T.J. Clark

T.J. Clark’s new book on Cézanne will be published next year.

Expressions, especially ones as charged and impenetrable as this, are for where words fail us, where we’re lost for them. Aesop’s original muteness – the original muteness of each individual, the stumbling of the infant into speech – is part of his power.

At the Barbican: Jean Dubuffet

T.J. Clark, 29 July 2021

Afewweeks ago, I came across a young poet saying that the book he had been turning to during Covid was Francis Ponge’s Le Parti Pris des choses. (Siding with Things, the translation of the title in the old Faber Selected Poems, is clever, capturing as it does Ponge’s mixture of gentleness and misanthropy.) One of the most winning items in the Barbican’s Jean Dubuffet...

Aboutness: Bosch in Paradise

T.J. Clark, 1 April 2021

Weare on our way to Paradise. Some say we are there already; and it is true that the soft green hill the angels are leading us towards, and the fountain perched on top with its retinue of birds, could well be a Garden of Eden. The angels are forbearing: they know we’re likely to make a slow start. Some of us look to have registered the new light in the sky, and are caught between an...

Strange Apprentice

T.J. Clark, 8 October 2020

Lucien Pissarro​, Camille Pissarro’s eldest son, was barely into his teens in the mid 1870s when Paul Cézanne came to live nearby. Nonetheless he retained strong memories of the time, and many years later his brother Paul-Émile wrote down these sentences at Lucien’s dictation:

Cézanne lived in Auvers, and he used to walk three kilometres to come and work with...

It must​ have been some time in 1966 that I bought a French travel poster of a detail from Delacroix’s Lion Hunt (1855) – the lion triumphant for a moment, claws ripping a fallen rider’s flesh, and a horse with its back broken, blood welling from one nostril. A year or so later I cut off the poster’s caption – I think it said simply ‘Bordeaux’, which...

At the Barbican: Lee Krasner

T.J. Clark, 15 August 2019

The Lee Krasner​ retrospective at the Barbican (until 1 September) is not to be missed. It is rare these days to be given a chance to assess the seriousness and beauty of the best Abstract Expressionist painting. The style is unfashionable: it is thought to be overwrought, supersized, ‘American’ in a 1950s way (‘great again’) and heavy with male cigarette smoke....

Rebalancings: Bellini and Mantegna

T.J. Clark, 20 December 2018

I believe that both Mantegna and Bellini were alert to every difficult turn and rebalancing in Luke’s verses, and thought hard as they painted about how to convert such turns into touches, faces, ways of looking and holding, intervals between people, ‘drapery’ (a word whose matter-of-factness conceals, in the greatest artists, metaphor after metaphor of human strangeness), proximity, ‘expression’.

Hands, in this world without faces, do an enormous amount of work. They are a fulcrum for the bodies – the ‘persons’ – they belong to: around them the body opens, exfoliates, puts on show its basic structure, displays its duality (following the hands left and right) or its multiplicity (since the hands themselves lose edges, flip from concave to convex and back, clench, disintegrate, weigh a ton, unfold into corrugations or diamond facets). They challenge the viewer to see them as part of the body they terminate. Maybe hands are where ‘character’ hides in Cézanne, in the carnal unconscious, however hard an individual or a culture tries to suppress it.

I have been trying to forget the shows in London commemorating the Bolsheviks, in particular the Royal Academy’s Revolution: Russian Art 1917-32. But I haven’t been able to: some things, some spaces and images, have stuck in the mind like shards of glass. In particular, I’ve found myself from time to time back in a small dark room at the end of the Royal Academy’s exhibition, on the walls of which were projected mugshots of entrants to the Gulag. The room was manipulative, and I was manipulated like everyone else. There would have been a kind of obscenity in trying to resist.

Picasso and Tragedy

T.J. Clark, 17 August 2017

Perhaps, then, we turn to Guernica with a kind of nostalgia. Suffering and horror were once this large. They were dreadful, but they had a tragic dimension. The bomb made history. Mola and von Richthofen were monsters in the labyrinth. It may be true, in other words, that we pin our hopes on Guernica. We go on hungering for the epic in it, because we recoil from the alternative – violence as the price paid for a broken sociality, violence as leading nowhere, violence as ‘collateral damage’, violence as spectacle, violence as eternal return.

At Tate Britain: Paul Nash

T.J. Clark, 2 February 2017

Paul Nash​ is as close as we come, many think, to having a strong painter of the English landscape in the 20th century. The uncertainties built into the wording here are part of the point: Nash spent his working life trying to decide if ‘the English landscape’ was something that had an existence, as a value for art, beyond, say, 1918; and what the difference was, in landscape...

At the Royal Academy: James Ensor

T.J. Clark, 1 December 2016

Ensor is one of the strangest artists to have emerged from a socialist and anarchist milieu.

Picasso and the Fall of Europe

T.J. Clark, 2 June 2016

It was only in the real-size, forty-piece Fall of Icarus that Picasso escaped from Cubism – from the studio, from ‘viewpoint’, from proximity and tactility, from the whole spatial and figurative world of Guernica – and showed us the world after epic.

Along the façade of the National Gallery these days are hoardings announcing Credit Suisse’s patronage of the Goya show, with the invitation: ‘Now you can bring Goya’s portraits to life, using your smartphone.’ I didn’t think much of the invitation as I passed it – seeing it over the head of a pixie levitating in Trafalgar Square seemed appropriate – and I was pretty confident I’d be able to bring Goya’s portraits to life without the help of an iPhone. But when a few minutes later I stood in front of The Count of Floridablanca I was suddenly less sure.

Frank Auerbach’s London: Frank Auerbach

T.J. Clark, 10 September 2015

That marvellous line from Thomas Hardy’s ‘At the Railway Station’: ‘And the man in the handcuffs suddenly sang/With grimful glee …’

Frank Auerbach to William Feaver

And the man in the handcuffs suddenly sang With grimful glee: ‘This life so free Is the thing for me!’ And the constable smiled, and said no word.

Thomas Hardy, ‘At the...

At the Courtauld: Goya’s Witches

T.J. Clark, 9 April 2015

It’s hard​ to pick a single image to stand for Goya’s Album D, whose sad totality – a triumph of reconstitution, gathered from collections across the world – is the centrepiece of the exhibition Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album (at the Courtauld until 25 May).* Repetition – a wild piling of imbecility on imbecility – is part of the Goya effect. At...

Poem: ‘Buildings of England’

T.J. Clark, 19 March 2015

Time and again, however well we know the landscape of love,and the little churchyard with lamenting names …                 time and again we go out two together,under the old trees …

Rainer Maria Rilke

Not time and again, but – this being Ruby, my daughter aged six – just once. One...

Just occasionally in Blake’s engravings there are pictures within pictures, and we get a glimpse of the life he thought images might lead in a better world. The most moving of these visions is Plate 20 of Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job. Job has survived his doubts and torments, and is telling the story to his daughters – in an earlier watercolour, they hold the instruments of Poetry, Painting and Music. No doubt the young women are taking their father’s narrative to heart, and in due course will rephrase it in terms appropriate to their arts.

They say that when Jean Genet made occasional visits to London after the war his first stop was always the Rembrandt room in the National Gallery, to see Self-Portrait at the Age of 63. The portrait is dated 1669: Genet believed it was the last Rembrandt painted. (Not true, apparently.) He wrote a short essay called ‘Rembrandt’s Secret’ for L’Express in 1958, and in his unfailingly Manichaean way he wanted to convince his readers of Rembrandt’s goodness. This is what the picture made manifest, he felt. Goodness as a quality of character, primarily, looking evil in the face.

Crowds gather at the heart of Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, drawn to an artless home movie showing the master at work. He looks, and was, extremely unwell. Not even a rakish straw hat, part cowboy part Maurice Chevalier, can divest the scene of its pathos. There is a spot of time in the movie, after Matisse has finished his fierce fast cutting of the usual vegetable-flower-seaweed-jellyfish shapes (the ones he works on here are not unlike the clusters of yellow in the centre of Mimosa), when the speed suddenly slackens and the old man holds the limp paper in his hands.

Over the past half-century or so, when writers have turned their attention to the four canvases by Veronese in the National Gallery called The Allegories of Love, they have spent their time trying to unpack the pictures’ iconography and said almost nothing about their visual character. This seems odd to me, since the four pictures’ iconography is banal and their visual character unique and demanding. Iconographically speaking, the paintings tell a familiar late Petrarchan story of the pains and ecstasies of desire.

At Tate Modern: Paul Klee

T.J. Clark, 9 January 2014

There was a time within living memory when a survey of Klee’s painting like the one at Tate Modern – 17 rooms, 130 works – would have been the event of the season. I remember even scoffing a little in the 1960s at London’s appetite for shows of the ‘tragic comedian’, antidote to Picasso’s vehemence or Matisse’s fundamental coldness. For good or ill, that moment is past.

Lucky Hunter-Gatherers: Ice Age Art

T.J. Clark, 21 March 2013

There is a terrifying moment in Rousseau’s ‘Essay on the Origin of Languages’ when Rousseau tells the story, with the pieties of Enlightenment in his sights, of the human animal first coming across itself and deciding on a name: ‘A primitive man, on meeting other men, will first have experienced fright. His fear will make him see these men as larger and stronger than himself; he will give them the name giants. After many experiences, he will discover that the supposed giants are neither larger nor stronger than himself, and that their stature did not correspond to the idea he had originally linked to the word “giant”.’

The Vollard Suite is an entertainment. The hundred etchings Picasso produced between 1930 and 1937, which at some point became a set to be sold together, are – for want of a better word – courtly. In much the same way as Milton’s Comus, say, or Handel and Gay’s Acis and Galatea. The etchings are elegant, self-conscious, mostly light-hearted things, even when their...

Poem: ‘At Sils-Maria’

T.J. Clark, 26 April 2012

The mountains are still there, monotonously changeable, And the men in the sky with their slices of melon Are managing their ennui – at least until teatime, Till the dim philosopher comes to persuade them Of the pathos of distance and the pessimism of strength.

On the cupboards for dogshit along the trails There are faces of spaniels with snouts like Nietzsche’s, And his weeping...

I would like to get the generalisations over with at the beginning, and have them be brief, but part of me knows that once embarked on they’ll be hard to stop. The Tate’s is the kind of show that sets one generalising. Richard Dorment in the Daily Telegraph, for instance, wrote that it had managed ‘to take a non-subject (Picasso’s impact here was limited to a handful of artists) and turn it into a gripping indictment of British culture in the first half of the 20th century’. If Britain here means England, I fall in reluctantly with the Telegraph’s verdict.

In the middle room of the Leonardo show at the National Gallery you can swivel on one heel and see, almost simultaneously, the two versions of his Virgin of the Rocks. They face one another across 15 yards or so. There is no reason to think the two paintings will ever share the same space again, at least in my lifetime, and maybe they never have before. For the longer one looks at the pictures and puzzles over what scholars have to say about the scrappy documents that mention them, the less likely it seems that Leonardo painted the one in sight of the other. The story of the two paintings is typical of his life.

Grey Panic: Gerhard Richter

T.J. Clark, 17 November 2011

A couple of nights before I first saw the Richter show at Tate Modern I had been at the Festival Hall listening to Boulez conduct his Pli selon pli. I felt then, as the octogenarian directed us through his atrocious and wonderful labyrinth, that it was sheer luck – the luck of a lifetime – to have caught this last intransigence of modernism on the wing. When the soprano sang the final word of Mallarmé’s ‘Un peu profond ruisseau calomnié la mort’, with her voice disappearing in a ghost-story gasp, I thought I heard a whole culture refusing to go gracefully. The German’s tone is different from the Frenchman’s: more wounded and muffled and sardonic and naive, less pedagogical, less deeply immersed in the agony that gave rise to modernism in the first place.

At Dulwich: Poussin and Twombly

T.J. Clark, 25 August 2011

Everything is changed at Dulwich Picture Gallery by the fact of Cy Twombly’s death. He died in Rome, aged 83, on 5 July, just a week after the current show at Dulwich opened (it closes on 25 September). Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters is the exhibition’s title; it brings together a range of works roughly deriving from the artists’ shared feeling for poetry and...

Towards the end of The Cult of Beauty, the V&A’s tremendous survey of the Aesthetic Movement in England (until 17 July), you gradually become aware of low voices issuing from a speaker on the gallery ceiling. ‘They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,/Love and desire and hate,’ says one; and the other:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my...

At Tate Modern: Gabriel Orozco

T.J. Clark, 17 February 2011

I can’t for the life of me remember why I was so bad-tempered the first time I saw a show of Gabriel Orozco years ago in New York. Orozco’s mid-career retrospective at Tate Modern (till 25 April) seems so genial and ingenious and above all so modest. It puts together a body of well-made and various work: good photographs, peculiar abstract paintings, found objects (usually...

Poem: ‘Pictures in Madrid’

T.J. Clark, 3 February 2011

There look to be two small monks in Campin’s mirror, One no more than a boy. They seem To have stopped in the doorway, maybe afraid Of the first soft touch from the Virgin’s force field Or just thinking the checkerboard tiles (That the mirror makes into a wilderness) Too slick and clean from the midwife’s broom For people like them to cross. There is a buzz In the door...

Cézanne, whose work was the touchstone for critical thinking and writing on art for more than a century, cannot be written about any more. After a few minutes in the exhibition at the Courtauld (until 16 January), surrounded by Card Players and Smokers, one understands why. The mixture of seriousness and sensuousness in the paintings – I am tempted to say, in the best, of...

Living Death: Among the Sarcophagi

T.J. Clark, 7 January 2010

When I die please bury me In a high-top Stetson hat, Put a 20-dollar gold piece on my watch-chain So the boys will know I died standing pat.

‘Saint James Infirmary’

A few years ago I was looking at a group of paintings by Poussin in which Death dances to a stately tune, though always with Panic as part of the line-up, and began to realise that the basic beat of the tune...

Poem: ‘All Night Sitting’

T.J. Clark, 9 October 2008

There was a moment in the senate When the orator and the administrator Stood a few inches apart, their cheeks puffed From the previous power point scoring, Suddenly grey and tired. This was because The shadow of hopelessness (the debate had been about Aid percentages, rules for slaughter and United Fruit) Had slipped into the room, as it often did at this time, And stood between them panting.


Madame Matisse’s Hat: On Matisse

T.J. Clark, 14 August 2008

Henri Matisse’s portrait of his wife, Amélie Parayre, was first shown at the Salon d’Automne in 1905. The catalogue called it simply La Femme au chapeau. Journalists soon decided (or pretended) that Matisse’s painting was scandalous, and the public turned up in droves to make fun of it. So far so predictable: the script was forty years old. But on 15 November something unusual happened. Two paragraphs of real and vehement criticism appeared in the Symbolist journal L’Hermitage, signed by the painter-critic Maurice Denis. Ever since, they have haunted our picture of 20th-century art: What one finds above all, particularly in Matisse, is artificiality; not literary artificiality, which follows from the search to give expression to ideas; nor decorative artificiality, as the makers of Turkish and Persian carpets conceived it; no, something more abstract still; painting beyond every contingency, painting in itself, the pure act of painting … What you are doing, Matisse, is dialectic: you begin from the multiple and individual, and by definition, as the neo-Platonists would say, that is, by abstraction and generalisation, you arrive at ideas, at pure Forms of paintings [des noumènes de tableaux]. You are only happy when all the elements of your work are intelligible to you. Nothing must remain of the conditional and accidental in your universe: you strip it of everything that does not correspond to the possibilities of expression provided by reason … You should resign yourself to the fact that everything cannot be intelligible. Give up the idea of rebuilding a new art by means of reason alone. Put your trust in sensibility, in instinct.

Once or twice in a lifetime, if you are lucky, the whole madness of painting seems to pass in front of your eyes. It felt that way to me in New York this spring, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where two great exhibitions – one exploring Nicolas Poussin’s role in the invention of the genre we call ‘landscape’, the other an endless, stupendous retrospective of Gustave Courbet – are happening a few corridors apart.

Writers only pretend to be embarrassed at the small fame a book sometimes brings them, but there is nothing assumed about the irritation they can feel at having a new line of argument, and a universe of unfamiliar examples, reduced to a single phrase. Great titles are especially dangerous. Imagined Communities is one of the greatest, and I shall be arguing that the cluster of concepts it sums up deserves still to be central to our thinking about the world. But it is understandable, and touching, that the first footnote to Benedict Anderson’s afterword to his new edition should read, in explanation of the trimming of the title in his text: ‘Aside from the advantages of brevity, IC restfully occludes a pair of words from which the vampires of banality have by now sucked almost all the blood.’

Malcolm Bull has written a formidable handbook, for which, I predict, many scholars and lovers of Renaissance art will never forgive him. What he has to say in the end about the revival of the ancient gods in early modern Europe amounts to a wholesale (Savonarolan) bonfire of most art historians’ assumptions, or wishes, about the leaven of paganism in the transition to modernity. But ‘in the end’ is a real qualification here. The Mirror of the Gods is a difficult book to represent adequately in a review, because inevitably I shall find myself extracting from the texture of its pages – and the texture is, by and large, that of patient and incisive summary, deployment of just the right thumbnail sketches, and an extraordinary conjunction of evidence drawn from a wider range of visual media and a broader sweep of countries than any one author, to my knowledge, has dared to exploit previously – a set of strong and, as I say, unforgivable theses. I don’t think I am inventing the pugnacious arguments, and I shall not exaggerate their force. But it is of the essence that they appear in the book seemingly episodically, in no particular order, with some of the most dangerous and suggestive barely hinted at until the last twenty pages; and always they crop up as extrapolations, almost asides, in the course of a comprehensive mapping of sources, stories, patrons, transformations, functions, media.

In which all outstanding problems of art history are settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

What mattered more for Manet and Monet, That Manet had money or Monet had manners? Mattered to what, pray? Mattered to whom? To Monet’s manner, or just Manet’s mother? And what do you mean by that bad-mannered ‘just’?

What matters more to a man than his mother? What matters...

Three Poems: Three Poussin Poems

T.J. Clark, 22 January 2004

On the Steps of the National Gallery

I am on my way in to destroy Poussin’s Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake. I know what I am doing, believe me. When it has ceased to be part of our world We shall go without tragedy, and forget why we followed In the running man’s footsteps day after day, round the corner to the light. Once it is over There will be no more choking and...

Reservations of the Marvellous

T.J. Clark, 22 June 2000

‘There are the Alps,’ Basil Bunting is supposed to have scribbled on his copy of the Cantos. ‘What is there to say about them?’ Mainly this, in the brief poem that follows:‘


Bellini or not?

20 December 2018

Charles Hope is immensely more knowledgeable about Venetian painting than I am, but on the specific points he makes about Bellini and Mantegna I’m going to stick cautiously to my guns (Letters, 24 January). Everything depends, as so often in arguments about attribution, on the little word ‘seems’. If the second version of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple simply isn’t...

A Bed for Fifty

8 September 2016

Let’s be good empiricists about Bosch, and in particular about The Garden of Earthly Delights. Marta Uminska is right that the first mention we have of the painting (seemingly alongside others by Bosch) is from 1517, in the diary of a traveller from Apulia: ‘Some paintings of diverse bizarre things, representing sea, skies, woods, fields and many other things, some of which emerge from...
Malcolm Bull’s review of Picasso and Truth is generous (to me, not Picasso) and cantankerous – the kind of response I would have hoped for from the author of Anti-Nietzsche (LRB, 20 February). Here’s where I think he gets things wrong. ‘There can be little doubt that the overarching context for the reception of Picasso’s work in the first four decades of the century was...
The familiar Leavis miniatures brought out from their wrappings by John Mullan – the Dickens story, the open white shirt snapshot, the Lawrence-versus-Tennyson set-up, the hostility to ‘popular culture’ vignette – miss the point of what matters about the moment of Scrutiny (LRB, 12 September). I had the good luck in the 1950s to be taught by two tremendous ‘Leavisites’...
I learn from Andrew Wilton’s letter that Turner’s Interior at Petworth is really Interior at East Cowes, and on its way to being Interior at Jerusalem (Letters, 26 April). What a relief. If only we’d mastered the facts, we wouldn’t have to go on taking seriously the bewilderment and revulsion that greeted so much of Turner’s work in his lifetime. Here is the artist Josef...

The Worm Turns

28 January 2010

I have no dog in the ring as regards Stefan Zweig; but as Gustav Klimt has come up in your correspondence, and even been claimed as ‘one of the greatest painters ever’, I do want to say that when I read Michael Hofmann’s verdict on the artist I found myself breathing a sigh of relief (Letters, 11 February). At last someone had dared state the obvious. As for ‘greatest painters...
I learn so much from Perry Anderson’s great jeremiads, and they have anyone who cares for the life of Latin in the English language eating out of his hand (LRB, 12 March). No one can deploy an adverb more in the manner of a Roman master of contempt. But the essays on Italy leave me with a question – the Berlusconi question, essentially. All political power is contingent, and I have no wish...

Resistance is surrender

15 November 2007

Convinced, nay, chastened by Slavoj Žižek’s arguments for a new realism on the left, I shall be campaigning over the next months to dissuade those planning to ‘save their beautiful souls’ in street protests against the bombing of Iran from doing any such thing (LRB, 15 November). And I have written a letter to my congresswoman (she’s a bit of an anti-war firebrand,...

Unseen Eyes: The Clark Effect

Julian Bell, 7 February 2019

People talk​ of painted eyes in portraits that ‘follow you round the room’. T.J. Clark, in the third of the six essays collected in his new book, Heaven on Earth, strangely inverts...

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Pure Mediterranean: Picasso and Nietzsche

Malcolm Bull, 20 February 2014

‘There are the Alps,’ Basil Bunting wrote on the flyleaf of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, ‘you will have to go a long way round/if you want to avoid them.’ T.J. Clark is an...

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Like many other plutocrats who are now remembered as great collectors, J. Paul Getty began acquiring works of art in a serious way when he began to die – that is to say, in his forties (he...

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In a Dark Mode: Grim Modernism

Lawrence Rainey, 20 January 2000

The grainy photograph shows the doorway of a house, the double door itself scarcely visible, obscured by a row of three huge paintings, all four to five feet in height, which have been carefully...

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Geraniums and the River

Nicholas Penny, 20 March 1986

‘Impressionism became very quickly the house style of the haute bourgeoisie,’ T.J. Clark observes at the close of The Painting of Modern Life. Few seem to have resisted the...

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