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Among art historians, T.J. Clark made his name as a radical outsider. Once a member of the Situationist International, he has since preferred to follow his own peculiar path. This he did at Berkeley as a professor of modern art, until his recent retirement. He has been more an essayist around art than a scholar of art. Indeed, he is almost as well known in English departments as he is in art history departments. He also writes poetry; he has escaped from academia and become a literary figure. Now he takes on Picasso. He finds that most writing on the artist has been "abominable". It tends to "gossip or hero-worship". So he will talk about Picasso's actual work — Picasso and Truth (Princeton, £25.95) prints a series of lectures given at the National Gallery of Art, Washington — avoiding biography as much as possible.


Ironical cant: Detail from "Fruit Dish, Battle and Violin" (1914) by Pablo Picasso

Clark is obviously enthralled by Picasso's paintings, and he has thought long and hard about them. His enthusiasm draws him into the details, every one of which he likes to describe, but he manages to keep sight of the grand narrative too: the development of Picasso's representations of space up to Guernica. 

The book is impressively illustrated. Its generous reproductions trace Picasso's enquiry, making its original energy so apparent that even the most familiar pictures seem fresh again. At the same time these reproductions usefully remind us that Picasso's progress was often rigorous and even slow. The very layout of the book, then, quells the lazy temptation to think of Picasso as a blustering genius forever following his fancy. And the bigger problem of whether Picasso's disparate works live up to his giant artistic promise is indirectly addressed, as Clark's arguments always return to rest on a handful of Picasso's grandest works. 

We see how, having explored all the possibilities of a new style, Picasso summed up in these larger, denser, most ambitious paintings which were probably always intended for the museums. However, it is still difficult to think of Picasso as a painter of masterpieces. Picasso's art must be as much between his pictures as in them — how are we to understand a Cubist painting on its own? Therefore Picasso's art remains inseparable from his extraordinary career, and our knowledge of it. Perhaps that is another reason — apart from the fact that Picasso almost insisted on his art being treated as an anthropological document — why critics retreat into biography. Clark may have resisted restating the gossip but, though he wishes to deal directly with the painting, he cannot avoid navigating from canvas to canvas and weaving his narrative around what is supposed to be the artist's lifelong project.

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July 23rd, 2013
11:07 AM
For much of the 20th century Picasso came to be the perfect pin up for the celebrity-slavering arts and media establishment....combining as he did a faux radicalism with a tantalising droit de seigneur lifestyle. His absurdly over-hyped reputation helped to eclipse that of many genuine creative talents. During his time too, the West produced a great many world-changing engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs who virtually no one has even heard of. And now of course we have Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin to lionise.

July 22nd, 2013
9:07 PM
Picasso: the ideal darling of high-end celebrity slaverers everywhere....faux radical with a tantalising touch of the back street droit de seigneur. During his time, his celebrity eclipsed that of many truly creative talents and during his time too there have been many world-changing engineers and entrepreneurs that no one has even heard of.

Carl Forgach
July 21st, 2013
1:07 AM
“Today, as you know, I am famous and very rich. But when completely alone with myself, I haven't the nerve to consider myself an artist in the great and ancient sense of the word. There have been great painters like Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt and Goya. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his time. This is a bitter confession, mine, more painful indeed than it may seem, but it has the merit of being sincere." "The God of modern art admitted he was a fraud. What more can we say?"

July 11th, 2013
10:07 AM
I'm continually stunned by the gullible legions who revere Picasso as a genius. Early on, he exhibited the gifts of a fine artist, but his outsize ego took him down paths of ugliness and caricature. Picasso believed beauty did not exist? No surprise there, as all but a handful of his works are little more than dashed-off crap. The overwrought analysis of "the genius" and his works is strained tedium at its worst.

July 10th, 2013
9:07 PM
I met Tim 40 years ago when I was in college. Nicest man in the world. He didn't talk like he writes, and although I struggled to follow his talk, (it was the dawn of post modernist language torture), we had a great conversation afterwards about the Caillebotte painting "Paris Street: Rainy Day". What struck me was how carefully he actually looked at the painting; as opposed to most of my art history instructors who tended to repeat what they had read. I wonder if Tim's book really advances much past the arguments so lucidly argued by John Berger on the same subject.

July 10th, 2013
12:07 PM
The use of paradoxes as a rhetorical gimmick is skewered in Proust, where the Duchess de Guermantes terrorizes her female friends with them. One, shocked from top to toe on hearing the latest stunner (about Kant I think), goes home and puts her feet in cold water. Readers of academic paradoxes, which are, like the Duchess's, intended to startle and intimdate, might repeat silently to themselves Faulkner's response to an academic's "deep," and thus surprising, never before thought of, interpretation of his work: "I wouldn't be surprised." Very cool.

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