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Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica, By TJ Clark. Princeton University Press, £29.95

 

When do you know you've read a great book on a great artist? When it persuades you to love a body of work you've never previously cared for but thought you ought to "get"? Or when it offers a riveting account of a life spilling over with intimate (prurient) detail, perhaps because one believes this will make the work "come alive"?

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TJ Clark has no truck with either approach. In his introduction to Picasso and Truth, he spits with contempt at most writing on Picasso, from those suggesting "pretend-intimacy" – "I remember one evening in Mougins…" – to those who swing wildly between "fawning adulation" and a "false refusal to be impressed".

Clark's invective-flecked list of writers' crimes is so showy with relish and indignation that this reader began to wonder if she could bear this prickly Marxist art theorist. It's not just the tone that's off-putting – it's the obscurantist density of the material. Clark is not a naturally lucid writer, so it's with considerable struggle that one gets to the nub. Using Wittgenstein's Tractatus as a model (rather than the more user-friendly and influential Philosophical Investigations), Clark's attempt at aphoristic truths is unremitting.

The book is divided into six chapters, each offering a close "reading" of a single painting, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, and culminating in "Guernica" (1937). Clark tries to explain, with rigour and exactitude, just how Picasso strives towards telling a deeper truth about the violence of modernity. The fact that the chapters started off as a lecture series might have made them more accessible, but Clark makes no such concession.

But as you plough on something does happen. By Chapter 3, Clark finally gets into his stride, less full of strain and academic bluster. He gets closer to that elusive great book about a great artist – one that makes you reconsider the way you look at a work. Clark does achieve that: a serious accomplishment.

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