Picasso: Style and Meaning/Picasso and the Invention of Cubism/A Sum of Destructions: Picasso's Cultures and the Creation of Cubism/Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier

By Florman, Lisa | The Art Bulletin, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Picasso: Style and Meaning/Picasso and the Invention of Cubism/A Sum of Destructions: Picasso's Cultures and the Creation of Cubism/Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier


Florman, Lisa, The Art Bulletin


ELIZABETH COWLING Picasso: Style and Meaning New York: Phaidon Press, 2002. 704 pp.; 507 color ills., 119 b/w. $125.00; $49.95 paper

PEPE KARMEL Picasso and the Invention of Cubism New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. 240 pp.; 30 color ills., 250 b/w. $60.00

NATASHA STALLER A Sum of Destructions: Picasso's Cultures and the Creation of Cubism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. 438 pp.; 70 color ills., 258 b/w. $50.00

JEFFREY WEISS, VALERIE FLETCHER, AND KATHRYN A. TUMA

Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier, exh. cat. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. 190 pp.; 82 color ills., 68 b/w. $45.00

There is a passage in his book Farewell to an Idea, in the chapter on Cubism, where T. J. Clark pauses to clarify a description he has just offered apropos of Pablo Picasso's painting "Ma Jolie." "Let me be clear," Clark writes.

When I talk about "local acts of illusionism" in the case of "Ma Jolie". . . I mean the overall play of light and shade in the picture, the intersection and overlap of planes, spaces and directions. . . . I mean a certain kind or degree of complexity, a seeming openness of each mark to correction, a nuance and precision in the whole fabric of touches; or a quality to the touches that does not seem to make sense except as nuance and precision, even if we cannot see what provokes them; the effort after effort apparently to "fix" some definite but elusive phenomenon-"here," "now," "like this"-and plot its relation to others around it/behind it/belonging to it, and so on. . . . These efforts can only be understood, it seems to me, as efforts at illusionism. . . . And I lake it that they are readable only in the terms provided by the tradition they come out of: looking at them locally, we apply the usual tests of vividness; but somehow, finally ("really," profoundly) the performance of matters is supposed not to be read in these terms-or not merely in these terms. Look again, the picture says, look beyond the details to the totality! But how, exactly? With what criteria? If the totality docs not come out of the details, then where does it come from?1

I am tempted to read this passage not only as a description of the particular difficulties posed by "Ma Jolie" (and a good number of other Cubist paintings from approximately the same date) but also as an allegory for the near impossibility of writing about Cubism as a whole, of offering any totalizing scheme or theory able to account for all of the "local" details that each individual painting (and sculpture and papier collé) represents. Like the illusionistic passages of "Ma folie," the body of work we call Cubism is inconsistent and contradictory-elusive because marked by abrupt shifts in direction and interest. Yet, as dark himself acknowledges, however impossible the task of totalization, the test of any account of Cubism must still necessarily be how it does or does not "hang together as a whole." It needs to be measured by its overall economy and relevance: "the kinds of purchase it has on particulars: what features of Cubist painting it is able to discriminate and, above all, to connect: whether those features seem to the viewer and reader the ones in need of attention; and so on."2

It seems to me that in all of this Clark gels something about Cubism exactly right-hits the trompe l'oeil nail on the head, as it were. No art ever hung more on its detail." Individually and as a group, Cubist images demand the viewer's scrupulous attention. Each work is little more (and decidedly no less) than an accumulation of specific passages, and, by the same token, any account that would show us something new about Cubism at large will need to bear in mind that that "movement" was little more (and, again, decidedly no less) than an accumulation of specific works.

Over the past few years, a number of new accounts of Cubism have appeared, each of them claiming to show us something about tlie work that previous scholarship had overlooked.

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Picasso: Style and Meaning/Picasso and the Invention of Cubism/A Sum of Destructions: Picasso's Cultures and the Creation of Cubism/Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier
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