T. J. Clark’s Picasso and Truth

IN 2009, T. J. Clark delivered the fifty-eighth installment of the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Those six talks have now been published under the title Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica, and together they constitute an exemplary lesson in art criticism and the significance of the act of looking.

In his book, Clark cites various thinkers for whom he feels a special affinity (and whose ideas, he believes, are keys to understanding Picasso’s work). Prominent among them are Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. What attracts him to the latter is twofold: First, Wittgenstein’s notion of language as a materialization of our social relations—his belief that language is a “form of life” (the form acquired by a society) and a social action—might be said to underwrite Clark’s basic understanding of artistic practice. Consequently, he turns his attention not only to the artwork but to the world in which it exists and acquires its significance. The study of any work of art, for him, therefore entails an examination of its author’s vision on the basis of literary, documentary, and other sources.

This is how Clark goes about describing the way in which Picasso represents the world and the problematic relationship maintained by the artist with the mechanisms through which the world becomes visible. And here a second Wittgensteinian notion attracts Clark, this time a passage from the Tractatus (1921) that lays out the implications for representation (and for truth) in a world of forms rather than a world of objects, which he (Clark) ingeniously brings to bear on the crisis of Cubist space after World War I. For Clark, Picasso’s loss of faith in representation of the substantial world, the world of objects, during the interwar years (culminating in the catastrophe at Guernica) is intimately tied to the broader crisis of truth that Nietzsche predicted—indeed celebrated—“after the death of God.” Such philosophical currents matter, Clark argues, because art, too, is an integral part of how we understand life. In this sense, art is political, not because it reflects reality but because reality is where its practices and utterances are inscribed and circulate, provoking fissures, deviations, and displacements.

Clark situates the apex of bourgeois culture in the first half of the nineteenth century. Toward 1870, however, the bourgeoisie showed symptoms of having renounced any revolutionary intentions, inclining more and more toward the populism and banalization denounced by Émile Zola in novels such as Au bonheur des dames (The Ladies’ Paradise, 1883). The great dilemma for avant-garde artists thus became how to make a modern, bourgeois art without the bourgeoisie. Modernity was part of bourgeois culture, but in becoming alienated from that culture, the modern artist could only relate to it from a negative stance involving the representation of the world and its simultaneous contestation. For Clark, this led to a fracture of meanings that forestalls any totalizing intention, such as those propounded and defended by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried.1

Picasso, Clark insists, is a bourgeois painter. His canvases show interiors where everything is within reach of the hand, desire, possession, and, in the last instance, ownership. The analytical experiments of Cubism are circumscribed by the room, that space Clark calls the “truth condition” of Cubism. “Picasso’s reality is not the eye but the hand,” as Clark puts it. Even so, something changes in the period between the wars. Picasso becomes aware that the world he belongs to has ceased to exist, or is in the process of disappearing. His space is still bourgeois, but it is hard for us to recognize it as such, since its limits are constantly violated. The distinction between exterior and interior is blurred, and even those objects that were made to be grasped cease to be solid and specific. A canvas for which Clark has a special predilection, The Painter and His Model, 1927, is paradigmatic. In it, Clark locates the transition from the domestic space of Cubism to the monumental space of Guernica, 1937. “The weird spotlit apertures in Painter and Model,” he writes, “are meant to cancel the closed cube of the studio interior and set up a non-space instead: a not-interior, but, just as much, a not-outside; a here in which all possible theres are suspended. This is the mad ambition. I would say that Untruth in Picasso—a view of things in which Truth is finally not the issue—is this un-Space or non-Space.”

Clark argues that modernist criticism has proved particularly inadequate for judging a period during which a series of diverse artistic practices competed among themselves and artistic autonomy was called into question. It is revealing that Fried should consider the most emblematic work of the period, Guernica, to be flawed. For Clark, on the other hand, Picasso’s picture, in its literalness, its theatricality, its monumentality, and its dramatic use of black and white, sums up the tension between the private space of the bourgeoisie and the public space, or rather the publicity, of the new mass society that was then becoming naturalized.

Clark has carried out a rigorous critique of the formalist and self-referential concept of art history, one demonstration of this being his intense polemical exchange with Fried in the 1980s, provoked by Clark’s 1985 essay “Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art.” Clark is, however, also intransigent with regard to that other, biographical art history, which structures itself around proper names and reduces the artist’s work to a more or less faithful expression of his or her life. Subjects, colors, and forms thus correspond to frames of mind or to complex relationships with the artist’s partner of the moment. This is the “idiot X-equals-Y” that Clark denounces from the very first pages of his book.

Since the beginnings of modernity, some artists have invented personal mythologies to create histories and shape both their own memories and the ways in which they would be remembered. This aspiration to be “I” and “the other” (Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre”) is an act of resistance, a bid to conquer the passage of time, death, and oblivion. Other artists have envisaged life as a construction, dissecting the essential elements of our language as the organizing principle of our experiences. They understood that it is not we who speak a language, but the language that “speaks for us.” Although these two tendencies stand in apparent opposition, they are closely linked in essence. As art historian Jean-François Chevrier has recognized, both aim at the formation of a singular universe in which art and life are intertwined.2 Étienne Martin is the prototype of the artist who configures his work as a personal mythology. Kafka and Guston typify authors who fuse biography and form. Picasso unites the two approaches.

The ambience of Picasso’s paintings had always been domestic and, therefore, personal; but this “room-space” came into crisis in the 1920s and ’30s, Clark argues, and objects that had been recurrent in Picasso’s work, such as the eponymous instruments of 1924’s Mandolin and Guitar, now seemed more apparition than substance. Their lack of definition moved between the masculine and the feminine, the known and the untamed. The space summoned by Picasso was still a personal one, but it ceased to conform even to realism’s most basic tenets, and its objects lost their specificity. His picture of the world, in other words—and here again Clark points to the Tractatus—is no longer “laid against reality like a measure”; rather, the relationships between forms are now unmoored from facts (are in essence syntactical rather than indexical) and have, therefore, shed any pretense to truth. For Clark, this is Picasso’s greatest achievement, what makes him the modern artist Nietzsche foreordained.

THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE, Picasso was the subject of innumerable photographs—in his studio, accompanied by his carefully arranged works; painting Guernica; on the beach next to Françoise Gilot; and so on. His pose and attire vary from one picture to another. On some occasions, he appears in a blue worker’s smock, the worker-artist confronting the bourgeoisie. On others, he presents himself in a bullfighter’s costume or dressed as a bourgeois, in suit and fedora. Nothing is gratuitous for Picasso. He appears always to be playing a role, constructing his own mythology.

Without a doubt, Picasso incarnates the great romantic genius. But he is at the same time its caricature. In The Painter and His Model, he paints himself as a weakling, reduced to a broken line by contrast with the monstrous and voluptuous form of the model. In other works, such as Bust of a Woman with Self-Portrait, 1929, his image is no more than that of a shadow or a ghost. Clark cites André Malraux, who reminds us that Picasso called the artists in his studio paintings “petits bonhommes” or “ce pauvre type” (“little guys” or “this poor guy”). There is a substratum of humor and irony in these pieces. Like Joyce, Picasso introduces the drama of existence into the everyday. This drama often has its comic side.

The reference to drama is appropriate. Clark recognizes a theatrical component in Picasso’s work, and the notion of the tableau, of course, is applicable both to the theatrical stage and to painting. In this way, the table in Mandolin and Guitar becomes a sort of stage, and the instruments the actors on it. Whereas Fried saw theatricality as the pernicious element in the drift of contemporary art after Minimalism, Clark regards this aspect as consubstantial to Picasso’s modernity. His painting in those crucial interwar years is theatrical because it is paradoxical, representing the world and the means that make this representation possible. The work is no longer conceived as something finished, as a kind of Foucauldian document-monument hiding a single true meaning, but as an active process in which the viewer’s gaze is central.3 Picasso questions the supposed autonomy of the artwork, and he does so from within, so to speak; that is, from within the picture itself, which overflows its bounds.

From a reading of Clark’s book, it becomes apparent how conscious Picasso was of the ultimate destiny of his works and of his role in history. During the Spanish Civil War, the Málaga-born painter received the commission to paint a mural for Spain’s pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, at a moment when he felt he had to take a stand as a citizen and an artist. As a citizen, his sympathies with the Communist Party were evident, and were to become even more so later. As an artist, things were different. The controversies between those who defended realism as a means of political motivation and those who advocated an avant-garde art were constant during the ’30s. The pavilion of the Spanish Republic was a witness to these antagonisms, and Picasso certainly knew of the heated dispute in this regard between Josep Renau and Alberto Sánchez. Picasso found the solution to this dilemma by questioning his own aesthetic language and introducing the exterior—the street and the outside world—into the abstraction proposed by Cubist form. In Guernica, Clark explains, Picasso abstracts death and, at the same time, makes it concrete. That is what allowed Picasso to create a work that proposed a new form of public art, a new monumentality, without yielding to formalist and self-referential temptations or to the tenets of crude social history. For Clark, that is the genius of a painting that describes not only the barbarity of war but also its terrible banality.

Manuel Borja-Villel is director of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.


1. Jonathan Harris, Writing Back to Modern Art: After Greenberg, Fried, and Clark (New York: Routledge, 2005), 50–51.

2. See, generally, Jean-François Chevrier, Formas biográficas (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía / Ediciones Siruela), 2013.

3. Óscar Cornago, “La teatralidad como crítica de la modernidad,” Tropelías, no. 15–17 (2004-–2006): 246.