Michael Kitson

A class with Michael Kitson always began a little late. Michael would enter the room, smiling, in a state of apparent exhaustion, but with just a tinge of frenzy. After a certain initial bustling around, redeploying, but never, I suspect, re-organising, the many papers on the table, he would settle down in his chair, invite you to start reading your essay, light a cigarette and fall sound asleep.

The minutes that ensued were ones of mounting tension, as the unsmoked cigarette burned slowly down towards the slumbering fingers, and all wondered if Michael was hearing a word you were saying. But always - and when preparing for this morning I discovered it was the abiding mystery about Michael for all of us who were taught by him - always, just as you finished, just before the flesh began to singe, the eyes would open, and the comments and the questions made it clear that Michael had if not heard, then perfectly intuited, your observations. Then - for he was a great teacher - he contrived to do two things: to make you feel you had begun to understand something very important, and to make you gently aware that you had only begun and you should go and think about it much more closely. The encouragement would be sustained over the following months and years, as the Professor turned into the colleague, and Michael the teacher became Michael the friend. This was also a universal experience, and one that could be attested by former students in museums and universities all round the world.

As is clear, I knew Michael not in the context of his family, but in the world of his professional life - at that stage the Courtauld Institute, later the Mellon Centre and Yale. And in that world, it has long been part of conventional wisdom that Michael Kitson was a phenomenon doubly rare: rare as the outstanding scholar critic of his generation, perhaps indeed of this century, who could explore a great work of art and never forget it was a great work of art. Rarer still - for we are a world notorious for our divisions and acerbities - he was a man not just respected but loved. For all - of whatever faction - were struck and disarmed by that unfailing courtesy of manner and that seemingly inexhaustible generosity of spirit. They are words one would want to use at any memorial service. We, all of us, know that this morning they can be spoken in truth.

It was no doubt in part Michael’s extraordinary range of interests - the bibliography now being compiled by the Mellon Centre shows him regularly writing over thirty years on topics from the Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century - that enabled him to win affection and find common ground with people of such diverse convictions. Art historians new or old, attributionists and Marxists, those beguiled by taxonomy or dallying with Lacan, all found it easy and enjoyable to work with Michael, and the Mellon Centre, in particular, benefited much from his capacity to bring disparate groups together in harmony. At times, this range of sympathy could appear ingenuous, almost naïve, but I believe it was the fruit of a profound moral discipline and continuous effort, although I would never have dared tell Michael that. Like George Herbert’s seventeenth-century Country Parson, confronting those in his Parish that held strange doctrines, Michael would 'make a very loving and sweet usage of them, both in going to and sending for them often, and in finding out courtesies to place on them…’ being himself always 'unmoved in arguing and void of all contentiousness’. In Michael’s conception of the art-historical church, everybody had a place.

It may be that this wide, accepting sympathy came naturally and without effort. What is certain is that the writing did not. If working with Michael as a student was pleasure unalloyed, it must be said at once that working with him as an editor was quite another proposition. Rarely can there have been so deep a disjunction between the serene lucidity of the finished prose and the sustained anguish, illuminated by flashes of panic, which attended its making. Deadlines would pass with apologies but never - honourably never - with excuses. The long nights of smoking and writing at the Mellon Centre would get longer and later. Misfortunes befell - the entire first version of the Claude entry for the Macmillan Dictionary of Art vanished irrecoverably into the Lethe of Cyber-Limbo at the careless pressing of a delete key - and round-the-clock support teams were necessary to ensure the delivery of the review of the Royal Academy Poussin exhibition. In the end, a text would arrive just in time - or nearly in time - manuscript and impeccable, without a crossing-out, and of the quality we all know, admire and envy. In Eliot’s happy formulation,

'The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise, but not pedantic,’

Few of us at the Courtauld knew what we wanted to do when we left. But we all knew we wanted to write like Michael Kitson.

Like all good critics, Michael produced an enormous number of scattered pieces - some of the finest are his broadcasts, later published in The Listener; and like all great critics, he had a position. Not an ideological one - from that he always stood aside - but a conviction that artists make art and that the critic’s task is to explain why that art matters, how it moves and instructs, raises our spirits and changes our lives.

'There is a danger,’ he wrote thirty years ago, 'that Caravaggio’s real quality as an artist may get lost between, on the one hand, the romance attaching to his name and on the other, the minute speculations that have been heaped by scholars, often with little or no evidence, round the attribution and exact dating of his works.’

He goes on to what is, I think, the nearest he came to a formal statement of his critical stance: 'Caravaggio’s is a compelling personality and his personality is relevant to his art. To the scholar his work does present baffling problems. But the key questions are: what did Caravaggio succeed in achieving as a painter? And why is he one of the handful of great Italian painters of the seventeenth century?’

Few art-historians have the courage to ask such questions, and none has been better able to answer them. Whichever the artist under discussion, Michael would survey the documentary evidence, conjure rapidly the political and intellectual worlds which shaped the artist’s life and the patrons who might have affected his choices. He would set out, in short, the limits of the knowable, and then he would turn to the central question - the act of poetic creation itself, an act which could be studied, tracked, described, but never fully understood. The effect of the work on us could be evoked. Its importance for us could be insisted on, but, for Michael, at its heart there remained - in the words of Henry Vaughan - 'a deep but dazzling darkness’. And this is, I think, why his writings will endure.

I must, of course, finish with Claude - the artist he loved above all others, and the artist whom we all see through his eyes. In the introduction to the Hayward exhibition catalogue - one of the finest pieces ever written on Claude - he set out his ideas on how the artist should be approached. 'The first quality necessary to the enjoyment of Claude’s art is patience. He is not a painter who offers instant sensations… The process of coming to terms with his work is one of careful adjustment, of opening oneself to the harmonies in which he specialises… it repays the patience expended on it by lasting, by being, as Constable said of a copy of Claude he was making 'something to drink at again and again’’. It is vintage Kitson.

Perhaps only in this country could an intellect so inquiring and so elegant fail to be honoured by either the British Academy or the Order of the British Empire in any of their manifestations. And perhaps only a man so modest as Michael would have minded so little.

For all of us, it matters now not at all. To read Michael Kitson is to be reminded again and again why pictures are great things. To know him was to experience the transforming power of generosity of spirit.

May his memory be a blessing.

Neil Macgregor - Director, National Gallery, London