This is a good but unlovely book. The prose is - to borrow a word often used by Clark - portentous. It's sometimes painful to read. But it's also quite wonderful. His readings of Picasso's famous paintings from his greatest years are remarkably fresh and interesting given how much has been written about them. Jump in to his description of The Blue Room from page 26 if you're not sure if it's worth the candle. The compelling analysis of the paintings are really worthwhile, and his appreciation for the paintings as physical works of art (particularly the attention paid to size) is a welcome change from the analysis of JPEGs to which we've become accustomed. The problem is the painful, arrogant and pointless theoretical baggage that deadens Clark's prose.
I struggle to put my finger on exactly where Clark goes wrong. Sometimes the conversational style of these published lectures grabs my attention and draws me in. But more often it's just ponderous and pretentious. It's especially striking when you spot his hidden references, such as: "The room, for him, remained the unavoidable form of being-in-the-world" (p. 151-152). The hyphenated term 'being-in-the-world' is from the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger. Many of his readers will know that, but Heidegger is not cited anywhere in the book. It establishes a false bond of complicity between author and cognoscenti, but it made me wonder what other references I'm missing. But on further reflection I'm not sure that it matters, because the allusion to Heidegger is simply redundant.
Elsewhere he writes that "in Leger's world objects have finally disappeared into their commodity form" (p.77). I guess we're supposed to think of Marx here, but the sentence actually doesn't mean much at all. He's making a contrast between Picasso's depiction of rooms containing objects and Leger's depiction of objects alone, like the difference between an interior by Pieter de Hooch and a still life by Willem Kalf. The reference to commodity form is redundant so far as I can tell, and isn't elaborated by Clark. Marx himself was more careful. In the first chapter of Capital he defines the term 'commodity' carefully, and his subsequent use of the term is controlled and precise. For example, Marx famously wrote of relations between people assuming the fantastical form of relation between things - things, not commodities. I think Clark means things, too. But he uses portentous words to make the point seem more profound.
There are more. "Desire is a will to power" (p. 230, Nietzsche), "world of mechanical reproduction" (p.272, Walter Benjamin), etc. Every single example that I spotted is simply redundant. When Clark discusses Nietzsche directly, he's quite interesting. I even agreed with his overall assessment of Nietzsche. But this is a book about Picasso, not about Nietzsche, and I never thought that references to German philosophers advanced his argument.
On Picasso's bathers on beaches Clark remarks: "they are the pictures we have - in some sense our pictures, sharing our strange myth of individuality - of bodies belonging fully to a world; pictures of self-possession and self-movement; of elation and abandon and composure...They are images of identity in the making - of the body turning itself to others, without self-loss or abjection or mere ruthless projection of its wishes. In a word, they have life" (p. 230). I've read those words in the context of the rest of the book - a book that I'm somewhat positively disposed towards - but I'm still not sure that I can explain them. 'Bodies belonging fully to a world' - as opposed to what? Martians? Images that have life are those that exhibit identity in the making? These aren't meaningless claims. I sort-of understand what he's getting at. But the points he's making aren't nearly as obscure as they seem in this tortuous prose.
Brian Sewell is one of my favourite art writers and in my view a great prose stylist. But he over-uses certain old-fashioned words like 'panjandrum' (flashing red in the auto-spellchecker) and no doubt some people are put off by his obscure words and his raw assertiveness, which I relish as beauty and directness. I find Clark's prose demanding and sometimes it seems unnecessarily obscure and theoretical. But maybe the preference for Sewell's directness over Clark's ellipticism is just a matter of taste. The positive spin that we could put on Clark is that he's inviting us to think with him, being deliberately open-ended and provisional rather than closing down meaning. Even if, like me, you think that's pompous twaddle, I'd still urge you to give this book a chance.