T.J. Clark on Guernica

March 8, 2011

We asked MFA Art Criticism and Writing Department student Noah Dillon to write up his experience seeing art historian T.J. Clark’s talk at SVA, which was part of the spring 2011 Art in the First Person lecture series. Below is Dillon’s dispatch from the event.

Professor T.J. Clark delivered a stunning lecture on Tuesday, March 1, sponsored by theMFA Art Criticism and Writing Department. The SVA Theatre was packed to hear Dr. Clark’s talk, Looking Again at Picasso’s Guernica. Clark has repeatedly proven himself to be an art historian capable of changing the way that art is seen and experienced. This lecture was no different. Dr. Clark, talking the audience through the painting’s creation, made clear its radicalism both in art history and in Picasso’s career.

Guernica (1937), commissioned for the Spanish Republican pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, was to serve as documentation of the very recent destruction of Guernica, Spain, by Luftwaffe bombers in the ongoing Spanish Civil War. The city was leveled and hundreds of civilians were annihilated. The problem of Guernica (the painting), as described by Dr. Clark, was for Picasso to depict human suffering in the public sphere, to describe the exterior world and its political space. Dr. Clark portrayed Picasso as a painter of interiors, the nostalgic bohemian rooms of the 19th century. “Space was truth for Picasso,” said Dr. Clark. However, Picasso had never successfully painted real, exterior space. When asked why he never painted landscapes, Picasso replied, “I’ve never seen one.” Picasso’s landscapes were typically fantastical, but cramped, as indicated by Dr. Clark with the inclusion of a watercolor made by Picasso for Paul Éluard. Guernica would prove to be a grueling challenge for Picasso.

Using Picasso’s previous paintings, preparatory sketches and documentary photos by Dora Maar, Dr. Clark examined Guernica‘s execution from start to finish. Completed in only about five weeks, Picasso’s struggle to solve various problems of form and content were extensively and vividly catalogued by Dr. Clark with whirlwind prose that brought Guernica to bright life in the darkened theater. In remarkably lucent language, Dr. Clark identified the methods and steps, retractions and risks that Picasso took.

Following from rough composition sketches to erasure to color to collage and to the final touches that give the painting depth, Dr. Clark described how and why Guernica does what it does. The painting’s towering scale absorbs viewers into the work. Anguished women are not (as in many of Picasso’s previous works) objects of male desire, but people in pain. The figures have been edited to convey empathy but not sentimentality. Cubism is broken out of the isolated interiority it had so prized previously. Classicism is absorbed and re-formed with heightened, forward-looking vitality. Guernica is both public and political but not haranguing or partisan; the space is vast, poignant and truthful. The difficulties illustrated by Dr. Clark put into words the practical challenges Picasso faced in making beautiful and meaningful works of art.

Following the lecture, Dr. Clark took questions from the audience, including colleagues Robert Morgan and Phong Bui, giving informed and candid responses to a variety of concerns. A downloadable edition of Dr. Clark’s talk will soon be available on iTunes U, along with other events from the MFA Art Criticism and Writing Department lecture series.

Image: T.J. Clark at the SVA Theatre; photo by Noah Dillon.

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