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The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise, but not pedantic,

                                   T.S. Eliot: Four Quartets

Like all good critics, Michael Kitson produced an enormous number of scattered pieces – some of the finest are the broadcasts, later published in The Listener [included in this collection]; 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, ‘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 [see chapter 8] – 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.

Neil Macgregor, Director of the British Museum