A Quiet Passion for Art
Like a proud father gazing admiringly at the latest addition to the family, Philippe de Montebello holds the small panel painting of the Madonna and Child at just the right angle to benefit the camera. As then director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, he might have arranged for the photo shoot on the occasion of his visit to the conservation laboratory soon after the new arrival–the museum’s first Duccio di Buoninsegna–was brought home in 2004.
When the painting appeared on the market, de Montebello had to consider whether it was worth the $45 million he knew it would cost. Of the many factors that went into his decision, the physical encounter with the actual object seems to have been a deciding one, assisted by what he describes to co-author Martin Gayford  in Rendez-vous with Art as “the irrepressible need…to have taken possession of the object of desire.”
For de Montebello, this direct engagement with artworks forms the core of his personal enjoyment of them. It motivated him some fifty years ago to seek employment at The Met, less out of interest in the museum itself than for its contents. He wanted to “enjoy their physicality, hold them, move them about, and above all share [his] passion with…many others.” Not surprising then that this photograph became the frontispiece of Rendez-vous with Art, a book in which de Montebello–now director emeritus of that encyclopedic museum in New York City, in collaboration with his sidekick–art critic and writer–Gayford, continues to share his enthusiasm with others.
The seed for the book was planted when the publishers, Thames & Hudson , approached de Montebello about writing something for them and he demurred. They turned for help to Gayford, one of their writers, whose skill at entering into dialogs with artists produced such winners as Man with the Blue Scarf , his story of posing for Lucien Freud. This time, however, his subject was to be an art connoisseur, and first they had to meet.
The initial conversation happened over lunch in Paris, where Gayford caught up with de Montebello, abroad at the time. The chemistry was right and by the end of their amiable chat they agreed to develop something together. Several months later, when life brought Gayford to New York, the two met again and tossed around some ideas, among them the question, “What is a museum?” Next stop would be The Met and de Montebello’s choice for the greatest work of art in the world.
Whoever chose the title–Rendez-vous with Art–opted for the French spelling of the first word with its meaning of appointment but also perhaps because of its etymology. It derives from the imperative form of se rendre, to present oneself, and translates: Present yourself! Rendezvous (one word, no hyphen) in English carries the additional connotation of assignation or tryst, a meeting between two lovers.
In the book, art is the object of desire that commands de Montebello and Gayford to present themselves. They obey its directive over the course of many months whenever the peripatetic museum director alights in a city accessible in time and space to the art critic, whose base of operations is England. For the greater good, de Montebello engages in his least favorite activity, talking about artwork he loves while immersed in its magic. Gayford holds a microphone under his nose, capturing the precious words that they will later integrate into an ongoing narrative that frames one man’s emotional response to art within each object’s historical context and current museum placement.The reader is grateful for their efforts and the opportunity to eavesdrop on those exchanges, the first of which occurs at The Met in front of a pair of full lips. Carved in yellow jasper by an Egyptian artist millennia ago, they are all that is left of what was once the portrait of a queen (or princess), and their perfection captivates de Montebello. He declares the fragment “one of the greatest works of art” ever and admits that if somehow the sculpture were to be completed, it would cease to be for him the source of intense pleasure that it now is.
This first visit to a beloved object establishes the format of the book: a dialog in front of a work of art–each part indicated in print by the actor’s initials (as in a script) in different typefaces–and a third voice (mostly Gayford’s, in yet another font) that binds together this collage of conversations by setting the stage for each day’s events, providing additional art historical information and occasionally ruminating on the nature of museums.
Connecting objects like the yellow jasper lips with works they will later visit, the writers note that all art displayed in museums is fragmentary and forever incomplete, wrenched as it was from some other context. Constantly changed by the effects of time, the company it keeps in museum galleries and the varying perspectives of its viewers, art–once it leaves the hands of its maker–can never be known again in its original form. Underscoring the inevitability of this, in the penultimate chapter the reader learns that the director thought to call the current book The Art Museum: An Imperfect Construct.
Considering all the knowledge, ideas and opinions de Montebello accumulated during his time in the museum world, and that those interests inform many of his exchanges with Gayford, that other title deserves a book of its own. In the aptly named Rendez-vous with Art, the more compelling story is his love affair with art and the solace it affords him.For a work of art to attract de Montebello’s attention, it must be well crafted but also embody some ineffable quality that eludes description. Musing about The Annunciation (1425-1428) of Fra Angelico, after noting such fine qualities as “its clear tonalities, its lyricism and grace; the wonderful bipartite treatment in which both the damnation and the salvation of mankind are evoked,” he admits that what repeatedly brings him back to the painting is that it “makes [him] feel good,” adding that “there’s something so serene and uncomplicated about it…looking at this makes me feel better.” Such serenity might not be so easily attainable surrounded by the crowds they encountered at popular museums like the Prado, where The Annunciation currently lives.
Quieter viewing circumstances greeted them on their visit to the Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, a side trip occasioned when de Montebello’s travels brought them to Amsterdam during renovations at the Rijksmuseum, where Rembrandt’s Night Watch might have been one of their choices. Instead, they found themselves in front of another Dutchman’s paintings.In The Mariaplaats with Mariakerk in Utrecht (1662), Pieter Jansz. Saenredam used one-point perspective to create a rapidly receding view of an expansive plaza but neglected to use that schema when he sized the figures scattered throughout his composition. Though inaccurate according to principles of perspective, the tiny figures in the foreground nonetheless enhance a sense of distance that the eye finds pleasing. In The Interior of St. Janskerk at Utrecht (c. 1650) displayed at the Boijmans alongside The Mariaplaats, Saenredam again depicts a deep as well as broad space, this time bare of any suggestion of human presence. While the stillness of the plaza in the first painting appeals to de Montebello, it’s the emptiness and silence of the church interior that prompts him to reflect on the beauty of that painting’s surface. Several galleries away, they stopped at The Tower of Babel (c. 1565) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which Gayford in his role as narrator describes to the reader. Although little else will be said about it, de Montebello refers back to the Saenredams and explains, “I’m enjoying the fact that I’m looking into the distance behind the Tower–how many miles? I love space.”
He’s not alone. Research has found that regardless of whether they’ve ever been to one, people prefer pictures of the savanna, a landscape with slightly elevated areas that look out over large, grassy fields interrupted by few trees. From such overlooks, Pleistocene humans could quickly detect any large animals whose presence might mean for them danger or dinner, depending on who spotted whom first.1Perhaps something primal also draws de Montebello to the stone relief carvings of King Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE) hunting lions in an Ancient Middle East gallery at the British Museum, images of scenes glorifying a monarch that leave little room for feline victory. Singling out for the highest praise that of a dying lioness, de Montebello explains its appeal: “You can almost hear the startled, weakened roar of pain, and observe the lower part of her body, her sagging back already paralysed by the arrow in the spine, leaving her hind legs dragging behind, limp, useless.”
Once again it is the skill of the artist that most impresses de Montebello. Although the lions are not depicted naturalistically, they have been “observed with a piercingly accurate as well as sympathetic eye…their suffering…rendered with incredible specificity as to the condition of each.”Contrast this with his earlier stated feelings about another gruesome image, The Triumph of Death (c. 1562) by Brueghel the Elder, where the tortured and dying are fellow humans: “it is a painting from which, seductive as the paint layer is, I can’t but recoil.” Pictured in the lower left corner, a wagon with a load of skulls resonates on a personal level, reminding him of Nazi concentration camps.
Indeed, though many of the visited masterpieces elicit extensive reflections on that imperfect construct, the art museum, the gold to be mined in Rendez-vous with Art is de Montebello’s unabashedly personal responses to his long-standing favorites. When he compares museum goers who have knowledge of art history (a group to which he obviously belongs) to those more plentiful ones with none, he reminds the reader that “most people react and ‘feel’–or not–in front of works of art.”Relating that observation to himself while standing before Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1507), he turns to Gayford–his able interlocutor–and wonders aloud, “Why should I be ashamed…of simply asking you if you have ever seen a better-looking Adam or a more adorable Eve?” Acknowledging that he could go on about one art historical point or another, de Montebello reveals some of what he finds pleasing about the first couple: “Dürer has so engagingly endowed his classically inspired figures with tender sensuality; and I love Eve…You see: no art history here, just my own very personal response.”
Before good fortune landed him at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello was a young man with a craving to spend as much time as possible around works of art. Decades later, the former student at the Institute of Fine Arts now holds a professorship there, eminently qualified to discourse at length on all things art historical. Yet he still claims his right to wander among the objects of his desire like everyone else, responding not as an academic but as the passionate art lover he has always been.
1 Anjon Chatterjee, The Aesthetic Brain (New York City: Oxford University Press, 2014), 48-49.
Special thanks to Martin Gayford and Philippe de Montebello for taking time out of their busy schedules to discuss the book.