- Picasso 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
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.
Vol. 36 No. 6 · 20 March 2014
Malcolm Bull paints himself into a corner in his strenuous argument with T.J. Clark about the meaning of Picasso’s Guernica (LRB, 20 February). Preoccupied with the Mediterranean-ness of the artist, he sinks in deep enough to raise the question, ‘Guernica, the greatest masterpiece of fascist art? Maybe not, but how much of it would have to be repainted to fit that description?’ Not much, he implies. Let’s look at the painting again. In a jagged scenery of black and off-white and bluish-grey, a screaming woman displays her dead baby under the jowl of a brutally indifferent bull. A horse bares its dagger-tongue impaled by a spear, and a wound slices its flank. A man drowns in a trap of teeth. A half-naked woman staggers towards the shattered sword of a warrior with a gaping mouth. The bull’s tail is a plume of smoke. The sun whose rays slash the scene is a lightbulb with a serrated aureole.
A more powerful vision of people and animals destroyed is hard to imagine. The picture still fastens onto our minds with terrible force, in this era of Palestine and Bosnia and Congo and Iraq. It is not called ‘Chaos’, or ‘The Triumph of Evil’, or ‘Inferno’. It is unmistakeably named after the blitzing of the Basque city by Hitler’s Heinkels and Junkers, practising for their forthcoming war. Some years ago I could still speak to a woman in Gernika who sheltered with her mother under a tree as their town was ruined, with 1465 people killed and 889 injured.
If you walk slowly along the length of the painting, as I did in Paris in 1956, you feel you are stepping through the debris of all our massacres, our air-raids and putsches and pogroms. Of course the bullfight and the classical bust and the rotten sun of Mithras are all there. What they are used to express is the stark injury and cruelty which stormtroopers, SS, Luftwaffe and panzers had started to inflict on the people of Europe.
T.J. Clark is making it up when he writes that Pound ‘loathed Picasso instinctively’ (Letters, 6 March). Pound more than once referred to Picasso as the ‘father’ of Vorticism, explicitly recognised him as ‘a great artist’, and as art critic in the New Age between 1917 and 1920, consistently invoked him as setting a standard other artists were to be measured by. No sign of instinctive loathing there, or anywhere else in his writing.
Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire
Vol. 36 No. 7 · 3 April 2014
Malcolm Bull notes ‘a tendency to see political alignment as being to some degree extraneous to literary or artistic achievement’ (LRB, 20 February). But the alignments he adduces are flawed. He lists Braque as one of those who ‘positioned themselves on the radical and reactionary right’, and seems to think this is ‘well known’. In fact, there is no evidence for it – as John Richardson, who put it about, has conceded – and much circumstantial evidence on the other side. As Braque advanced through the ranks of the Legion of Honour his political ‘comportment’ would have been scrutinised very carefully: it was not found wanting. Braque was true to his country and to his friends, notably to those who lived and died their anti-fascism: Carl Einstein, for example, whose widow he supported all her days. His closest allies were those whose loyalties were above suspicion (the likes of René Char and Francis Ponge), not to mention Picasso himself, who tried to persuade him to make a joint announcement that they were joining the French Communist Party, in 1944. Braque declined: for him, 1944 was a time for painting, not pantomime.
University of St Andrews
Vol. 36 No. 8 · 17 April 2014
Alex Danchev is wrong to suggest that the only evidence of Braque’s reactionary political tendencies is Douglas Cooper’s table talk, as relayed by John Richardson (Letters, 3 April). Others said the same thing. Max Ernst complained to his son that the world was full of the ‘pimps of fascism’: ‘Poor Dalí, he pretends that he is insane and that this entitles him to see mystery in royalty and Franco. And poor Braque, he dreams of the Croix-de-Feu and keeps painting the Tricolore.’ Roger Roughton, writing in the Criterion in 1936, criticised Marxists for underestimating ‘the importance of present-day bourgeois artists such as the Spanish Picasso, [and] the French Braque (now an ardent supporter of the fascist Croix-de-Feu)’. Whether Braque was actually a card-carrying member of the Croix-de-Feu, a popular nationalist movement, is uncertain, but that is clearly where his contemporaries thought his sympathies lay.
T.J. Clark wants to have things both ways (Letters, 6 March). He surrounds Picasso with a protective phalanx of leftist Surrealists, and then claims that he ‘belonged to his times, not to his (or anyone else’s) miserable art-world’. But if Picasso’s exceptional ‘negative capability’ meant ‘exposure to the movement of history’, how could he remain untouched by the most powerful political and cultural force of the 1930s, the radical right? He hardly needed to be ‘dragged down among the fascist non-entities’; a polite invitation sufficed, both in San Sebastián in 1934 and, as Genoveva Tusell García’s recent archival discoveries have revealed, in 1957, when he was approached by Franco’s representatives about showing his work in Spain.
I had thought that comparing Clark’s rhetoric to that of the Italian fascist Julius Evola might be pushing it a bit, but the talk of ‘higher beings’ at the end of his otherwise magnificent essay on Veronese makes me wonder (LRB, 3 April). Higher than what? Non-entities, presumably. What is the political complexion of a society so divided?