and the mass media. Nothing could be more alien to Clark’s insistence on Modernism’s melancholic severity thriving as pure negation. I can think of no recent book which has sustained at such pitch an intricate yet vigorous argumentation, probing originality, the lyrical evocation of the canvas, and a historical meditation of extraordinary depth. The fitful efforts of art to escape the death sentence which modernity has issued against it are registered here with all the passion, power and commiseration that a major critic can muster.