THE POET’S EYE
Michael Glover’s Encounter With Great Works of Art
The Poet’s Eye
By James Bradburne Director General, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan
It is difficult to know how to write about Michael Glover’s art criticism in isolation. Were either of us different people, I could adopt the dispassionate tone of objective authority: ‘Michael Glover is an exceptional critic in a field already distinguished by great writing and deep insight, a field that includes Ingrid Rowland, Tim Parks and others.’ This would all be true, but it would not do justice to the breadth of my relationship and the depth of my friendship. For Michael is not only an art critic and a poet; he is also a friend.
Main Image: An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, Bronzino , 1545, detail
I am a museum director and an exhibition maker, and Michael has been reviewing – critically – my work for nearly two decades. We first met at the Museum of Applied Art in Frankfurt (which I directed from 1999 to 2003) when he came to review I Love You, an exhibition on computer viruses curated by Franziska Nori. I argued that the subject was a cultural phenomenon and possible candidate for consideration as a form of concrete poetry.
Michael, with a reputation as a fine poet, was the obvious choice to review the show, and rather reluctantly he was persuaded by our press officer to come to Frankfurt. I still remember his posture as he cast a glaucous eye on the row of unremarkable computers on which hackers had installed their masterpieces. He listened to my well-practised synopsis with patient reserve, but little sympathy, until we came across two wild-haired young hackers finishing their installation.
He turned to them and asked, ‘So tell me what this means.’ He was shocked to hear them describe in loving detail the way in which the code ‘spoke’ to them – not only its meaning but its underlying structure, its form and, ultimately, its beauty. Clearly for them code was a language, and like all languages, it had the potential of becoming literature, even poetry. I cannot claim he was won over, but from then on he found ways to review the exhibitions I produced, at mak.frankfurt, and then from 2006 at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.
Starry Pumpkin Silver, Yayoi Kusama, 2014
Photo: Stephen White, Courtesy KUSAMA Enterprise and Victoria Miro Gallery ©Yayoi Kusama
…as we meditate upon this glistering pumpkin, sitting there, so ponderous on its surface, so plumply segmented, we recognise that it is also entirely rooted in its humbleness as mere vegetable. Michael Glover
Michael sees a great many exhibitions, but this doesn’t mean he is a greenery-yallery pushover for art. On the contrary. As an exhibition maker, in my bleakest moments of self-doubt, I have wondered why people bother to go to exhibitions at all. The taste for wandering about surrounded by objects badly lit and poorly interpreted is certainly an acquired taste, if Bertie Wooster’s opinion can be trusted.
I have never been much of a lad for exhibitions. The citizenry in the mass always rather puts me off, and after I have been shuffling along with the multitude for a quarter of an hour or so I feel as if I were walking on hot bricks. […] I mean to say, millions of people, no doubt, are so constituted that they scream with joy and excitement at the spectacle of a stuffed porcupine fish or a glass jar of seeds from Western Australia – but not Bertram.
(P.G. Wodehouse, ‘The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy’, in Carry On Jeeves, 1925)
Bertie’s (and oddly my own) doubts about the exhibition medium are also shared by Michael Glover, as are the means of judging the work’s success:
There is a crude way of testing the value of any work of art. It is called the Ten-Second Test. If any work of art is worth staring at for as long as ten seconds, it stands a chance. That’s it. Most works of art – and especially those which are being made today under the name of ‘art’ – fail that test miserably. Three seconds, perhaps four, are quite enough.
(‘The Steely, Ascetic Countenance of a Cunning Diplomat’)
The research bears him out – the average time a visitor normally looks at any particular painting in an art exhibition is only about six seconds, and most of the time we spend in galleries is spent shuffling listlessly, squinting at the badly lit and even more badly written labels pasted on tiny scraps beside the artwork, which only serve to attract a crowd of knowledge-thirsty exhibition goers, who then block the view of the painting to anyone else. Six seconds is a generous estimate.
The Ghost of the Flea, William Blake, c. 1819 – 20
©Tate, London 2016
After decades of paying close attention to art, Michael has developed a keen eye, a sharp tongue and the instincts of a museum professional. With other critics, this intimacy can become a vice, as the critic’s eye is no longer in tune with that of the reader. The trained eye is often blind to the beauty the naïve eye still sees.
This is where being a poet helps, with poetry’s relentless discipline of returning to the startling freshness of the world. Nelson Goodman once called the museum ‘an institution for the prevention of blindness’, which is as good a definition as I can propose. The poet helps us cure the eye both jaded and dazzled by the contemporary world’s surfeit of images. Michael’s touch is sure, his phrases terse and lapidary, his gaze – held for at least ten seconds – deep and insightful. The poet is anything but blind:
The point of a flea is that it is peskily small, and, from a physical point of view, utterly insignificant. […] This flea, on the other hand, looks quite the opposite. This self-vaunting monster looks like a creature of some moment, not to be easily cast aside or screwed into nothingness beneath a careful thumb. […] It has all the tremendous muscular allure of a male nude by Michelangelo. Malignity writ large then. Yes, it seems to have all heaven in its tow: all those shooting stars, fresh snatched from some tree in the children’s nursery, look as if they are dancing attendance upon it as they fizz and roar at its back. It looks like some magician which is about to yank a trick out of its acorn cup. In short, it has a wonderful, commanding presence. The natural world seems to pivot about it. This flea is determined to get somewhere.
(‘The Overbearing Monstrousness of the Visionary Moment’)
A.E. Housman famously admired critics more than artists (to the dismay of G.H. Hardy), and wrote, ‘Whether the faculty of literary criticism is the best gift that Heaven has in its treasures, I cannot say; but Heaven seems to think so, for assuredly it is the gift most charily bestowed. Orators and poets […] if rare in comparison with blackberries, are commoner than returns of Halley’s comet: [literary] critics are less common.’ Michael Glover is a rare critic in a now crowded field, and has the power to transform the hard work of criticism into intellectual play, inviting us to join him in solving the riddle that every great work of art represents.
We could propose that this is the consequence of Bronzino having bitten off more than he could chew, that he did not quite possess the painterly expertise to get this enormously complicated composition quite right. (This is his first attempt at the theme. The second, in Budapest, is much more straightforward and academic in its approach.) That’s nonsense though – he was simply too great a painter. So he has us on the end of a spit, and, quite gently, he turns it. What a tease.
(‘The Medici Court Painter’s Bewitchingly Twisty Carnality…’)
An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, Bronzino, c.1545
Above all, Michael Glover is a poet, enormously aware of the hard work of making words work. This love of craft shines through in his admiration for certain artists and certain works:
What then is happening here? Here is a carpenter, a maker with his hands. He holds an axe, a chisel. This man is Russia. This man is at the heart of things. The wood which he works is on the move, slipping sideways, part-worked, coming into being as an architectural structure of a certain Russian timelessness. See that ornamental window behind him? And yet this carpenter is being seen through the eyes of the stylisations of the modern, all those paintings by Picasso, Matisse and others that Malevich had seen in the Moscow homes of two great collectors, Morozov and Shchukin, earlier in the century, and the later experiments of the so-called Cubo-Futurists. Malevich was in the thick of all that.
(‘The Mute Maker in a Fatherland of Nostalgia’)
Carpenter, Kazimir Malevich, c.1928 – 29
Michael’s gaze penetrates far beneath the surface of the painting.
Alas, all was not to go well after all. Death swept her off her feet when she was barely twenty-five years of age. Sweet creature, no sooner blown but blasted, as some court poet might have been found murmuring, from the wings.
(‘Sweetly Tweaked Creature, No Sooner Blown but Blasted’)
‘No sooner blown but blasted’ – who but a poet, quoting another poet, could write an observation as terse?
An art critic, a poet and a friend. As an art critic, Michael did not pull his punches, and when he came to visit Florence to review our exhibition on Galileo at the Palazzo Strozzi, he didn’t hesitate to express his profound reservations:
In spite of the fact that this is a 16th-century building, the show itself is contained – more constrained than contained […] Everything feels pent, cornered and thrust forward, a-throb with scientific significance. The effect is dazzling – but also rather strangulatory. In spite of the fact that the spaces within the buildings themselves have great processional possibilities, there is no sense of pacing at all, and when we do finally come across Galileo and evidence of his astonishing achievements in those final rooms, it comes as something of a shock – like suddenly meeting a human being on a corner in the middle of the night. And then, all of a sudden the exhibition ends, and you feel you have hit a brick wall, and are being kicked out into the street.
(‘Galileo: Images of the Universe from Antiquity to the Telescope, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence’, review by Michael Glover, the Independent, 16 April 2009)
He was right – it was a failed experiment, from which I learned a great deal, lessons which were ultimately put to good use in creating the next exhibition, Art & Illusions (2009), and ultimately Bronzino (2010), The Springtime of the Renaissance (2013) and Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino (2014). If we listen to good critics, good poets and good friends, the exhibitions we make are much the better for it. In the end, being a friend, Michael even wrote poetry for me at Palazzo Strozzi, in spring 2010. All the insight he has gained from decades of looking carefully at art finds its voice in his poetry, and his poetry, at least on this occasion, found itself in the exhibition De Chirico, Max Ernst, Magritte, Balthus, which, after all, is perhaps as it should be.
La Sérénité du Savant
Oh to see, wide-eyed, and never to be seen!
Oh to make sense of an arm,
To believe in the beauty of a coat of stone –
All this makes sense of being alone.
Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters, unknown artist, c.1594
The Steely, Ascetic Countenance of a Cunning Diplomat
by Michael Glover
He utterly dominates Room 62 of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, this steely-eyed man, just as he would once have dominated the intricately vicious politics of Venice at the turn of the sixteenth century.
I am referring to Doge Leonardo Loredan, as depicted by Giovanni Bellini, in a painting said to have been executed in about 1501, the year that the Doge took office – an office he was to hold, unbroken, for the next twenty years of almost ceaseless warfare between the Republic and her many enemies. To call this portrait arrestingly magnificent is to sell it short. It is one of the greatest and most startling portraits of the Western canon, painted by a man, the greatest painter of an entire family of remarkable painters, who was at the heart of the political and cultural life of Venice for the duration of his long life – Giovanni Bellini finally died in 1616, at the age of eighty-six.
There is a crude way of testing the value of any work of art. It is called the Ten-Second Test.
If any work of art is worth staring at for as long as ten seconds, it stands a chance. That’s it.
Most works of art – and especially those which are being made today under the name of ‘art’ – fail that test miserably. Three seconds, perhaps four, are quite enough. To apply such a test to this portrait of the Doge would be laughable in the extreme. The more you stare at it, the more you become absorbed into the marvelously unsettling richness of its ambiguities. This work is inexhaustible. The more you look at it, the more it seems to say to you. In this respect, it resembles a great poem.
Doge Loredan, Giovanni Bellini, c.1504
Surprisingly for a secular portrait, the Doge is not in profile, but face-on (well, in fact, just slightly askance) to the painter and the onlooker – this face-on mode of depiction, for most of the Middle Ages, was generally reserved for sacred portraiture. Now a Doge, a mere mortal man, has been given the treatment once reserved for sacred subjects. And yet this man was not a king, and even less an absolute monarch – and we sense and feel this from the way in which Bellini has painted him. Monarchs more often than not look like over-stuffed balloons. They have little characterful reality, little genuine solidity. They are little more than the majestic way in which they are being represented. Think of Van Dyke’s ridiculous portrait of Charles I on horseback, for example, galloping towards us like a bewigged crazy on a pantomime horse, or of Goya’s glittering dismissals of the Spanish royal family whose court painter he was paid to be. More fools them! These paintings, for all their visual splendour, are often nothing but gloriously laughable pieces of puffery. They are lies.
The Doge, on the other hand, is at least two things at once. He is a human being spectacularly adorned in the vestments of his office: gorgeously brocaded mantle worked over, in gold thread, with pineapple motifs, which we can see upside down; a ducal cap – known as a ‘corno’ (an allusion to its single horn) – worn over a linen skull cap – but he is also the brutally focussed man that he needed to be in order to negotiate his way through the diplomatic challenges of being Doge of the Republic of Venice. This face is lean, wary, ascetic – almost to the point of revealing a slight tendency towards emaciation. A spiritual man then – but a spiritual man with an iron fist. It is the face of a master tactician, a diplomat. This is not a fat-faced Henry.
We are also a little surprised by the fact that the portrait is relatively modest in size – portraits of men of importance are usually as large as possible. This reminds us of the fact that the Doge was a man amongst men, elected by a committee of forty-one aristocrats, perpetually subject to checks and balances – and a man, moreover, who earned relatively little from his official duties; who was not allowed to show favours to members of his own family; and whose right to own properties outside the Republic was severely restricted. And yet his ceremonial functions were extraordinary – and this is why he is tricked out in such splendour, in robes of such brilliance.
But he ends mid-chest, and he stands behind a marble balustrade, looking out towards the Grand Canal or the Piazza San Marco (or, since the middle of the nineteenth century, towards rivals for his attention at London’s National Gallery), coolly appraising, almost rigid. Why is he cut off like this? Why is he not full-length? (By all accounts, he was not a short man, so he did not need to pretend.) Again, it is all to do with politics. The head-and-torso format of this portrait reminds us – and, I am sure, quite deliberately so – of Roman portrait busts. One great empire leads naturally on to another. It is also an attested fact that the Doge’s family believed itself to be the direct descendants of a Roman hero called Caius Mucius Scaevola.
I too am a hero, he is telling us, a servant of God, a master amongst men, within strictly defined limits, of course, which I not-so-humbly acknowledge.
GREAT WORKS Encounters with Art
by Michael Glover
published by Prestel,
Photography supplied courtesy of Prestel
stay connected and don’t miss a beat with our ever growing online communities