An interview with TJ Clark: Picasso and Truth

An interview with TJ Clark: Picasso and Truth

Timothy James Clark, often known as TJ Clark, is an art historian and writer, born in Bristol in 1943. He has taught art history in a number of universities in England and the United States, including Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. He has been influential in developing the field of art history, examining modern paintings as an articulation of the social and political conditions of modern life. His orientation is distinctly leftist, and he has often referred to himself as a Marxist (this cribbed from wikipedia, of course.)

Clark is George C. and Helen N. Pardee Professor of Art History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Painting of Modern Life (Princeton), The Sight of Death, and Farewell to an Idea, and the coauthor of (with Retort) Afflicted Powers.

Daniel Fraser is a writer and critic based in London.


Daniel Fraser: I wanted to ask you about Picasso’s relationship to blue, a colour whose application certainly seems to shift in his post-Cubist paintings. What and how do you think blue functioned for Picasso throughout his painting, and how did it change?

TJ Clark: I would still consider the question on blue worth asking as the book does, particularly in the sections relating to The Blue Room and Three Dancers, discuss how Picasso's use of blue is important to what he is trying to express, but I thought it would be good to expand on the marked difference between its use in these paintings and those of 'the blue period' and his more overtly Cubist works.

I can’t remember which theorist of colour it was who talked about blue as the least ‘organic’ colour on the spectrum: the least associated with living things, with growth. Whether or not we agree with the idea in general, I think that blue is a colour whose ‘strangeness’ – its coldness, its ‘emptiness’, its distance from the world of persons and things – seems to have fascinated Picasso, and been a pole towards which his painting was constantly drawn. In the Blue Period it is exploited, clearly, for its emotional potential: it is the colour of emotional bleakness, melancholy, poverty, ‘bare life’.

During the years of high Cubism, blue doesn’t play a central role. Colour is vital, but the Cubist ‘monochrome’ works essentially within a range of browns and greys: its coolness and ‘detachment’ isn’t meant to carry (I feel) an emotional weight. Blue returns with a vengeance in the 1920s. The Three Dancers, or Figure by the Edge of the Sea (and many other canvases from the period), lean heavily on blue’s uncanny force and distance. But it isn’t, I think, a distance meant to carry ‘emotion’, exactly: blue seems more the sign of an invading or pervasive Otherness: a non-humanness, a dis-placement, a world robbed of familiarity or closeness. In the book I argue that the best overall term for this may be Untruth. Maybe – but at least I’m sure that it no longer stands for a state of mind or feeling, or even for an ‘analytic’ detachment.

Daniel Fraser: In terms of Picasso’s monstrosity, I always found in the post-Cubist ‘studio’ works (though had not seen the Tehran one previously) with their wire frame painters an almost mocking tone, a challenge to cubism and the space of the artist’s studio, like Manet’s deformed foot on the Dead Christ: but also as a withering of Cubism. I was wondering whether not you saw anything in this and furthermore if there was a difference for you in Picasso’s paintings between ‘room space’ and ‘studio space’?

TJ Clark: Two questions here. Yes, the monster paintings are often sardonic and cartoonish, seemingly trying for a kind of comedy; and certainly making fun of high Cubist seriousness. (This must have been more pointed a move in the context of the post-war Cubist academy in Paris, and the general portentousness of ‘rappel a l’ordre’.) But of course, as usual with Picasso, the capering, jesting, leering side of things leads back towards a strange form of gravity. The bone pictures of 1929 and 1930 swerve between weird erotic comedy and a celebration (I feel) of true simple solid stoic endurance, in the ‘alone-ness’ at the edge of the sea.

For me, what matters in Picasso is always the intimacy and proximity and ‘inhabitedness’ of the room. A lot of the time the room is a studio, since that is one kind of room Picasso is deeply familiar with. But I don’t feel that he makes a distinction between the place he paints in and the place he eats in, or makes love in, or sits in watching the sun through the window.

Daniel Fraser: When he did allow his figures outside, his monstrous creatures were so often depicted on the beach. I always got the sense of the beach being a 'place where flesh is shown' in a very real sense. It too provides an outlet for blue but I wonder what else is it about the beach? Is there an element of the slippage of the binary oppositions of true/false into 'play' being expressed? Is it even ‘the beach beneath the studio’?

TJ Clark: Yes, the beach is the edge of the ‘serious’ world (the world of practical life, of a True-and-False established constantly by ‘common sense’). It’s the place of play and display. Clothes come off. The sun is God. And yet ‘play’, on Picasso’s beach, doesn’t turn out to be exactly ‘playful’, does it? Play takes on monstrous form. ‘Let’s play at hurting ourselves’, as the Little Girl says in Picasso’s ‘play’ a few years later. The ultimate beach colour is blue – not the yellow of sunshine or even the pink of flesh. If the beach IS a wonderful ‘beneath’ or ‘beyond’, it is one still full of a Homeric barrenness.

Daniel Fraser: The focus the book has on a particular concept of space, a space which is not only depicted but inhabited, and particularly your use of the word ‘dwelling’ and being-in-the-world reminded me of Heidegger particularly ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’. And the conception of space which has a readiness-to-hand also implies a Heideggerian sensibility of sorts. But he is not mentioned. I just wanted to know if there is an analogous thought for you there or if his exclusion was a deliberate distancing from, or opposition to, those comparable concepts?

TJ Clark: Yes, I know that my line of thought intersects with Heidegger. But I know this ‘at a distance’, and I want (maybe wisely, maybe unwisely) to keep that distance. As I understand it – and again, I may be wrong, just because of the distance I’m keeping from the detail of Heidegger’s texts – the concepts you point to cannot be dissociated in Heidegger from notions of rootedness, of profound and enduring ‘familiarity’, of a ‘world’ made (essentially by hand) always in the image of an older one. That I have nil sympathy with the politics informing such notions is obvious; and that I think it possible to maintain a notion of being-and inhabiting, of ‘grounded’ experience, without such a politcs, ditto. But more important, I believe Picasso thought much the same (in practice, in his painting). One simple way of putting it would be: Picasso was a Bohemian. His ideas of intimacy and ‘belonging’ are always entwined with ideas of liberating impermanence and fecklessness. He sure wasn’t a ‘dweller’ in the world of the ‘age-old’ and tried-and-true. A guitar is different from a spade or a sabot.

Daniel Fraser: One of the major conclusions you draw in the book is that despite the definite Nietzschean struggle with the concept of truth, Picasso’s art even at its most monstrous does not go beyond good and evil, it has a grounding in truth. Do you think this abandonment of truth has now fully come to pass? If so how for you has it manifested itself pictorially?

TJ Clark: A huge question, Daniel – which I don’t think can be answered without the kind of big ‘culture gesture’ that the Picasso book tries not to make (tries to provide an alternative to). I guess if I were going to work on your question, I’d begin by thinking about recent photography, and in particular the effect of easily available digital ‘manipulation’ (even the word here, with its roots in handicraft, may be wrong) on photography’s notions of, and ways of producing or admitting, ‘immediacy’, ‘reference’, ‘objectivity’. Gursky would be an obvious case to take up. But his interest for me would lie, I think, in the continuing tension in his work between a concern to show us a world that he seems to consider ‘imaginary’ now ‘all the way down’ – fully captured, fully ‘made’ by a machinery of mediation – and a stubborn survival in his actual work of an aesthetic of the lens, the recording machine, the ‘world appearing on the plate’.

That would lead to the question of his debt to his teachers the Bechers – to their commitment to camera ‘objectivity’, and their profound immersion in an older (distinctly UN-postmodern) world of production. The Bechers, if you like, are the Truth-tellers of high industrialism. Gursky may (or may not) feel that the world we now live in has ‘bracketed’ Truth. But his means of showing the bracketing – of giving his ‘showing’ any real authority – still depends utterly on the Bechers’ belief that the camera, as the child of the machine age, has a privileged access not just to the look of things, but to their ontology. And I suppose I’d say (or do I mean hope?) that any serious art will go on being caught in – animated by – just such a to-and-fro between solipsism/scepticism and ‘exposure’ to the facts.

-- Dan Fraser (26/01/2015)

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