The Glove


The Joys and Enigmas
of a Strange Hour

John Ashbery, writing in Art News (1970), describes the work of German Symbolist and proto-Surrealist Max Klinger


FEW PEOPLE TODAY have heard of Max Klinger (born 1857 in Leipzig; died 1920 at Grossjena, near Naumburg), and these few would be even fewer if Giorgio de Chirico had not admired him to the point of writing an enthusiastic article on his work, published in the review II Convegno in 1920. Klinger thus joined Raphael, Courbet and Böcklin in the bizarre cenacle of artists to whom de Chirico has paid written homage. Metaphysics makes strange bedfellows.

Reading de Chirico on Klinger is like listening to a brilliant defence attorney who is fully aware of his power of moving the most hard-hearted jury to tears. "What is this romanticism of modern life?" he asks. "It is the breath of yearning that flows over the capitals of cities, over the geometry of suburban factories, over the apartment houses that rise like cement or stone cubes, over the sea of houses and buildings, compressing within their hard flanks the sorrows and hopes of insipid daily life. It is the pretentious private residence in the breathless torpor of a springtime morning or the moonlit calm of a summer night, with all the shutters closed behind the garden trees and the wrought-iron gates. It is the nostalgia of railroad stations, of arrivals and departures, the anxiety of seaports where ships, their hawsers loosened, sail into the black waters of the night, their lights aglitter as in cities on a holiday." Elsewhere in the essay he says, "The pictorial question did not matter, because his entire creation was based on the enormous possibilities of his exceptional mind—the mind of a poet, philosopher, observer, dreamer and psychologist." Which reminds one of de Chirico's definition of art in his early essay, Meditations of a Painter: "A truly immortal work of art can only be born through revelation. Schopenhauer has, perhaps, best defined and also (why not) explained such a moment when in Parerga and Paralipomena he says, 'To have original, extraordinary, and perhaps even immortal ideas, one has but to isolate oneself from the world a few moments so completely that the most commonplace happenings appear to be new and unfamiliar, and in this way reveal their true essence.' If, instead of the birth of original, extraordinary, immortal ideas, you imagine the birth of a work of art (painting or sculpture) in an artist's mind, you will have the principle of revelation in painting."

"The pictorial question did not matter . . . " Despite the nineteenth-century sound of "principle of revelation," Klinger is one of those artists who transcend the restrictions of the pictorial question and therefore of criticism. Appearances to the contrary, he is a colleague of such artists as Duchamp, Mondrian or de Chirico himself. In each of these cases, the "meaning" of art is offstage either (as with de Chirico and Klinger) buried so deep inside the work that no one can find it; or (as with Mondrian) somehow adjacent to the work but out of sight; or (as with Duchamp) just absent. Thus, if we accept Klinger at all as an artist (and probably, in the absence of any case for the prosecution, we shall have to admit de Chirico's virtuoso defence), we must forget about "the pictorial question" and accept both the academic virtues for which he was admired in his day, and also the "faults" of drawing and composition for which he was sometimes scolded by his contemporaries (for example, the stern Elizabeth Luther Carey of the New York Times, who was perhaps not so far wrong in her estimate of Klinger: "We may say that his drawing is sometimes poor, his imagination clumsy, his treatment of a subject coarse, but . . . out of his figures looks the spirit of life more often defiant than noble, more often capricious than beautiful, but not to be mistaken.")

Although Klinger was a painter and a sculptor (his realistic, polychrome statues of nudes approach the ultimate creepiness), what little reputation he has today rests on his engravings, especially the series called A Glove (so titled in its first and third editions, the second edition was entitled Paraphrase on the Finding of a Glove). While individual engravings and another sequence called Fantasy on Brahms are also notable, A Glove is the most prodigal of what de Chirico, in the title of one of his paintings, calls "the joys and enigmas of a strange hour".

Although the Glove's scenario was given its due Germanic explication by contemporary critics, it defies rational analysis. The last picture, which was seen as a kind of happy ending to the glove's peregrinations, is particularly ambiguous and leaves the whole meaning of the series in doubt. The story is a parable of loss based on a trivial lost article, like the lost keys in Bluebeard and in Alice, like Desdemona's missing handkerchief, or like the philosopher's spectacles in Klinger's own Fantasy on Brahms, which have slid out of their proprietor's reach just as he was nearing the summit of a kind of Matterhorn. There are overtones of erotic symbolism and fetishism in the glove and the phalloid monster who abducts it, heightened for a modern viewer by the Krafft-Ebing period costumes and décors (the engravings appeared in 1881, and the drawings were apparently finished in 1878).

Scene, the first plate in the series, seems at first to be a perfectly straightforward vignette of a group of people standing around in a Berlin roller-skating rink; the two at extreme left have been identified as portraits of Klinger (in striped trousers) and his friend Prell. But as one continues to look at the picture it becomes curiouser and curiouser. Several of the figures are looking out toward the viewer at a new arrival whom we cannot see, no doubt the owner of the glove whom we shall glimpse in the next plate. Her invisible presence already sets up a current of uneasiness. In addition, to quote the critic Paul Kuhn, "the figures standing around and greeting each other are lifeless, as a fashion plate." All, that is, except the little girl who has just taken a spill. Her arrested motion makes us realise that what we are looking at is actually a kind of high-speed snapshot, despite the relaxed, lounging poses of the other figures.

Plate II, Action, presents the crucial, irrevocable moment of the drama. Everything contributes to give the scene that strangely immortal look that our surroundings take on during a moment of crisis. The arbitrary framing of the hero in the outline of the distant terrace (a device also used by such masters of the bizarre as Carpaccio and Balthus); the strange, phallic dome of the pergola; the stiffly swaying postures of the background figures including the mysterious lady herself: in this, our only close look at her, we see only her back. (Some critics call her "the Brazilian," and Kuhn identifies her with an actual Brazilian girl whose graceful roller-skating was for a time the talk of Berlin).

With the fatal purloining of the glove begin the hero's dream misadventures—In each of the succeeding plates the glove appears as in a puzzle; sometimes it tiny and almost invisible; sometimes it swells to monstrous proportions as though to call attention to the protagonist's complex sin: at once a theft, a transgression of sexual taboos, and the always-fatal worship of an image rather than the reality it symbolises—literally, in this case, the container instead of the thing contained. In Dreams, (III), the hero is safe in bed with his trophy before him on the coverlet, but he seems to be lost in anguished dreams. There are other signs that already all is not well: a young woman, the Brazilian no doubt, is watching him from a distance; and nature (the slender trees, the forest on the hillside) has begun to take on disquieting resemblances to the object of his monomania. (Furniture in a landscape, such as we see here, is a theme that frequently occurs in de Chirico's paintings of the 1920s, such as the circa 1927 Furniture in the Valley; and in his prose.)

The hero is next seen (in Rescue) in a small boat, trying to fish the glove out of a billowy sea. It is worth noting that he is now wearing his hat which he dropped the moment he picked up the glove, although it seems hardly appropriate to his present nautical role. In Triumph the glove is riding a conch-shell chariot drawn by two coursers through a tide of flowers; it grips the reins with a force that is in utter contrast with its helpless state in Rescue. This plate marks the first appearance of one of the crocodile-like creatures who seem to be the glove's custodians. In Homage we find that the glove lies on a kind of altar at the edge of the sea and seems to be accepting offerings from the waves, which are strewn with roses.

Next, in Anguish, the most spectacular plate of the series, the sea invades the hero's bedroom in a Freudian nightmare awash with sexual symbols, such as the candle, the moon, the dugs of the Witches, and the white, feminine hands that are reaching out for the glove, which has become monstrous and dominates the other objects in the room. One recalls Auden's lines "The mouse you banished yesterday / Is an enraged rhinoceros today."

Somehow the hero again retrieves his quarry, for in the next plate, Peace, he has placed it on a table in a little sanctuary closed off by a curtain of gloves, perhaps so that it will feel at home. But such subterfuges, as we know from Proust's The Captive, never succeed. The crocodile is already parting the curtain with its snout, and in Abduction, the penultimate picture, it flies off with it into the night, as the hero's arms grasp futilely through the panes of a broken window. (How the crocodile managed to get through one of the holes in the window is one of the many enigmas of the series.)

In the last plate, Amor, the glove is once more in a sanctuary, watched over by a smirking cupid. But it is impossible to say whether this sanctuary is the hero's night table, as some writers (including de Chirico) have supposed. It is more likely something in the nature of Pandora's box, a repository for archetypal erotic trifles, where the glove will remain until it is next needed to trouble the sleep of mortals. But one cannot say for sure. One of the properties of the metaphysical, of "art by revelation," is to elude the very definitions it proposes. The secret of such art is, like the glove, something inviolable, despite the hazards which surround it and are its natural element.

You can experience for yourself the delights of Max Klinger's Glove sequence at:

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