BooksWeekend

An Art Critic’s Independent Gaze

Michael Glover takes nothing for granted in his art criticism; he is not dogmatic, nor does he seem to have axe to grind.

In February of this year a friend of mine forwarded me a review that had appeared in the English newspaper, The Independent (February 1, 2017). The title of the review was blunt and to the point: “Overdosing on David Hockney: Why keep showing him off to this brazen degree?” The author, Michael Glover, was someone with whom I had briefly corresponded on a literary matter some years earlier, which my friend did not know.

This is how Glover’s review ends:

Part of the reason for Hockney’s success is that so much of the work is so agreeable to look at. It doesn’t upset us. It doesn’t hold us to account. He is not dangerously experimental. It’s full of content. It’s safe to look at. It doesn’t bamboozle or madden or intellectualise or seem to be asking particularly difficult or self important questions about perception or the nature of subjectivity. It’s quite often the stuff of racy Aunt Edith’s drawing room. Good for her — if she can bring herself to wrench the mouldering stacks of 10-bob notes out from beneath the mattress.

Such smart, sharp, spirited writing. I had to read more.

I had known that Glover was a poet and publisher of the online poetry forum, THE BOW–WOW SHOP, but it had not sunk in that he also wrote about art.  I decided to get every book of his that I could, which is not always so easy if you are living in America and want to buy the works of an English poet published by small presses quartered in England. I have managed to obtain a few but not all, as is my wont when it comes to reading an author. But persistence can be its own reward.

In my search I read eight poems by Fawzi Karim that Glover translated, and I learned that he had published a book, Great Works: Encounters with Art (Prestel, 2016), with a foreword by James Bradburne, which I promptly ordered. The book consists of fifty short essays, each about a single work of art that Glover has encountered. Each work that he writes about is accompanied by a color illustration. All of the essays previously appeared in The Independent.

The first essay is about “The Ghost of a Flea” (1819-1820) by William Blake, and the last is about the no longer extant “House” (1993) by Rachel Whiteread.  He possesses a remarkably open range of appreciation, writing  about well-known paintings, such as “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889” (1888) by James Ensor,  as well as lesser known works, such as “Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree” (c. 1824) by John Constable. One would be hard put to find a pattern here:  works by Kazimir Malevich, Hieronymus Bosch, Léonor Fini, Joseph Wright of Derby, Giovanni Bellini, Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama, Artemisia Gentileschi, Pieter de Hooch, and a number of unknown artists all fall under his critical scrutiny.

As Glover tells us in “A Brief Note,” he is responsible for the “blaring headline” and the “brief essay.” He also tells us what compelled him to write about these particular artworks: “Some of the greatest works are forever calling you back to them, demanding that you look at them again and again–quite as bothersome as any human relationship you might say.” If Glover’s use of “bothersome” doesn’t get you interested, you should stop reading here and go back to gazing into the mirror, or whatever it is you do when not working, eating, bathing, etc.

Glover brings everything he can to each essay, always providing a historical context, as he homes in on what he is experiencing, and seems to enter the work itself. This is what he wrote about Paul Cézanne’s “Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair” (c.1877), which is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:

Everywhere colour responds to colour. What we feel most of all is that she has been subsumed into a sheer panache of decorative effects, and that perhaps it is the red armchair containing her, the spreading, plumping flourish of it at her back, which is the real heroine of the piece.

That shift in attention, which Glover gracefully tracks, and the careful consideration of the possibility that the portrait isn’t about Madame Cézanne at all, is what the author does repeatedly throughout this book. His close looking is always informed by a freshness — he takes nothing for granted, and doesn’t think his intelligence affords him any special insights. He is not dogmatic, nor does he seem to have an axe to grind. Writing about Léonor Fini’s painting, “The Alcove: An Interior with Three Figures” (1939), he makes the following observation:

Surrealism quickly became–and remains so to this day–an international phenomenon (It is very much alive and kicking on the West Coast of America, for example).

Later, in the same review, while speculating on why so many woman artists were attracted to Surrealism, he makes an observation that seems brilliant and full of common sense:

Why was Surrealism so important to female artists? The idea of the unconscious is a social leveller. The acceptance of the reality of the world of the dream as an indicator of truth-telling threw open to women new possibilities of play, anarchy, and self-invention.

This is not an opinion or a judgment about Surrealism — which large parts of the art and literary world still strongly reject — but a sympathetic insight. Glover never loses this capacity, which is why I want to keep reading him, and will return again to what I have already read of his.

Great Works: Encounters with Art (2016) is published by Prestel and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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