Pure Mediterranean

Malcolm Bull

  • 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.

And that is where Clark situates Picasso too. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche had dreamed of a music that would not fade away ‘at the sight of the voluptuous blue sea and the brightness of the Mediterranean sky … A music whose rarest magic would consist in its no longer knowing anything of good and evil … an art that from a great distance would behold, fleeing toward it, the colours of a setting moral world that had almost become unintelligible.’ According to Clark, that is what Picasso delivered:

… a fight to death with morality. For if the world is true or false, it is also good or evil. And these terms, which for Nietzsche now stand in the way of human awakening, must disappear – together. Do we not see them disappearing – burning up in the fire of imagination – in Guitar and Mandolin on a Table? Is not Picasso Nietzsche’s painter?

‘Nude on a Black Armchair’ (1932).
‘Nude on a Black Armchair’ (1932).

Focused on half a dozen paintings from the interwar years, Picasso and Truth is suffused throughout with the sombre glory of Nietzsche’s twilight. Eloquent, confrontational and often disarmingly simple, Clark’s writing moves quickly between levels, the metaphors heavy, the descriptions light. Take this account of Nude on a Black Armchair (1932):

Touch – the imagination of contact and softness and curvature – is consumed in the Nude on Black Armchair by something else: a higher, shallower, in the end more abstract visuality, which will never be anyone’s property. The nude’s near hand, holding on to the clawlike white flower, is an emblem of this: fingers and petals become pure (predatory) silhouette. The body’s pale mauve is as otherworldly a colour – as unlocatable on the spectrum of flesh tone – as the yellow and orange in the sky. Maybe in the picture night is falling. The blue wall to the left is icy cold. The woman’s blonde hair is sucked violently into a vortex next to her breast. Blacks encase her as if for eternity. The rubber plant tries to escape through the window.

Invited to reflect on the differing properties of the tactile and the visual, the reader unexpectedly ends up the witness to a crime. We know the time, we can describe the room. The disembodied gaze was ours as well. We saw it all.

Clark’s descriptions of paintings often have a shocking immediacy – should that be ‘complicity’? – so arresting that it is difficult to move beyond them to the arguments they sustain. But his book does advance an ambitious thesis founded on the idea that the spatial properties of Picasso’s paintings can be equated with the categories of Nietzschean philosophy. On this view, cubism is the final example of the truth-fixated asceticism of the 19th century, while Picasso’s work of the 1920s and 1930s represents his liberation from it.

For Nietzsche, the ascetic impulse was a form of ‘internalisation’ because ‘all instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly, turn themselves inward.’ The objective correlative of this internalisation is what Clark calls ‘room space’, by which he means not just that cubist painting is almost always staged indoors, in the studio, with everything to hand, but that the picture itself is conceived as creating a space, however shallow, for things to be ‘in’. In this context, ‘the introjection of outside into interior’ becomes ‘the sign of an art no longer under truth’s auspices’.

‘Guitar and Mandolin on a Table’ (1924).
‘Guitar and Mandolin on a Table’ (1924).

Cubism eventually opened up to the world, quite literally in the case of all the windows Picasso painted in the summer of 1919. And in Guitar and Mandolin on a Table (1924) that openness to the outside transforms the familiar objects of cubist still life themselves: ‘The outside has really come to them, in from the window. It has touched these objects … They have become outsides. Outsides are all they are. Internalisation, to use Nietzsche’s great bad word, cannot lay a hand on them.’ And the art of the end of internalisation is here just as Nietzsche envisaged it, ‘a kind of comedy. Mediterranean brightness and frivolity; Aristophanes hooting Plato off the stage’.

This is a strange, slightly convoluted argument (note the none too dainty pirouette on the word ‘outside’, for example), yet in many ways it is very persuasive. In 1923, Picasso was spouting Nietzscheanisms like ‘art is a lie … that allows us to form an aesthetic point of view on life,’ and it makes sense to discuss the work in light of them. Clark does this with such extraordinary patience and skill – not reading Nietzsche into the work, but drawing his interpretations of paintings out of Nietzsche – that by the end of the book Picasso’s instinctive Nietzscheanism seems like the inescapable presupposition of any serious reckoning with the artist.

But it is an argument with far-reaching consequences. If Clark is correct, and Picasso is Nietzsche’s painter, the one who Mediterraneanised painting, not just by embracing ‘brightness, lightness, cheerfulness, clarity – art on the balcony saying “yes” to the world’, but in the deeper sense of taking painting beyond truth and falsehood, good and evil, then that also has the effect of positioning Picasso’s work closer to the visual and philosophical rhetoric of the extreme right than ever before.

There is no acknowledgment of that here, however. In Clark’s account, Nietzsche is decontextualised, and all reference to the contemporary political inflection of Mediterraneanism excluded. But in the 1930s, many of the aesthetic judgments Clark is making were heavily coded in racial or cultural terms. ‘Untruth lacks depth, above all,’ he writes. ‘That is what Nietzsche and Picasso loved best about it.’ But Clark gives no hint that the surface/depth opposition was one that even Ortega y Gasset (no friend of Mediterraneanism) conceded to be ‘an essential difference between Germanic and Latin cultures’ because ‘the latter is the culture of surfaces.’

‘Three Dancers’ (1925).
‘Three Dancers’ (1925).

The right’s stranglehold on the Mediterranean was sometimes contested. The young Camus, speaking in Algiers in 1937, was trying his best to wrest the idea from the hands of Action Française and Mussolini. But that isn’t what Clark presents Picasso as doing. It is essential to his argument that we come to see Picasso’s Mediterranean as Nietzsche’s Mediterranean, and his most bravura passages are designed to fix that connection in the reader’s mind. Nowhere is this more true than in his account of Three Dancers, or Young Girls Dancing (as Clark prefers to call it), of 1925. Art historians like Christopher Green have tried to distance Picasso from the rightist nexus of Mediterraneanism by pointing out that he embraced the primitive in a way that would have been anathema to George and other advocates of Latinity. But the Mediterranean had its own primitive side. It supplied not just the Apollonian face of fascism, Pound’s ‘Mediterranean sanity’, but the Dionysian one as well. Clark calls it ‘nameless wildness’, and sees it embodied in the dancer on the left of the three whose ‘upper body twists back on itself so dangerously that the sky through the window seems to come right through her, through a hole in her chest, with a strange red and white bull’s eye sizzling in the middle of the blue’. For Clark, the ‘women are demons’ and the painting as a whole ‘is terrible, or terrifying … For the terror – this is my thesis – has to do with Untruth: with what art has to be if Truth is no longer its province.’ That is the reason for this ‘nameless wildness’, that is why she is dancing: ‘Isn’t she the lie personified – the lie hallowing itself, the untrue (the made up) unfolding itself as the way things are?’

Yes, but with one proviso according to Clark. As Nietzsche acknowledges, untruth, or ‘will to power’, always needs some form of resistance to overcome. Untruth, in Picasso, is unspace, which can exist only ‘as the opposite of a distinct shape of space, a specific play of background and foreground’. And so, for Picasso, the room becomes the figure of that resistance. In the Three Dancers:

There is a wild outside to existence, certainly, but it is threaded through the life that we have, as a reality we shall never be master or mistress of. And that reality too can be represented, as ‘sleep and dream, shadows, the night’. Or better – as blue. Blue is regularly the figure in life of indifference, apartness, infinite distance, non-humanness. But it is here with us, inside the room. We can dance it. We can wrap ourselves around it. We can dance it to death.

It is an astonishing passage, an unforgettable evocation of painting. But it has much the same implication (and the same insistent rhythm) as Julius Evola’s Nietzschean vision of Mediterranean fascism in the first edition of Pagan Imperialism (1928):

We must reawaken ourselves … to the world not as a philosophical concept, but as something that pulses in the rhythm of our own blood, the sensation of the world as power, the sensation of the world as the free, agile, rhythmic dance of Shiva, the sensation of the world as a sacrificial act.

Evola, an Italian Dadaist painter turned fascist esotericist (still much read at CasaPound), had another name for this ‘Mediterranean tradition’. It was Mithra, the ‘ruler of the sun’, the ‘killer of the bull’, the symbol of those who ‘are able to go beyond good and evil, lack, longing and passion’. The Mithraic cult had predated Christianity and been suppressed by it, but now it had re-emerged in Nietzsche, and all who yearn for ‘a life of light, freedom and power’. Picasso had no connection to Evola, but he said he enjoyed bullfighting because it gave him a thrill ‘to witness the survival of a Mithraic cult’. And the fascisant novelist Henry de Montherlant (with whom Picasso had planned to republish Pepe Hillo’s Tauromaquia) agreed. He had converted to Mithraism in 1926, and maintained that ‘the cult of Mithra was as alive today as ever.’

Whatever you make of this nonsense, it is surely relevant to Bataille’s essay on Picasso in the issue of Documents devoted to the artist in 1930. Distinguishing between the beautiful sun that stands elevated in the sky, and the rotten sun that blinds and maddens when scrutinised, he equated the former with academic painting and the latter with the Mithraic cult and with Picasso, the one artist to represent its ‘blinding brilliance’ and ‘unheard-of violence’. If what Bataille says is true, we are right back with Michel Serres. But how can Guernica possibly be considered a symptom rather than a reaction?

It has often been noted that Guernica seems to conjure with Bataille’s hallucinatory vision: Picasso’s transformation of the sun (visible in the second state of the painting) into an electric bulb echoes Bataille’s claim that the scrutinised sun becomes ‘the horror emanating from a brilliant arc lamp’. But there is more. Like Mithra, the fallen warrior holds a Roman sword, and (in the second state) he holds up to the sun a fistful of wheat – an uncanny echo of Montherlant’s claim that Mithra’s brutal act of killing gives rise to wheat and ‘all the treasures of the earth’.

In Guernica, however, it isn’t the killing of the bull that gives rise to new life, but of the warrior. Bataille had claimed that the sacrificial bull became the sun only with its throat slit. But Picasso could easily conceive of Bataille’s bloodthirsty scenario the other way round. In a text of 1943 he imagines a neck ‘sliced … by the poisonous hands of the sun’, and in Guernica the fallen warrior ends up as a decapitated statue. If anything, Guernica looks like Mithraic sacrifice with the roles reversed. But that, as the contemporary critic Carl Einstein acknowledged, was what Picasso did best: ‘seeing the world from both its poles at once, dividing himself in two … between simultaneous opposites’. Did that apply to politics as well?

Of Picasso’s political allegiances there is little to say. When Spain still had a monarchy, he said he was a monarchist. When Franco’s rebellion began, he supported the government. After the Liberation of Paris, recognising its role in the Resistance, he joined the French Communist Party. Kahnweiler said Picasso was the most apolitical man he ever met, and he may have been right. In 1934, Picasso accepted an invitation from the Falangist avant-garde in San Sebastián to meet José Antonio Primo de Rivera, future leader of the Falange, and the son of the military dictator during the last years of the monarchy. Picasso told him that his father had been the only Spanish politician ever to show him any respect. But the Republican government eventually did better than that: it offered him the directorship of the Prado, and as the war turned against the Republic, Picasso was persuaded to make ever more explicit statements in its favour.

But that narrative doesn’t necessarily define the ways in which Guernica is a political painting. It was made for propaganda purposes, but as Picasso said, ‘If I were a shoemaker, royalist or communist’ – not random alternatives in his case – ‘I would not necessarily hammer my shoes in a special way to show my politics.’ And as Marxist critics of the 1940s were quick to point out, if Guernica is meant to represent the Spanish Civil War, then one side is conspicuously missing. They were right. Although Picasso momentarily considered the idea of including the overtly leftist symbol of a raised arm and clenched fist, he quickly rejected it.

It’s said that Picasso used to give reproductions of Guernica to Germans who visited his studio in Paris during the Occupation: testament, no doubt, to his sense of humour, but also to the ambiguity of the image. The painting doesn’t actually show a German outrage against a civilian population, or even a confrontation between left and right. On the nationalist side, the Spanish Civil War was widely interpreted as a war to preserve Latin civilisation against the Mongol hordes of the Republic. But in Guernica, the Mediterranean is found on both sides. Almost every motif in the painting is drawn from Picasso’s earlier work, and it is full of classical elements – not just the sword, and the lamp, and the mask-like features of the woman who holds the lamp, but the central figures themselves. The running woman is the exhausted victor of The Race (1922), which depicts two women running on the beach. As the composition evolves, the fallen warrior becomes a broken antique statue, a reminder that, in Picasso’s series of etchings of 1937, The Dream and Lie of Franco, Franco had started by taking a pickaxe to a classical bust. But the aggressor in Guernica, the bull which, so Picasso claimed, stands, if not for fascism, at least for ‘brutality and darkness’, is another enduring symbol of the Mediterranean, a fusion of Picasso’s Minotaur and the protagonists of the bullfights of the early 1930s. In these circumstances, to ask whether the painting takes sides seems irrelevant. Both sides are the same side: the Mediterranean is at war with itself.

How far is the argument going to go? Guernica, the greatest masterpiece of fascist art? Maybe not, but how much of it would have to be repainted to fit that description? Try to imagine, for a moment, what the greatest achievement of Mediterranean painting might have looked like: an image that invoked the elevated sun of neoclassicism and the rotten sun of Mithra, Apollo and Dionysus, the dancing on the beach and the dancing in the bullring, and brought them all together in a brutal, cataclysmic collision. Only one artist could have painted it. And only one of his paintings comes close to achieving it.

Perhaps Guernica is best seen as a consummate piece of political appropriation. If so, there was a context for it: surfascisme, a word coined by one of the members of Contre-Attaque (Bataille’s anti-fascist group) to capture the idea that fascism could only be overcome by being assimilated and surpassed. Picasso would not have embraced anything so programmatic, but Guernica, painted in the studio where Contre-Attaque used to meet, and photographed by Picasso’s lover Dora Maar, a former member of the group, emerged from the same milieu. The only difference was that in Picasso’s case he could appropriate all the materials he needed from himself.

Clark will have none of this, but it is closer to his interpretation of Picasso than he allows. Like his account of Three Dancers, his reading of Guernica hinges on its depiction of space. The presupposition of the argument is that in the mid-1930s, in Picasso’s return to classicism and in his depictions of bullfights, he had begun ‘to make the outside world his own. Sometimes it was the open space of the bullring, sometimes it was the terrain vague of myth … a token exterior has won.’ That outside is all too present in Picasso’s initial thoughts about Guernica. He envisaged the scene taking place outdoors, ‘at the edge of the town or maybe a small plaza’. But as the weeks go by Guernica takes on certain features of room space, and it ends up looking ‘contained and intimate’. However, the space is no longer flooded with light from an open window. It is a space in which the ‘outside’ is something absolutely foreign, made present as ‘inruption, instantaneity, horror’.

In many respects, this reading appears to be an elaborate gloss on Clement Greenberg’s memorable description of Guernica as looking like ‘a battle scene from a pediment that had been flattened out under a defective steamroller – in other words as if conceived within an illusion of space deeper than that in which it was actually executed’. If that is what Clark has in mind, it would confirm the suspicion that ‘room space’ has, all along, been a homely Heideggerian way of talking about the shallow pictorial depth that formalist critics like Greenberg (and Clark himself, in earlier books) called flatness, and specified as the defining characteristic of modernist painting.

In the discussion of Guernica, however, room space doesn’t just signify flatness, but ‘flatness finding its feet’, by which Clark means that the figures are simultaneously flattened and grounded, placed at a ground level that is ‘neither outside nor in, exactly, but the floor of a world as it might be the very instant “world” was destroyed’. And to have done that, to have made a little room for the human, even at a moment of utmost extremity, even at the very end of the world: that, Clark claims, is ‘enough’.

But is it? The demon that room space is called on to contain, the demon that Clark calls ‘nameless wildness’ or ‘outside’, is known by other names as well. Associated, in Clark’s account, with classicism, and bullfights, and myth, and terror, it is what commentators of the 1930s would have recognised as the Mediterranean tradition – or fascism for short. In which case, Picasso and Truth ends up showing something that it doesn’t set out to say: namely, that far from being irrelevant to the achievements of those who espoused it, the culture of fascism encompassed and shaped the achievements even of those who did not. And if that is how the Alps were made, even Greenberg’s defective steamroller won’t flatten them.