A Rendez-vous with Philippe de Montebello

Following a thirty-two-year tenure as Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello has been, since 2009, Fiske Kimball Professor in the History and Culture of Museums at the Institute of Fine Arts. Also in that year, Professor de Montebello became the first scholar in residence at the Prado Museum in Madrid, and, among his many other honors and awards for his contributions to the arts, was recently named to the Board of Trustees of the Prado and the Musée d’Orsay. On November 21, 2014, IFA Master’s student Jennie Sirignano sat down with Professor de Montebello to discuss his newly-published book, Rendez-vous with Art.

Philippe de Montebello in his office at the Met. Photograph by Lee Clower. Image courtesy W Magazine.
Philippe de Montebello in his office at the Met. Photograph by Lee Clower. Image courtesy W Magazine.

Jennie Sirignano: Professor de Montebello, thank you for meeting with me. In your new book Rendez-vous with Art, you mostly focus on ancient and European works of art. Was it a conscious choice to not include discussions of contemporary art?

Philippe de Montebello: We just happened to not go to certain places. I didn’t go to the National Gallery in London. I didn’t go to the Uffizi. For over two and a half years, Martin and I would call each other and say “I’m going to Florence for a conference—can you be there?” And so we happened to be in Florence, and me in Madrid because I am on the board of the Prado, and he never had more than one day, nor me more than one day, so we limited it. I would have loved to do the Musée du Moyen Âge in Paris at Cluny. I never got around to it. I could have spent a great deal of time in MoMA looking at things I love. Not contemporary, it would have been more Modern. Contemporary I don’t understand very well, but if I do a second book with him, which I don’t think I will because I don’t think it’s necessary, I would do medieval, I would do Islamic, and we would cover many of the things we haven’t. This serves in a way as a kind of travel guide for people who want to go around and look at art. I don’t know. I am not sure it serves anything.

JS: Well, you have described your decision to dedicate the majority of your professional life to museum work as wishing to “above all share my passion with others, many others.” Does Rendez-vous with Art have a similar genesis?

PdM: It certainly has a similar end result I think. I don’t think in the twentieth century you still go into museum work, as I did, just to touch and handle works of art. It is about communicating it to a very broad public, which doesn’t mean an un-alert public, it just means any number of people: scholars who organize symposia and the general public. So yes, you want to share it with as many people as possible, but at the same time—as I point out in the book, you don’t want them there while you’re there. It’s the great paradox of museums. I am very happy for a lot of people to go and look at art so long as it’s not at the same time as I am. The book was very hard to do because I hate talking in front of works of art. I like to be silent. I like to engage with them, and for me it was very, very hard with Martin holding a tape recorder to my mouth as I was simply just enjoying the work and having to talk about it. It did not come naturally.

JS: The book contains insightful dialogues between you and Martin about various works of art that lend a useful vocabulary to those less familiar with the fine arts. When writing this book, were you aiming to provide a roadmap for discourse about artworks for people who find themselves confused or intimidated in a museum or gallery setting?

PdM: To a certain degree, yes. Basically we were indulging ourselves, but I made a point in the book to convey how things are difficult and how even so-called experts have problems like my passage on the Greek vase fragment. I hated Greek vase galleries for a long time. This is partially the fault of the museums, too many of them. They should show far fewer works so that you can approach them carefully. So I did that in a sense as a form of reassurance of the public. Also in Florence, my saying, which obviously would horrify all of my colleagues at the Institute, that I am uncomfortable outside in Florence because I am never sure whether it’s a cast or the real thing until I get very close. Because I don’t know that much about it and who does! There are so many outdoor sculptures; some have been restored, and some have been cast and brought inside. I don’t like the feeling of insecurity when I am looking at a work of art. Which is why I find absurd the new fashion of showing art and saying “oh we won’t put a label so that people really look at it.” If you don’t put a label then I don’t look at it. I think there is a minimum that you need to know, especially with contemporary art. This is the great paradox: contemporary art needs mediation more than any other kind of art. Why is there just a broom leaning against a wall? Well you have to put a label! It’s obviously got to be a metaphor for something; everything in contemporary art is, since [alone it] is not much. So you have to have labels, and I keep saying to contemporary curators when I see them: write more labels so people understand what they are looking at, or what they are supposed to look at, or how they are supposed to look at it, and what it means.

JS: As a preeminent figure in the art world, by openly discussing works that you do not especially like, such as those by the renowned nineteenth-century landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, you encourage and empower people to reach their own subjective opinions about works of art. Why do you believe it is important for all viewers to be active critics?

PdM: To be what?

JS: Critics.

PdM: I don’t encourage them to be critics so much as that it is perfectly alright for you to be indifferent about something, to love something, and to dislike something. What I do point out is that you should at least give it a chance, to try. I mean there is generally a reason why an object has managed to survive, perhaps centuries, and someone has spent a lot of time conserving it, installing it, and investing money in it—there must be a reason. It may or may not appeal to you, but at least with a little time, one may find that you discover things that you didn’t realize were there if you had just looked at it at a glance and say “I don’t like it” and move on. That’s not a way to look at anything. Why did I do this bit about Turner? Well we were in front of a Turner. Martin is English and loves Turner, and he said, “talk about this.” I said, “I don’t want to talk about this.” I don’t like Turner; he bores me to tears. He does, but Constable I like. So I decided I would leave that in because a lot of people wonder why do so-and-so like this thing when I don’t like it. It is perfectly alright. We can’t like everything. I don’t particularly like ballet. I don’t go to see ballet. I love piano and I go to recitals. You might like musicals.

JS: Yes, in fact I do.

PdM: I don’t go to musicals. We are all different and there is too much of a guilt trip put on by institutions. I don’t believe in guilt.

JS: I think it is great that you encourage everyone to come to their own conclusions about works of art and not merely adopt the opinions of one or even many institutions. It is a rare statement to hear.

PdM: So long as they try.

JS: You describe the experience of a viewer engaging with a work of art in reciprocal terms. For instance, referring to Donatello’s Mary Magdalene, you write: “she and I have encountered each other before.” Also, you assert that some works possess an “inner life.” Can you explain further what, in your opinion, contributes to a work of art appearing animated?

PdM: Well, you know a work of art is not inert. The moment it leaves the artist’s studio, whether it is a Greek sculpture, whether it is a medieval piece, anything across the ages, the creator disappears. It is the work by itself put on the vast canvas of history. Every person who looks at a work of art is reinventing that work of art because every person looks at it differently and gets something else out of it. It is the same work of art, but it is not the same work of art. You and I can stand in front of something and you are going to see a figure in the background that I might not have noticed because I was looking at the bird flying on the right or whatever it might be. You might find something disturbing and it will leave me perfectly cold because you may have a certain phobia that I don’t. I may look at Queen Uta because she is pretty as a woman, and you might not. Art is always reinvented.

JS: That brings me to one of my favorite parts of the book, which is your description of the statue of Uta in the Naumburg Cathedral. You pronounce that she is both the first woman with whom you fell in love, and also the first artwork you loved. Your book contains many beautiful passages about the immensely affective qualities of great art, and in one part you declare that you were “lusting after an object.” As we have discussed, in the book, you mostly focus on ancient and European works of art. Have you found a piece of contemporary art that has captivated you to a similar degree?

PdM: How are we defining contemporary art? Do you mean art of the last 10 years?

JS: Let’s say art of roughly the last 20 years.

PdM: Ah, you are extending contemporary art. Contemporary art with a capital “c” is a sliding frame of time of about a decade in my view. For example, obviously living artists are not necessarily contemporary. Jasper Johns is still alive and painting, and he is not a contemporary artist; that is not contemporary art.

JS: Correct.

PdM: I think we all agree on that. Contemporary art is what is being done today, and yes. I think one of most spectacular works of art that I have seen in the last few years was an installation by Anish Kapoor in the Grand Palais in Paris. It was absolutely sensational. It was even better than what he had done at the Tate Modern in 2004. I think Anish Kapoor can be considered a contemporary artist. He is certainly a more serious artist than many.

JS: You write that we find great works of art fascinating because “they bring us closer to lost civilizations, they are a tangible vestige of history” and that they act as a “time capsule.” Similarly, you refer to viewing ancient Egyptian sketches as “eavesdropping on antiquity.” How do you find contemporary art, created in an environment where aesthetic norms and conventions are no longer standardized both in terms of subject and media, speaks to the viewers of today?

PdM: Well I would have to make a distinction between the purely affective, or affected, response to a work and a judgment. I would not begin to be able to go to the Whitney Biennial and start evaluating what is better than what. I would respond to certain things and not to others and that would be it because I do not have a critical framework by which to judge these works. I would not know how to begin doing it. I do have a critical framework, so does everybody, for things that are a bit older. Even for works twenty or thirty years old, there is a historical, comparative, critical mass body of work that allows you to make relative judgments. With what is being done today, relative judgments to me are very hard to make.

JS: This is a common sentiment, and relates back to your statement regarding the necessity of labels to provide viewers with information about works of contemporary art. Since 2009, you have been in a formal teaching role as Fiske Kimball Professor in the History and Culture of Museums at the Institute of Fine Arts. How has this role influenced your views on educating others about looking at and evaluating works of art? Do you think anything would be different had you written this book while you were still Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

PdM: On the latter, no, I don’t think so. I would say what teaching – and I’m now in my sixth year, I guess—has done is to make me more cautious about proclaiming things too definitively, and when I express opinions or judgments, I am pretty careful to say to the students: please understand that what you are hearing is my view of this issue and that there may be other views. I tell all of my students that you may think that all of your professors are completely objective—not any of them is. No human being is ever completely objective. It is very important for a student to understand what the point of view and biases of their professors are when they listen to them. We all have them, so I put them forward. Not being an academic, strictly speaking, I indulge myself a little more probably, not probably—certainly, on passing judgment. I am also careful to tell students that there is not necessarily a right or wrong answer, and my perspective on this issue is this, so anything I say from now on you have to understand in function of what you know about my perspective.

JS: Professor de Montebello, thank you very much for your time.

PdM: You’re welcome.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *