Monday, 23 March 2015

Philippe de Montebello revealed

I´ll say it right in the beginning to get it over with: yes, I got upset reading Philippe de Montebello's two statements regarding the issue of restitution in the book “Rendez-vous with art” (p. 54 and p. 208). Having said that, the rest of the book is absolutely charming! A beautiful, inspiring, surprising series of conversations between Montebello and art critic Martin Gayford, revealing the man behind the art historian and long-time director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Following these conversations, we feel an urge to look and to look better, even if it is only a photo in a book – hoping, of course, to be in front of the original one day... As Montebello himself puts it: “(...) nothing can replace the experience, the very physical sensation of being surrounded and engulfed in the actual space.” (p. 51)

Probably one of the most touching moments comes right in the beginning of the book, where Montebello answers Gayford’s question about that single moment, that single experience that may have led him to a life in the arts. Montebello shares with us that very special moment, when he was 15, and his father took home André Malraux’s “Les Voix du Silence”. And suddenly, there was Uta...

“She was Marchioness Uta in Naumburg Cathedral and I loved her as a woman (...) with her wonderful high collar and her puffed eyelids, as though after a night of lovemaking” (p.10; image taken from Wikipedia)

I was left thinking: would he have ever put this on a museum label? How many people would have looked, looked better, looked more, should they had read something like this about a statue?

Montebello goes on to admit something we rarely hear from curators, but which is true about most museum visitors: “I have found that when I have forced myself – often with the help of curators – to look at things about which I was indifferent or that even repelled me, I discovered that, with a little knoweldge, what had been hidden from me became manifest.” (p. 59)

What kind of knowledge is needed for this ‘epiphany’ to occur, one might ask. Not facts about the artist’s life, not a detailed and dry description of stylistic elements; not in the first place, not for the non-specialist visitor (the majority, that is, of museum visitors). One seems to find all the answers in Freeman Tilden’s “Interpreting our Heritage”: “What lies behind what the eye sees is far greater than that which is visible” (p.20); (...) “the  purpose of interpretation is to stimulate the reader or hearer toward a desire to widen his horizon of interests and knowledge and to gain an understanding of the greater truths that lie behind any statement of fact” (p. 59); (...) “Not with the names of things, but by exposing the soul of things – those truths that lie behind what you are showing your visitor. Nor yet by sermonizing; nor yet by lecturing; not by instruction, but by provocation” (p.67).

Another couple of examples from Montebello’s book might illustrate these points:

“(...) it’s utterly delighftul. The shoe flying off into the air, heading for the statue of Cupid at the side, that enchanting tree so frothy and unlike a real tree: it’s all like a décor de théâtre, a theatre set. This is a gorgeous painting about having a good time and about which one doesn’t have to think very hard, just abandon onself to the sheer pleasure it provides: a picture I’d have no trouble at all living with.” (p. 81, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767; image taken from

“(...) I then focused on the deep burn marks at the bottom of the frame, obviously made by votive candles, confirming that this was indeed a devotional picture. Just a few additional details resuted from close examination, not the least of which was that the picture was in impeccable condition, a rare thing when it comes to Trecento gold-ground pictures, as most works have suffered greatly over time, mostly I’m afraid at the hands of restorers.” (p.65, Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child, c.1290-1300; image taken from

“But I am happy just to enjoy the expression on Adam’s face, so sweet, and the way he is holding the apple branch – it is not a fig leaf – with two fingers, as well as the foliage required to cover his nakedness. Dürer has so engagingly endowed his classically inspired figures with tender sensuality; and I love Eve, Venus-like with her pretty Nürnberg fräulein’s face. You see: no art history, just my own very personal response.” (p124, Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1507; image taken from

I don’t believe most people visit museums looking for an art history lesson on their panels and labels – or physics or music or any other discipline for that matter (some do, of course, and their needs are equally legitimate, but museums usually cater for them with various other means). People do not visit museums looking for someone to tell them what they should feel or think either, as defended by Alain de Botton in Art is Therapy (Rijksmuseum), where one finds labels such as this: "You suffer from fragility, guilt, a split personality, self disgust. You are probably a bit like this picture" (regarding Jan Steen's painting The Feast of Saint Nicholas). I think that most of us are first of all looking for something that can be meaningful to us, something that may delight us, surprise us, make us feel good or richer or more conscious of ourselves and of the world. Many of us are looking for stories, stories of other people, human beings we can connect to - either those depicted or those wishing to share their knowledge with us.

Deciding which story to tell is not an easy choice for a museum; writing it in a clear and concise way is equally difficult. But it is not impossible, as Montebello shows us in his book, where he abandons his ‘institutional self’ and manages to share his enormous knowledge as an art historian in a simple and human way that is meaningful and relevant for many more people. It is not impossible, as Paula Moura Pinheiro shows us every week in her TV programme “Visita Guiada” (Guided Tour), where we discover that curators and art experts in Portugal are fascinating people, able to share with us much more than the facts usually presented on labels and make us wish to know more, to visit the museum, to be able to see the object - or to go back and see it again, after what has been revealed to us).

It is possible. It is a question of choice and skill. It doesn’t lack scientific content and it communicates.

“I’m not sure I would be thrilled because I am so focused, so absorbed and captivated by the perfection of what is there; that my pleasure – and it is intense pleasure – is marvelling at what my eye sees, not some abstraction that, in a more art historical mode, I might conjure up. It’s like a book that you love and you simply don’t want to see the movie. You’ve already imagined the hero or the heroine in a certain way. In truth, with the yellow jasper lips, I have never really tried to imagine the missing parts.” (p.8, Fragment of a Queen’s Face, New Kingdom Period, c. 1353-1336 BC, Egypt; image taken from the Metropolitan Museum website)

More on this blog

More readings

Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford (2014), Rendez-vous with Art. Thames and Hudson

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