Thursday, September 12, 2013

Good Nostalgia

" . . . we are so used to the notion that modern art is always, at defining moments, an arrow pointing to the future. This seems to me an article of faith (maybe borrowed from modernism's original cheerleaders), and largely counterfactual. It leaves us with little or nothing to say about the vision of history underlying many of the early twentieth century's key works – The Waste Land and The Cantos, for instance, or the regressive semiconsciousness of Finnegan's Wake; Proust's effort of memory or Kafka's rewriting of the quest; Matisse's pastoral; Bartok's Beethoven and Schoenberg's Brahms. Not that I want to claim in reverse (repeating the mistake of the cheerleaders) that these are the only versions of temporality modern art ever thrived on. Mondrian did eventually exit from the great landscape tradition in which he grew up, and Kandinsky shook off his knights and damsels on the steppe. Malevich (for a while) made art genuinely in the spirit of his "Forward, comrade aviators!"  So the claim should be modest. Modernism, as I see it, was just as backward-looking as any other art form, and most often not to its detriment. Its dream of retrieving a lost moment of modernity turns out to have been as potent a fantasy, aesthetically, as any previous regret for Christendom or craft guilds or Greek nudity. Nostalgia can be enervating or electrifying. It depends on the past one harks back to, and whether in practice it can be made to interfere with the givens of the present."

– from T.J. Clark's new study, Picasso and Truth, published by Princeton University Press

The long middle chapter of the book explores Picasso's 1924 painting, Mandoline et guitare (a canvas of surprising scale, more than six feet wide). Originally, this chapter functioned as the second of Clark's three Mellon Lectures, traditionally delivered by scholars of documented eminence at the National Gallery in Washington DC.

A strip excised from the middle of the picture became background for the dust jacket.