Confluence of Art and Thought: Books

By Clark, T. J.; Shook, Karen et al. | Times Higher Education, June 13, 2013 | Go to article overview

Confluence of Art and Thought: Books


Clark, T. J., Shook, Karen, Danchev, Alex, Times Higher Education


Alex Danchev applauds a study of one of the 20th century's greatest thinker-painters.

Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica

By T.J. Clark

Princeton University Press

352pp, Pounds 29.95

ISBN 9780691157412

Published 5 June 2013

How to talk about painting?" asked Paul Valery. T.J. Clark's answer to that question is downright and uplifting. Clark cleaves to the work, and its view of the world, perhaps even its world view. His Picasso is no lofty agnostic, as he puts it, who accepts that the nature of the world is unknowable and all approaches to it equally valid. "His god is exactitude. And exactitude for him (as for Wittgenstein) is a transitive notion. Representations are true or false, accurate or evasive. The world appears in a painting - if it didn't, who would bother to look?"

Picasso and Truth, then, is a study of art and thought - "the century's most difficult pictorial thought", asserts Clark, and also the most influential, "as Picasso's fellow-artists acknowledged (often against their will) ... decisive in changing the language of poetry, architecture, music, sculpture, cinema, theatre, the novel". More precisely, it is a study of thinking-in-painting, of the thinker-painter. It is centrally concerned with what Clark calls Picasso's conceptual horizon; "but concepts for Picasso are nothing unless they are kept alive in pictures - entertained on paper, as things or 'states of affairs' ... that might actually be the case".

Such a study is a mighty undertaking. It is no surprise that this makes for an intensely, almost thuggishly cerebral reading experience - a mix of exposition and excogitation - an intellectual high-wire act, commanding, compelling, thought-provoking ... thrilling.

Clark takes no prisoners. He remarks on "the abominable character of most writing on the artist", excoriating "its prurience, its pedantry, the wild swings between (or unknowing coexistence of) fawning adulation and false refusal-to-be-impressed, the idiot X-equals-Y biography, the rehearsal of the same few banal pronouncements from the artist himself; the pretend- moralism, the pretend-feminism, the pretend intimacy ... and above all the determination to say nothing, or nothing in particular, about the structure and substance of the work Picasso devoted his life to". He names names. Or blanks them out: John Richardson, author of three volumes of biography, rates two mentions in this book, both of them in the endnotes.

He appeals instead to Nietzsche, and also to Wittgenstein. "Is not Picasso Nietzsche's painter? Is not his the most unmoral picture of existence ever pursued through a life?" There is something of a Nietzschean echo in Clark himself (and not only in the rhetoric). He tells of reading On the Genealogy of Morals and being struck by the concluding passages on "these hard, strict, abstinent, heroic spirits who constitute the honour of our age, all these pale atheists, anti-Christians, immoralists, nihilists ... these last idealists of knowledge in whom the intellectual conscience today dwells and has become flesh ... These are by no means free spirits, for they still believe in truth." The will to truth, says Nietzsche, poses itself as a problem. From this there is no going back - "morality will gradually perish: that great spectacle in a hundred acts that is reserved for Europe's next two centuries, the most terrible, the most questionable, and perhaps also the most hopeful of all spectacles".

"Perhaps," comments Clark, the self-confessed socialist atheist, laconically. "We have roughly a century to go." He quotes the note he scribbled in response: "So what will Art be, as part of this spectacle - along with all the other practices of knowledge on which it fed, from Giotto to high Cubism - without a test of truth for its findings, its assertions; without even a will to truth? It seems to me that Picasso and Matisse made just that question their life's work - and gave the question real aesthetic dignity - in ways that mark them off from the artists who first posed the question (Nietzsche's contemporaries), for whom it seems to have made painting either a brilliant charade - I think of Gauguin - or an unsustainable agony - I think of Van Gogh. …

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