Friday, April 30, 2010

T.J. Clark on Guernica

Two great minds, Picasso and T.J. Clark matched in a lecture. At first I was dubious, when the first statement Professor Clark made was "Space was the form truth took for him as a painter." This seemed unduly formal, detached. But by the end I was fascinated, and only slightly unhappy, with his analysis. At the beginning Clark declared "The twentieth century appeared in his (Picasso's) work as a way of life coming to an end. ... It was the end of the "room" in art, the world view of being and having was shattered to the core." ( these quotes are based on my notes they are not exact). He did not elaborate on this comment, about which much can be said.

What I will add is that the metaphor of the room as a secure domestic place filled with our objects as the focal point of life, based on capitalism, acquisition, and obvliviousness to the rest of the world, was destroyed in World War I ( of course that isn't true, it was only the hegemony of the British Empire that was destroyed) - but the painters in that crucial early twentieth century era sensed the impending destruction and  altered the domestic space in art into the layered, complexity of cubism. (Clark confusingly later refers to the destruction of Cubist "room-space" by Picasso, the Cubists were not actually concerned with room space, but with disrupting it, in my opinion. I think Clark overprivileges Picasso)

Then point 2 , which was the most compelling insight for me, was that this was "the new face of war" of what has become the war on terror, our permanent war forever. We know that this is the first representation in art of deaths of civilians by bombing from the air ( the Germans were testing new planes in collaboration with Franco, just in case you need that fact filled in). Such a death is now so commonplace that we digest it with our breakfast.

Professor Clark stated that ""certain kinds of death break human contact" There is a "special obscenity" of this new death. "Privacy is torn apart, the room gives way to the street." And this new reality led to Picasso' s new way of imagining a public and political that is outside, rather than the interior sexual domesticities that had been his focus. ( Well there are the Three Musicans, from just after World War I, they are in an ambiguous space and they are scarey and scared).

Again, there is much elaboration possible. Clark showed us an odd sketch in outlining this movement outdoors, but he did not show the famous bone paintings of the early 1930s which are all on the beach and, to me presage, the nightmare of Guernica in thier frightening shapes. But of course one difference is that those giant "vagina dentata" heads are threatening, whereas in Guernica they are being attacked. He also failed to every mention the "dreams and lies of Franco," that well known etching series. It presages Guernica in many ways, it is set outside, it has direct formal connections. When I asked about it in the questions, he first said it was not relevant, than brilliantly backtracked and rethought it as he talked about it.

A major point in the lecture was the enormous scale of the Guernica (mentioned again in the "dreams and lies" answer which he reminded us were tiny) the largest painting he ever did (of course determined by the scale of the site for which it was commissioned, not Picasso's inclinations.) It was this scale as well as the subject AND the site itself, the pavilion of the Spanish Republican government as it fought for its life against unified fascist forces of church and state, that forced Picasso to change his way of working as well as out of his self referential narcissism.  The result is a monumental homage to the doomed people of Guernica. It is not the first time that the female victims of war have been represented, (look at Kathe Kollwitz), but it is because it is by Picasso, the most famous.

One of the most intriguing parts of the lecture was Clark's detailed analysis of how Picasso achieved this transformation of his inclinations to represent the interior, personal, and the sexual, to the exterior public death, by his removal of sexual references, of references to Greek, to males, his step by step ( based on those daily photographs by Dora Maar) changes in the relationships in the painting.

But then Professor Clark declared that in the painting we have "flatness finding its feet"  ( it was a pun too, as he emphasized the feet in the painting) . WHAT, we are talking about re defining the idea of pictorial space in response to tragedy, and we have "flatness". Flatness is of course that tiresome idea of Clement Greenberg's. The flatness here is defined by Clark as "the collapse of modernity" . That's not hard to disagree with as an idea,  but actually there isn't flatness in Guernica,  it has all sorts of erratic spatial relations, and it is the erratic relationships that suggest the tragedy, as far as I am concerned. Some of the figures are flat, some of them are in the extreme surface of the painting, but others are not, particularly at the bottom of the painting, there is an indication of recession or at least volume. ( he talked a lot about the bottom of the painting as a complex problem) But the flatness here is, then, humanity run over by a war machine.

Clark's final statement that these are "hieroglyphics of states of agony" was wonderful.
His lecture was about HOW an artist transforms his personal response to disaster into the elements of a painting, and for Picasso, according to Clark, it was in the transformation of space.

Of course, this almost eliminates the content completely. The bull, the light, all symbolism. The possiblity of resistance is nil, mankind is simply a victim and of course that is the case so often in war, the human is simply a pawn in a system of power, and this is the representation of that moment according to Clark. But emptying all content, except the moment of bombing, I think is unduly flattening the painting. Eliminating all reference to resistance (the woman flying into the center with that incredible light which for me suggests humanity and resistance) makes this image only one of despair.

Clark has become a formalist? Or is he re defining formalism in a social context.  I think the latter.  I hope so. I hope this is slight of hand, play the vocabulary of formalism into a new context. Clark is, of course, of that particular breed, academic marxists. They are all brilliant, but on some level, they all disturb me. They are so dry and removed from feeling the horrors. Their social concern for the state of the world is undoubtedly real, but their writing is so turned inward that it contradicts what Marx realized was necessary in the age of industrial capitalism, resisting oppression through collective action in public spaces.  Clark and Picasso's public space (or ambiguous public private space) actually is not a committed activist space. We know what happened next to Picasso, he joined with the Communists and the Resistance during the Occupation of Paris. Then he went back to his old domestic ways for the most part in his later years. We have to acknowledge that Dora Maar was the radical that really was a key to Guernica.


Lara Evans said...

Hi Susan, great post. I agree that Clark did the work a disservice by eliminating consideration of symbolism in his analysis. But then, maybe he felt enough has already been said about the symbolism. Still, it would have been good for him to acknowledge that, if it was a motive.
As I was reading your post, I kept thinking about a chapter in a book I was reading yesterday, from Elizabeth Hutchinson's "The Indian Craze." I know, it seems pretty far afield, but the connection was on the topic of "the room." Her chapter on the "Indian Corner," a home decor feature 1900-1950s reveals some contradictory tensions around moving out of the room, as Clark described it. This wouldn't be specifically in relationship to Picasso, but more about competing tensions in society in general. Hutchinson links the collecting of Japanese and Native American-made objects to the arts and crafts movement, and the display of objects in the home as an indicator of taste and individuality, but also as a moral aesthetic retreat from commercialization and industrialization. Maybe Picasso was moving out of the room and into the world, but a large segment of the population (largely women responsible for decorating the home) were bringing the (primitive) world into the room.
-Lara Evans
Not Artomatic: a blog wrestling with art at

Susan Platt said...

Thanks Lara, this is a great insight.