Experimental Geographies

"There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more" – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1974: 156)

Picasso’s Geography

“We have art so that we may not perish by the truth” 

-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power


Another day and another café. This time Schwarz-Sauer on Kastanienallee. Bjork is playing in the background. The album is Homogenic. ‘Joga’ and ‘Unravel’ have never sounded more hopeful and uplifting. But they also take me, to use Bjork’s own phrasing, to other ’emotional landscapes’. It was only later that I sat down and returned to the world of Picasso which had been occupying my thoughts for the past few days…

In between trips to archives and conducting interviews, I’ve been listening to podcasts of T.J. Clark’s spellbinding lectures on Pablo Picasso that took place in the spring at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (click here for the podcasts). Collectively titled  “Painting and Truth”, the series of lectures take the work of Picasso in the 1920s as a starting point and culminate in a lecture on Guernica. Other large-scale works that feature in the series include the 1924 Still Life: Mandolin and Guitar in the Guggenheim, The Three Dancers in the Tate, Painter and his Model which is in Tehran and the 1929 Nude Standing by the Sea (in the Met). 

Broadly speaking, the lectures question what it might mean to paint in a world after ‘truth’? What happens, Clark asks, when the test of truth is no longer painting’s axiomatic point of departure? Or when painting is no longer continuous or equivalent with the world at large? These are understandably difficult and portentous concerns and Clark has Nietzsche squarely in mind here. Indeed, Nietzsche figures prominently throughout the lectures as a kind of touchstone for a new painterly matrix that begins to take shape for Picasso in the mid-1920s before finding full and precarious form in Guernica

The lectures are far too rich to do justice to here. What interests me in particular as a cultural geographer is Clark’s sensitivity to the new spatiality that subtends Picasso’s work at this point of time. As he notes, “my story is…about space.” And this is a story that can be summarized  in the following (cruelly abbreviated) manner:

1) That ‘Modernity’ (or at least one version of it) had finally put the painterly preoccupation with representing truth under terminal pressure and that we see this registered in Picasso’s complicated return to cubism in the mid-1920s. Where cubism had earlier stood for “exacitude,” it now slowly and painfully left the “contained” space of the studio and entered into the public domain. 

2) That Picasso’s longstanding preoccupation with what Clark refers to as “room-space” is pushed to its limits. A certain bourgeois form of “secure interiority” (and Walter Benjamin’s wonderful comments on the 19th century bourgeois interior would make a wonderful foil here) comes to an end in these painterly experiments. 

3) That the new phenomenology that finds dazzling form in Picasso’s work at this juncture depends on a re-imagining of space. Picasso, so Clark argues, is trying to construct a space that is somehow open to the outside. But if Clark talks about the rendering of a space that has achieved a “new kind of proximity,” he is also at pains to highlight the grounded ordinariness of its materialism. This is nowhere more the case (and at such a scale) than in Guernica where the darkside of Modernity is grappled with and even stared back at in a way that prompted Picasso to bid farewell to the space of cubism. But in doing so, Picasso also ultimately retained a preoccupation with the body in all its visceral and fragile facticity. While the erotics of these concerns have been well rehearsed by Picasso scholars, Clark also rightly points to the significance of Guernica in registering the disappearance of one “form of life” just as the horrors of it successor came all too violently into view.

The lectures are a veritable tour-de-force and if we take Stephen Kern’s wonderful 1983 book on The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 as a point of reference, there is still much to be written regarding the spatial history of the 1920s and 1930s. Clark’s lectures offer only one  – albeit tremendously rich – glimpse into the stakes involved in writing such a history.


One comment on “Picasso’s Geography

  1. Pingback: Retort at the Whitechapel: April 4, 2010 « Experimental Geographies

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