Years ago, I was walking through London’s National Portrait Gallery with a family friend who was then a teenager. She was distinctly nonplussed, and she said something that’s haunted me ever since. Looking around and shrugging, she said, “They’re just pictures on a wall.”
So final, and so unanswerable. No critic, curator, or artist could ever deny that’s precisely what we were looking at: pictures on a wall. Very fine pictures, certainly, on a rather exclusive wall, but pictures on a wall for all that. Would pictures on a wall never interest her?
Maybe not. Currently, only one-fifth of American adults visit an art museum even once in any given year. That’s a lot of people who aren’t going out of their way to look at pictures on a wall — and per-capita attendance has been trending downwards for decades.
That’s not something to celebrate, but nor is it particularly surprising. Visual expression has never been more important — with all of us glued to screens for much of the day, we’re increasingly perceiving reality via completely artificial visual environments — but the art object is inevitably becoming less relevant. With dynamic aesthetic exchanges happening all around us, including in the palms of our hands, why take the trouble to go meet Renaissance painters on their own terms?
Michael Glover is just about as skilled at answering that question as any art critic I’ve read. He meets each painting with the bemused enthusiasm of a sports announcer watching a play. Look at that subject! The way it’s treated! The faces practically glow! Did you notice that detail in the corner? Get a load of those clouds in the sky!
Great Works: Encounters With Art collects 50 of Glover’s short essays on individual artworks, and the older the art is, the more the writer is in his element. His gift is to awaken today’s eyes to the innumerable decisions, from large to small, made by painters in the pre-photographic era.
We’ve become so used to seeing “snaps” — ephemeral images created quickly, to be viewed in rapid sucession — that to give a great painting the detailed attention it deserves requires an adjustment akin to going from daylight to darkness. Whether he’s delighting in the details of an Avercamp landscape or goggling at the surprising eroticism of a Caravaggio crucifixion scene, Glover communicates a sublime sense of sheer enjoyment at works that are too often presented to us as visual shredded wheat.
It’s almost obscene how much fun Glover has with a painting like Fragonard’s The Swing. Putting the painting in context while throwing a little shade (“airy and delightfully preposterous…this kind of thing can be done well or badly”), Glover proceeds to diagram the story being told, point to a visual metaphor, discuss the decadence of the swinger’s pre-revolutionary garments, and incidentally compliment the painter on the “visionary intensity” of his trees. All that in two highly readable pages.
When the critic crosses the border to the 20th century, though — and even more so to the 21st — he’s less useful. As conceptual ambiguity comes to the fore, Glover’s essays tend to devolve into questionable and subjective interpretations. An outsize gourd by Kusama is “an apotheosis of the spirit of the pumpkin.” A tree by Weiwei is “a message, we cannot but feel, about the condition of man in the world.” Can we not?
Still, by tossing a hat into the interpretive ring, Glover dares you to match his ante. Though his diction can be daunting, Glover’s tone is fundamentally conversational and accessible; most of these essays first appeared in The Independent, and it’s refreshing to have regular criticism that considers individual pieces of art.
When critics review a full show — even a single-gallery show with only several pieces, let alone a whole-hog museum exhibition — they’re essentially reviewing the curator (who may or may not be the artist), and individual artworks are mentioned largely by way of supporting arguments about the show. With Great Works, we have the welcome opportunity to consider pieces one at a time. Each is worthy of that treatment, and Glover helps us understand exactly how and why.
He even gives us a tip on how to navigate massive museums, which “are always a bit too overwhelming. The trick is to proceed, at speed, to a single object, and then stop.” After reading Great Works, you may feel Glover peeking over your shoulder, encouraging you to see more in that picture on the wall.