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T.J. Clark Has A Go At Pablo

from The Washington Post

Shades of Meaning at First Blush

Sunday, March 22, 2009; E06

To watch a great art thinker’s mind at work, we asked T.J. Clark to have a go at a Picasso that he hadn’t known before, an untitled still life from 1918. It hangs in the East Building of the National Gallery, just two floors up from where Clark’s Mellon lectures will begin today.



Clark had never really thought about Picasso’s still life until we put him face to face with it. In reproductions that he’s glimpsed, he’s found the whole thing “terribly jolly.” Not praise, coming from Clark. Standing in front of it, he’s immediately struck by the “extraordinary black border” that wraps around three sides. That makes the whole scene graver, he says, noting how Picasso’s black border creates a special tension between the “lighthearted bric-a-brac” that fills the painting’s table and a sense of “grim confinement.”

Coming very close to the painting, Clark points out how the dark paint actually covers areas in its bottom half that were once the same lively turquoise found on the painting’s vase and cards. (The earlier paint peeks through cracks in the darker tones laid overtop.) Picasso, standing before his half-finished picture, seems to have had the same concerns about its “jolliness” as Clark.

Once Picasso had revised and completed the picture, Clark notes, he laid down a blood-red signature that crosses over between dark border and bright scene, laying claim to both.


Clark is interested in the confined spaces and interiors you get in Picasso. Even when a picture’s so kaleidoscopic that you can’t make out the objects in it, he says, Picasso almost always gives a sense of the domestic space they’re in. And, of course, you get just such a space in this picture’s view into the corner of a room. Picasso, the great hater of abstraction, was always committed to delivering “something solid and felt,” says Clar

Stepping far back from the picture, Clark shows how well Picasso has achieved his end: What had looked like cubist complexities from up close resolve into a clear sense of a cluttered table standing in a corner with a chair. However close a Picasso painting comes to abstract pattern, says Clark, it has to “relate to some particular situation” in the real world.

Rather than dwelling on making each distinct object clear and visible, that is, Picasso “wants to show us the way things in a certain world fit together.” Picasso asks himself: “How imperiously can I play with these particular identities and still have them contribute to an overall interior?”


For all its radically modern look, says Clark, the enclosed world seen in Picasso’s pictures is essentially nostalgic. They depict the cozy world of a 19th-century bourgeois. For Picasso, Clark says, the bourgeoisie is a social force that is “both confining and wonderful”: His interiors register that confinement, but they also revel in the comforts and objects that they gather into “the familiar space of the room.”

Picasso had painted such old-fashioned rooms even when he was living in the mess of his unheated studio at the Bateau Lavoir. By 1918, when he’s actually achieved the comforts of the bourgeoisie, he seems to step back from them — to frame them in black and hold them up to sight.


Picasso depicts the “stock properties” of bohemian sociability: guitar, sheet music, cards, fruit bowl, even maybe an absinthe spoon and glass at the front edge of the table. They are, says Clark, “utterly banal and familiar things — they stand for the sufficiency of the bohemian world.”

That world is “a mixture of the celebratory and the down-at-heels,” says Clark. “Never was a carpet less luxurious — or the stuffing in a chair.” Although, in a typically Picassoid oxymoron, that down-at-heels carpet is also the one place in the painting where the artist resorts to showy brushwork.

By 1918, however, this very successful painter barely had a foot left in bohemia: His still life is looking back at something the artist has lost. The longer we look at the painting, Clark says, the more clearly it seems to be about “its stock properties being stock.” Its vase and playing cards are cartoons of themselves, the fruit in its fruit bowl become four black-edged blobs of pink. “Never has fruit been more vestigial.”


1918 wasn’t a good year for Europe, exhausted by a four-year war. If the painting wears black, that could be why.

Yet Clark insists that the picture is not portentous or histrionically doom-laden. Clark could imagine someone asking, “How dare a painter paint cards and a guitar in 1918 — how can this painting be other than trivial?” And that’s the question Picasso answers, in a painting of “tremendous gravity.” Picasso, says Clark, wants us to “enter its world of familiar delights, but full of a sense of that world being something to struggle for.”


The great achievements of cubism were over when this still life was painted, and there was a real risk that the movement was becoming empty style. “He knows that the moves are becoming too preestablished,” Clark says. This last moment of cubism has the “terminal flavor” of “a language tremendously conscious of itself as a language, on the verge of just sedimenting up.” The airless, lightless scene in this 1918 still life, says Clark, “is on the verge of not being vivid.”

Clark wonders if Picasso uses the black border on this picture to show that he’s aware of this. His border presents the scene as a work of art, as a framed picture, rather than as an unmediated view into a real portion of real space. That is, the painter is letting us know that he knows that his moves are starting to be more about painting than about the vivid world that they once showed.

Whereas earlier, fully cubist pictures, which tended to trail off into open blankness at their sides, had simply let us sense their space, without all the editorializing.

In this still life, then, Picasso’s sense of space has started to register as a particular sense of confinement — the confinement of a painter who feels trapped in an artistic style, too far from reality and truth.

— Blake Gopnik

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Posted on March 24, 2009 by Editor

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