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’.

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