Platform
I hate museums

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 6

Platform
I hate museums

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 6

Platform
I hate museums

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 6

Platform
I hate museums

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 6

Philippe de Montebello ruled the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 31 years. But after a grand tour of galleries to write a book about looking at art, he has a few gripes. Martin Gayford, his co-author, describes what happened on their travels

From time to time, as we explored some of the great art collections of the world together, Philippe de Montebello would exclaim, "I hate museums!" On the face of it, no statement could have been more surprising, coming from a person who for many, many years worked at the very pinnacle of the museum world. For an astonishing 31 years, Philippe was director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; previously, he was in charge of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and before that a curator at the Met.

His career at the very center of the international museum world has been Napoleonic (logically enough, he is not only French by birth, but the direct descendant of one of Napoleon's generals). Yet, as Philippe recalls, the reason why he started to work in public art collections in the first place, more than half a century ago, was because there he could be in contact with works of art, "enjoy their physicality, hold them, move them about ... it was the contents that attracted me, not the container".

Of course, Philippe loves museums, as well as sometimes hating them. And so do I. One thing we have in common is that the first place we head for, on arriving in a new city, is the art gallery. In a sense, the book we have written together – Rendez-vous with Art – is a highly specialized sort of travelog: it is about our journeys in search of the experience of art – sometimes elusive, often absorbing. It is also a series of conversations because much of it is made up of what we said to each other en route. Naturally, since this was a quest for art, we spent a lot of our time in museums and talked about the pleasures they offer – but also the discontents.

There are plenty of the latter. Museums are filled with hundreds or – in the case of a big institution such as the Louvre or the Met – many thousands of exhibits, each fighting for our attention. A constant theme of Philippe's was the need to give a work of art time – enough for it to register, enough to savor and contemplate it. In museums, the other exhibits constantly tug at our attention.

Most great pictures were evidently made to be seen again and again: by the worshippers praying in front of an altar, or by the owner looking at it on a familiar wall. In that way, Philippe pointed out, the Emperor Rudolf II would have had ample opportunity to gaze at each of the hundreds of milling figures in his magnificent array of paintings by Brueghel the Elder.

How many visitors can look so long at a picture like that in a public gallery? A celebrated painting – such as The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch – attracts so many spectators that it is hard for any one person to contemplate it at all in peace. One day when we were in the Prado, Philippe decided not to try to look at The Garden of Earthly Delights – which was behind a barrier and surrounded by a dozen admirers – but to pay attention to a less popular Bosch instead.

On that occasion, Philippe toyed with the idea that perhaps it really is better to look at a reproduction in a book seated in a comfortable chair in your own sitting room – or via one of the websites that offer the chance to examine Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, for example, in a level of detail that would be impossible even next to the original in Saint Bavo, Ghent, because you could never get close enough. And yet, there are experiences – the texture of the materials (what Damien Hirst has called the "yumminess" of paint), the true scale, the rhythm of brushstrokes, the translucency of marble, the luster of bronze – that can only be sensed in the presence of the original.

This is what you will get when standing in front of a painting such as Poussin's Inspiration of the Poet, rather than looking at an image of it in a book or on a screen. When we did gaze at this Poussin in the Louvre, Philippe declared it to be one of the two greatest of all French paintings (the other in his opinion being Watteau's L'Enseigne de Gersaint). Indeed, overcome by enthusiasm, Philippe said he felt like exclaiming, "This simply has to be the greatest picture in the world!"

As much as thinking about the works we saw, we also examined how we saw them. Indeed, it turned out to be a study of a neglected topic: the existential experience of art. Whenever we look at something, in a museum setting or outside it, our reaction is the result of innumerable factors, of which the appearance of the object before our eyes is only one.

The state of our feet, what we know and don't know, what we've seen before that day, the arrangement of the gallery – all of these and many other elements affect the way we respond. One day, as he climbed a long flight of stairs to galleries aloft, Philippe observed feelingly that anyone reading his remarks that day should understand that they were the outbursts of a person with a bad back (one reason why occasionally he hates museums).

In my earlier book, A Bigger Message, I quoted David Hockney's view that the eye is connected to the mind. Philippe took that one stage further: the eye is connected to the whole body. Ergo, if your feet are aching it will affect the way you look at a Raphael (though Philippe's back didn't curb his response to his favorite Poussin). Early on our travels, Philippe posed a question: "When was the last time you saw a work of art all on its own?" His point was that the way we look at art is influenced by all the other art there is around it. In other words, it always comes as part of a collection.

This has consequences. As Philippe noted from time to time, stellar works tend to outshine the lesser stars. Thus, in the Wallace Collection, he pointed out how a great Rubens landscape was upstaging everything else in the room. We always see art in a context, and the context affects how we see it.

The vast majority of museum exhibits were never intended by their makers to be seen in a museum at all. They were made for churches and palaces, temples, mosques and private houses. Philippe once quoted Paul Valéry's remark that "we've stripped the object of its mother, architecture". In Florence, we agreed in front of a magnificent ensemble of 15th century sculpture – the Tomb of Carlo Marsuppini by Desiderio da Settignano in the church of Santa Croce – that if some or all of it were to be pulled off the wall and exhibited instead in the V&A or the Met, it would lose its relationship with the Gothic building around it. Also – another point that we discussed – it would be deprived of all the layers of meaning that come from seeing a work in the place in which it was made. Thus Florentine art is most resonant in Florence; in Venice, a picture by Titian or Bellini is in dialog with many more by those painters and their contemporaries, but also with the architecture, history and spirit of the place.

Then, again, you might say – as we did – that Florence and Venice themselves have been transformed into enormous outdoor museums. Indeed quite a few works on view in those towns, such as Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise and the Horses of San Marco are no longer the originals at all, but facsimiles (Philippe feels the latter now look as if they had been molded out of chocolate, more Nestlé than antique bronze).

Museums are full of paradoxes: they are full of objects that were never intended to be in museums; they are secular places of pilgrimage packed with works that, in many cases, were originally intended to play a part in religious worship; they are so popular that there is a danger no one can really enjoy their most celebrated attractions. Some are so big that the visitor is in danger of becoming exhausted just in the effort to gain entry. Yet, as Winston Churchill remarked about democracy – that it is "the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried" – so museums are, in many ways, a flawed way of displaying art. But it is the best way we have come up with to date.

Rendez-vous with Art by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford is published on 8 September by Thames & Hudson, £19.95.

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