The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

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MAY 2014 Issue
Art In Conversation

PHILIPPE DE MONTEBELLO with David Carrier and Joachim Pissarro

Portrait of Philippe de Montebello. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Philippe de Montebello. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Philippe de Montebello was appointed the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1977 after having served at the same museum as chief curator under Thomas Hoving. When he retired in 2008 he was the longest-serving director in the institution’s history, and also the longest-serving director of any major art museum. In January 2009 he took up a post as the first Fiske Kimball Professor in the History and Culture of Museums at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. David Carrier and Joachim Pissarro both participated in his class on the history of the museum as an institution. The contrasts and complementarities between Montebello’s two positions, (the chief administrator at the Met, and a senior faculty member at N.Y.U.) struck them both as deserving fuller reflection. This very full interview provided a chance to continue that discussion. The conversation took place at Pissarro’s spacious apartment in Battery Park City with a magnificent view of the Hudson River. By chance Phong Bui and Norman Rosenthal happened to be there and were encouraged to join in.

David Carrier: I’m going to start, Philippe, just by speaking personally, very briefly, of the great debt that I owe to your museum because, had it not been for two shows in the 1980s, the Manet retrospective and the Caravaggio retrospective, I never would have become an art historian. And there must be lots of people who have that kind of depth of feeling that there are particular high-points that had a big effect on their lives, so thank you.

Philippe de Montebello: Well, you’re most welcome. I’m thrilled to hear that it is actually looking at works of art, rather than studying ideas and theories that drove you to art history. The cleavage began afterwards, I guess.

Carrier: Yes. [Laughs.]

Joachim Pissarro: In the case of David, he started with ideas and descended on the realm of art. But, you’re not the only person to say this, David, I know that one could go on and on. Norman, who’s with us today, could add to this as well. Your panoply of accomplishments in the museum field is so vast and has touched so many people from so many angles.

Montebello: I appreciate it and I’m very grateful, but there are some realities and one of them is that at some point one has to decouple the person from the institution. I didn’t make the Metropolitan, the Metropolitan made me. In many ways it was the easiest job in the world—far easier than my four years at the museum in Houston, because I had to do everything myself in Houston. I had to create everything, I had to build the staff, there were no resources. I had to fetch everything, I was my own registrar, my own designer, my own chief curator. At the Met, the director has all of those resources at his hands: that’s immense. You want anything done, you pick up the phone and there is somebody in charge of doing it. So managing the Met is a little bit like the captain who has been sent many times on a huge ship, it doesn’t make very sharp turns. You have to work hard to really destroy the place.

My predecessor, Tom Hoving, got a very bad rap. In fact I’m a great admirer of Tom’s, I loved working with him and I think he’s one of the people who managed, actually, to make the Met make fairly sharp turns. And I kind of regressed it a little bit because I’m far more conservative in orientation then he is. But I’m glad that through the Metropolitan I was able to indulge my own tastes, my own proclivities, and share a certain perspective on art with the public by hiring the right curators. By the time I left the Met, every single senior curator in the place was somebody I hired. So the staff in a sense mirrors the director, and I was always very careful to hire absolutely the best people because I believe that you should be surrounded by people who are smarter than you; it rebounds on you. There are a lot of people who do the opposite, which is pretty stupid in my view. Anyway, I wanted to decouple a little bit from the Met, instead of purely personalizing it as my accomplishment.

Pissarro: You used the metaphor of the captain of a large ship; I liked that. For a great institution, another metaphor that is more currently used is that of an orchestra conductor. The question of the inflection of a particular person—we know that every major conductor is immediately recognizable—how would you, if you can, qualify the tone, the inflection, the style that you gave, as a conductor to this massive orchestra for 35 years.

Montebello: Paraphrasing what a number of people wrote—especially when I left, and there were a huge number of articles, and I’m happy to say that they were very complimentary—is that if there was an inflection, it was an insistence on the primacy of art, on the contents and not the container. In all of the large projects I did, whether it was the building of a wing for the reinstallation of the Greek and Roman galleries, the goal was not to build a wing, it was to make the Greek and Roman art look good. The goal for the Islamic collection was to rethink how to present the Islamic collection and make the art look good. So, throughout, whether it was acquisitions, exhibitions, or installations, to me the work of art was—well, everything evolved from it.

Carrier: In some ways that puts you in a different position from that occupied by many colleagues in charge of American museums whose primary direction has been to build a building: first, invest all of the energy and a lot of the finances into the building, then, plan what would fill this building best. Your choice at the Met was a different direction.

Montebello: Again, it is very important to make a distinction among museums. The Met is more than twice the size of the second largest museum in America. It is incommensurable; you can’t begin to even compare the performance of anybody else in another institution. The vastness of the collections, of the staff—when I left the Met there were 110 people in curatorial titles, that’s a hell of an art history faculty: 110 curators, many the greatest experts in their areas. If you’re the director of a medium-sized museum in a Midwestern city, your challenges are so different. I never had to worry about attendance. I’m very proud to say that in my 31 years as director, having run probably more than 150 board meetings, I never mentioned attendance. I refused to quantify it, other people did.

Of course, I’m not stupid, so I did balance the programs, and so forth, so that the public would come. And you want the public to come, not simply for the ultimate financial reason of income—you want them because the whole purpose of your being there is to share these works with as many people as you can, keeping the experience of art alive and as present as you can in the galleries.

But if you are the director of a small museum in a relatively small community your collection is likely to be interesting once or twice, and then after that you have to be inventing a lot of new programs and new ways of presenting it. The new director in Worcester, a German man who lived in France for a long time, Peter Waschek, is doing very well reorganizing the collection, doing thematic things, getting the people reenergized to be interested in the museum. But even then, once he has made that set of decisions, and people will have come back to the museum once or twice, will there be enough depth in the collection to retain that momentum? At the Met, not only was there the depth that many New Yorkers who are frequent visitors to the Met cherish, but I bet that even those who cherish the Met most haven’t seen half its galleries because people tend to go to what they think they like and avoid what they think they don’t like, and I chose those words very carefully by the way. Forty percent of the Met’s visitors are tourists and people from abroad. So it doesn’t matter whether I have a Manet show or a Girodet show, nobody is going to come all the way from Rome, or Paris, or Budapest and say, “Should I visit the Met, I wonder what’s on there at the moment?” [Laughs.]

So they come. There really was no pressure to, shall we say, dumb it down, to serve the flavor of the day, and, in fact, I thought the responsibility was to introduce people to art that they did not know. By the way, when we started thinking about doing a show on Girodet, which we did with our French colleague, Sylvain Bellanger, now in Chicago, our board said “Who? Somebody we never heard of?” And then, they said, “You’re going to do a whole retrospective on his works?” I said, “Yes!” And one of the trustees said, “Well, why?” And I said, “Precisely because you asked the question, you said ‘Who?’—That is why!” [Laughs.]

Norman Rosenthal: Was he a man or a woman? With such a first name, surely, some of your trustees must have been pondering his gender. [Anne-Louis Girodet 1767 – 1824, a French painter and pupil of Jacques-Louis David. The Met show was Girodet: Romantic Rebel, May 24 – August 27, 2006.]

Montebello: You mean his mother wanted him to be a girl?

Rosenthal: I have no idea.

Carrier: You know, Philippe, this relates to something that I picked up from the Jed Pearl interview where you talk about giving credit to the public. The public, you said, is smarter than critics give them credit for. The public, whoever that is, is full of intellectual curiosity. And you took the high road and they followed.

Montebello: You can’t fool the public more than once or twice. The public knows if it’s being treated respectfully, and the public appreciates not being talked down to. But, what is the public? The public at the Met are people who have elected to come to the museum in order to see works of art. This is not the case everywhere. In the Louvre, for example, you have a notable percentage of the “public” that is discharged from buses down below the Pyramid, who consist of people who “check-off” the Louvre, the Catacombs, the Eiffel Tower. They are not museum visitors; they’re just there basically to check it off, and are a great annoyance to people who want to come and spend time in front of works of art they have come to enjoy.

At the Met, we have very little of that. The people who come are the people who make a choice to come to the Met, instead of going to some other form of entertainment. Well, I shouldn’t say entertainment, because the museum experience is not entertainment. So, instead of entertainment, you have to reward your public with an experience that is, in my view, not part of everyday life. And there I disagree wholly, for example, with Venturi, the architect, when he expressed himself at the Seattle museum, where he said there should be no caesura (he didn’t use a word like this, never would), but there should be no gap between the street and the museum; it has to be part of daily life. Well, it seems to me that one of the reasons you want to climb the steps up to a museum like the Met is precisely to get away from the din and monotony of daily life.

Rosenthal:  The dream of culture—

Montebello: Well, it’s through surpassing. You are looking for something and the work of someone with a higher sensibility than your own. What is the advantage of seeing something that you or your kid could do? So you’re looking for surpassement. The moment you talk about surpassement [in French—it is not easy to find a close equivalent in English: the word means overcoming one’s own, or getting beyond oneself—a term often used in sports vocabulary] or, transcendence, if you will, you are talking about something that is almost a swearword today. In the academy, in the intellectual world, everything that everyone does is of equal merit. It has become very difficult to make judgments.

Carrier: You have that wonderful comment where you talk about the problem with the new entrance to the Brooklyn Museum where they abolished the steps. You go straight from the subway and you scurry into the museum.

Montebello: It’s like another subway entrance.

Pissarro: And that’s an illustration of what you are talking about, that kind of Bob Venturi situation.

Montebello: But this was not Venturi.

Pissarro: No, but it’s the same concept.

Montebello: In Seattle, he did that. I rather like the National Gallery of London. That’s Venturi, isn’t it?

Rosenthal: Yes.

Montebello: Well, with that terrifying staircase.

Rosenthal: Negative perspective, which is fascinating. It negates perspective.

Pissarro: What you were just saying is a perfect segue into something that we, Carrier and I, have a certain vested interest in, which is, if I could put it in this paradoxical phrase, the notion of the museum as a repository of universal art. The Met has often been described versus another phenomenon, which is hitting us on a daily basis today—that of a universal museum.

Rosenthal: The universal museum is a loaded term.

Pissarro: Fine. So, let’s say, that of The Museum versus the notion of a universal taste. That everybody has some kind of taste is the subject of a book we wrote about recently, but that’s incidental. I know that since you left the Met, Philippe, you have, to the surprise of some of our readers, been interested in what lies outside the boundaries of the institutional museum world.

Montebello: Yes, and one of the reasons for this is that, in leaving the museum world, and then entering, as I did, the academy, you have more time. You’re not constantly making decisions and going to meetings, you have more time. As a museum director you’re doing things. You have very little time to reflect. You do everything you do on the stored up information that you have, on the stored up wisdom that you have gained over time, and of course that of your colleagues. I have more time to reflect on why we did this, why we did not do this. Now looking at the museum from the outside in, instead of the inside out, has given me a little more to judge. Also because I’m surrounded by academics, who keep asking me questions. I try to just simply ask the questions themselves, and then throw them to the students. Many of my classes do not provide answers, but I think that they provide a lot of interesting questions and ways of thinking.

Rosenthal: You think the museums help the academe? How do they feed into each other?

Montebello: Not remotely as well as they should.

Rosenthal: That’s what I think, too. It was kind of a rhetorical question in a way.

Montebello: I think, on the whole, that, as we know, over the last 30 or 40 years object-based teaching has given way to theoretical teaching. There are still a number of academic art historians who do occasionally use collections and use museums and ask their students to look at objects, while thinking about them. But on the whole, the work of art tends to be the source of data for academic speculation—sexual politics, or whatever—rather than aesthetic.

Rosenthal: Sexual politics or whatever?

Montebello: Yes, it’s called Gender Studies.

Carrier: But I wonder if, in that way, the curators aren’t, in terms of their interest, really closer to the larger public. The larger public doesn’t come to the museum with an academic perspective. They come because they want to see all these fascinating and mysterious objects, and they want to look at them; they’re willing to stand in line.

Montebello: They want to learn. What I discovered, through all these years, is that whenever I did surveys, the public always would say, “I want to come with my family and I want to learn.” They came to learn, which is not contradictory to what museums were founded on. They were founded as didactic institutions for teaching, the whole Bildung of people like Wilhelm von Humboldt [a major figure in the Enlightenment, philosopher, linguist, and the founder and architect of the education system in Prussia at end of the 18th century] and the other early founders of German museums. This was about education, both as models for artists and basically as a combination of education and the redemptory nature of art in the old days: art makes you a better person—the moral values of art and so on and so forth. People really believed that, and somehow, people were made to feel like they were becoming better people as a consequence of looking at a work of art, even though we all know that that is absurd.

Pissarro: I would like to say, in light of the exchange between you and Norman just now, that it seems to me that this regretful split between object-based approach and theory-based approach has produced certain curators that are so object-oriented, so object obsessed, that they forget that one of the missions of the curator is to send a message and help the public to participate in this message.

Montebello: Yes and no. There are a few things to remember. The curators have all studied in the same graduate schools as the academic art historians. They bifurcate after leaving school, but they get their Ph.D.s, they write their theses, etc. from the same schools in this country: here in America, we have no École du Louvre so to speak—there is no special school for people who are going to become curators here. All curators and academics share the same degrees, they don’t have to undergo a sex change afterward. It’s just a different orientation that they take after their final degrees. But remember that the way of teaching in a museum is almost a subconscious one. Keeping aside all of the things such as labels, websites, the audio guides, all the new technologies, catalogues, in the museum, you teach “by the hang,” as the British say—a very convenient word in one syllable.

You teach by the way in which works of art are installed. If I place this cup in proximity to that cup, I have immediately created a narrative, I have immediately invited a comparison. In fact, I have done more than that: I have also invited looking at them in a thematic way: both are hollow, both are vessels. I could place, in the same vitrine, one from Shang China, another from Japan, and one Sèvres, and all of a sudden I have chosen to illustrate how a theme or a function can be illustrated in very different forms. I can also place this cup next to this one, next to this one, next to this one: this being Song, early Ming, and Qing, showing a progression, if we want to speak in Hegelian terms, giving way to chronology. So the curator, by definition, the moment he or she hangs a painting, or pinions a sculpture on a pedestal, next to something else or in a group, is teaching you something.

Rosenthal: And himself, or herself.

Montebello: Yes.

Pissarro: At the lunch where we met Norman just before coming to the interview, he was talking about Gombrich. Carrier wrote his Ph.D. on Gombrich, and Norman was reciting just the two closing words of a lecture given by Gombrich that fell like this: “Damn Hegel!” And that “damn Hegel” has been, in many ways, vital, important—and his impact is overbearing in our world—even though he is almost never mentioned in the history of curatorship, and barely referred to in the history of art. But he is so important in so far as he has imposed, willingly or not, this fascination for dates, and for chronology, and for succession—as if this was the only way to display or teach art.

Montebello: There’s always a sense of progression: A leads to B leads to C. 

Pissarro: And there is a little bit of a crisis, or there has been a crisis in the past few decades, whereby this calendar-like chronological sequence has been put to the test by certain curators, and more definitely by some scholars who took greater risks to put this to the test: one has been invited to rethink this model.

Montebello: Yes, it’s been exploded, to a certain degree, I think, and abetted by the new globalism, because Hegel’s sense of progression, his introduction of various cultures, which includes incidentally, Egypt—actually—Greece, and Rome, (he discards the Middle Ages!), and then goes straight to the Renaissance, is a largely Eurocentric progression that in fact, art historically and within this context, makes a fair amount of sense. But the moment you start going East, or far West, and including other cultures that might have been coeval with the ones in Europe, it begins falling apart. That is what people today are pondering.

It is interesting to read—when you are talking about Hegel and the notion of progression in art—the original texts written in the 19th century on the reception of the art of Egypt in the first years of the 19th century in Paris and London; most of it happened in Paris and London at the time. And then, the arts of the 1840s when the Frenchman Botta and the Englishman Layard discovered, basically, all the great sites in Mesopotamia and Assyria, [today’s Iraq] how this was received, the great Lamassu effigies [Assyrian protective deities sculpted in limestones of huge proportions found today at the British Museum and at the Louvre] are sent to Paris and London. How the public viewed these, and how people like the great scholar Rawlinson, who is the man who deciphers hieroglyphs, just plainly said: “But these aren’t art!” And then, it even comes back, with the Elgin Marbles, which have supplanted the Apollo Belvedere as a model, and the public sees it and says: “No, this is not art!” Even Champollion who also deciphers hieroglyphs, and perhaps because he deciphers hieroglyphs, comes therefore from a historical and philological background, finds it very awkward to look at what we now think of as Egyptian art. He installs his galleries in a thematic way precisely because—

Rosenthal: One of the reasons that the Ashmolean Museum, which I am quite connected with now, has this amazing collection of pre-dynastic Egypt, is because it was all stuff that was brought back in the 1850s or ’60s, and it was rejected by the British Museum as being of no interest. Yet, they are amazing objects!

Pissarro: If it was not art, what was it regarded as?

Montebello: Monuments. That’s the term. They were viewed as vestiges of a distant historical past. Why did people explore Mesopotamia? They were looking for the sources of the lands of the Bible. And they found it. So, the material was brought back and it was seen much more for its historical uses. 

Carrier: It’s very interesting to think of the history of the Met, in relation to Hegel, because every time I go up the grand staircase I figure: That’s the center, that’s the original building, there’s Europe, and you go through Europe and if you go to the left you go to Islam, if you go to the right you go to Asia, and of course there are other further complications. So it is as if the museum has expanded and extended and gone beyond anything Hegel could’ve imagined, but starting from this Hegelian core. Where would it be without this Hegelian principle?

Montebello: This is how museums started. Museums did not start in any other way: they are just European constructs. They didn’t exist in the East. There are no Chinese museums (at least 200 years ago there weren’t): the Chinese built an imitation of European museums; there were no Indian museums, there were no African museums. The museum is an invention of the age of Enlightenment, a bit earlier of course—the great princely collections. If you had a collection, you created access to it: that equates to a museum.

Rosenthal: But then some princes get poor and get bought up: European princesses lose their money and get bought up by Americans!

Carrier: Could you imagine some future in the Gulf States, where a museum would have, as it were, a different center, where it wouldn’t be built on this history? Is that possible?

Pissarro: Let’s be clear about what you are referring to. Are you talking about the five fingers of the Abu-Dhabi Louvre project?

Carrier: Sure, sure.

View of the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court, Roman sculpture, first century B.C. – second century A.D. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Montebello: But that is again the same, Abu-Dhabi is like London and Berlin, like LACMA the campus: none of it is under one roof. The Met is an interesting case study because all of the civilizations are under one roof. In Paris, the Louvre is, with the exception of the anomalous presence of one gallery of African art, and Islamic art,  is essentially a European collection: starting with Greece and Rome on to medieval-looking East to Byzantine.

Rosenthal: And the Middle Eastern stuff?

Montebello: Yes, but Ancient Near Eastern art is part of the canon of the very ancient, broad Mediterranean world, you see. The Louvre is at the center, and then, you have the Musée Guimet for Asian art, the Quai Branly Museum for so-called indigenous art, you have the Centre Pompidou for contemporary art, and you have the have Musée d’Orsay for the 19th century. Berlin and London also have museum clusters. But the Met is all under one roof!

So you start in Europe, and you move this or that way. You have to remember, a museum, and this is a fundamental issue and it’s something people forget (my students forget it, my colleagues forget it, I hear it all the time) you have to remember: a museum is not a PowerPoint, you don’t click and suddenly compare a Gupta figure with an Auvergne Romanesque period sculpture, which you could, because of the repeated pattern of the folds and so on, even though they’re slightly different in date. In museums you have physical constraints. Objects have to be in vitrines; it takes three or four men, time, money, a gallery, lighting to get a single object put on display. You don’t click to move an object. When you make a decision in a museum to display a certain number of works, you make a fairly medium-term decision. It’s a decision, you have to make a decision; “il faut trancher” as we say in French. You can’t just waffle and approach it theoretically; you have such physical constraints that if you make a decision you live with it for 20 to 40 years because who is going to raise the money and go to all the trouble to change your installation?

Rosenthal: Not usually as long as that!

Montebello: True, it depends: I redid the 19th century three times in my own directorship, but that’s—

Rosenthal: You know, there are wonderful small changes all the time.

Montebello: Yes, small changes.

Rosenthal: But they’re beautiful changes.

Montebello: But if you wanted to move, let’s say, you wanted to create—There’s a great show now in Paris at the Grand Palais, Moi Auguste, a fabulous show on the Augustan period. Think of Augustus, who was a great Roman emperor, but was the emperor also of Egypt. Part of the empire he governed was Ptolemaic Egypt. And you could decide, well, the museum really should have an Augustan area and you should move all of the Ptolemaic Egyptian works actually along with Augustus—and so, where does it all belong? In the Egyptian galleries, or in the Greek and Roman galleries? So you have all sorts of questions.

And this is where special exhibitions are important. In the year 2000, every museum was trying to do something new. I said to my staff, the year 2000 exists because there was a year 1. When we do a show, we’ll call it Year 1. And we took the year 1, and extended it from 50 B.C. to 50 A.D. around the world. And so, in one exhibition we had Han China, Parthian Iran, Augustan Rome, the Mayans, and the Olmecs—we had all the civilizations that flourished, the Kushans in India, it was absolutely fascinating.

Rosenthal: Like Carter Brown’s 1492 exhibition [Circa 1492: The Art of Exploration, an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art that commemorated the 500th anniversary of the discoveries of the Americas.]

Montebello: That was total chaos! I hope mine had a little more grounding and seriousness than that. But yes, through exhibitions, you can experiment that way; but you really can’t do that in permanent installations.

Carrier: I think this last part relates to something really important which you said earlier: that the museum teaches by showing. You said you wouldn’t distinguish it from art history, but in art history, you can put anything next to anything else, because you’re talking about plates in a book, whereas in a museum, taking your example of the teacups, earlier, you want people to see these juxtapositions. I mean, in the most literal way, they can see that this is connected to this, and that is connected to that.

Montebello: You do, but you also have two issues: One of exclusion and one of scale. There are certain things that you’d love to do but you can’t do. You want to be able to put one object next to another, but if one is a gigantic sculpture, even if it makes a point with a very small object, it’s ridiculous. I can put it on a screen or in a book like what you see in Malraux [André Malraux, Le Musée imaginaire, 1947] and they both occupy a certain number of square centimeters on a page and you have no sense that you’re really looking at things that are so disparate, and that in reality you could never show together.

In museums there are things that you can’t do. The Frari altarpiece of Titian of the Assumption gave birth to the great picture in the Lichtenstein collection by Rubens, where he was looking at Titian. You would love to be able to show both works together. But the Titian is on panel, the Titian is 28-feet high and weighs two tons— you’d never move it again out of Frari. It moved once out of Frari, as you know, it was going to be taken to France and so forth and ended up in Vienna.

But with the Lichtenstein picture, you also have constraints: lenders, you have all sorts of legal, physical limitations—none of which matters very much because the other important point I have to make is that the museum is a Western construct: I use the term “construct,” and as such it is a fiction. The museum is just as artificial as a serious repository of works of art as the early Kunstkammers were—fictions that all represent a certain conception of the world, Bacon notwithstanding. It just doesn’t matter what you do: it’s a fiction anyway, everything is out of its context anyway. The work of art that started—this is a cup if I drink from it. If I put it in a vitrine, it’s a work of design. I have totally transformed it, I have aestheticized it, to use an ugly word.

Pissarro: Duchamp, of course, turned this proposition into a work of art itself.

Rosenthal: Who is that? [Laughs.]

Montebello: Well, there are a few people including Arthur Danto, who I think would argue that that did not make it a work of art. Didn’t he maintain that you could do what you want about a bottle rack or urinal, even putting it upside down, that still does not make it a work of art simply because Duchamp makes it a work of art?

Pissarro: But the institutionalization of the work of art is what makes it a work of art, that was his big point. But I want to go back to what you said earlier: I’m so glad you brought up the Year 1 example because, in fact, I was going to compare it, if I may, after Norman’s unfortunate remark, not to 1492, but to another exhibition that happened in France and that is now being celebrated, 25 years later, Les Magiciens de la Terre. You may not take this as a compliment, but what those two exhibitions have in common, if I may, in totally different fields, one contemporary and yours in—

Montebello: And the other one? I want to hear you say it! [Laughs.]

Pissarro: Yes, yours being a properly historical exhibition. But both exhibitions made a point of charting the creation of art at two distinct periods (2,000 years ago/now), all around the globe.

Montebello: But you know, that show was a specific answer to MoMA’s exhibition on Primitivism. 

Pissarro: Yes.

Montebello: It was created as a riposte—

Pissarro: Les Magiciens de la Terre

Montebello: Absolutely.

Pissarro: But not your exhibition?

Montebello: Les Magiciens de la Terre is a fascinating exhibition of neocolonial well-wishing. If you read the introduction, the curators of the show said we are not using any curators from Africa because we couldn’t find anyone who really knew the material, so we’re not showing Africa. It’s actually written into the introduction of that show.

Pissarro: Today this could not possibly happen, but it was like a kindling, setting a spark in the barrel of powder.

Montebello: It also mixed old and new, contemporary art with traditional, tribal art.

Pissarro: What I was interested in is the idea that suddenly two shows, actually 11 years apart, capture a moment in the history of museum culture where one is replacing, going back to this Hegelian or diachronous installation process, one that gives primacy to synchronicity, to the notion that several bastions of creative energies happened more or less at the same time. Yes, Les Magiciens de la Terre, I think, was “total chaos” to use the term you used to describe 1492. And it did not have the depth or the presence that your show had. But these two exhibitions, in totally different contexts, were seachanges.

Montebello: Yeah, the context is totally historical. And mine had no political ends.

Pissarro: Yes, but it changed the way one could begin to think about art, no?

Montebello: Oh, yes. It spawned many others like it, like Susan Vogel’s exhibition, that I’ve forgotten the name of now— 

Carrier: Art and Artifact.

Montebello: And many others.

Pissarro: So, I wondered, is this something still faced up by museum officials and curators and directors?

Rosenthal: I think that the idea to go back to, which I believe in very strongly, is that every exhibition and every display in a museum, whether permanent or not, is, to some degree a fiction—and that is kind of central! There are many different fictions that you can invent with the same material.

Montebello: In a way, one of the challenges—and I leave contemporary museums out of it, that’s a different world—to general museums, or encyclopedic museums, is to try to convey a message (and it’s the hardest thing that you can do and I don’t think that anybody does it very well, or at all), but the message is, basically you should have a great sign at the entrance, saying, “Check your umbrella at the door but not your critical faculties.” [Laughs.]

There’s this sense, especially if you have to climb up the stairs to enter the museum, that there is an authority—and there it is—imposing itself on you. And this is where you have a huge, huge cleavage between contemporary art museums, where the public is perfectly aware, I think, that there is a lot of experimentation, and a lot of it is ephemeral—some will last, some will not. I think a lot of contemporary art museums present contemporary art much too neatly. There should be more disorder to their presentation.

Rosenthal: Yes, I went to the Met yesterday and saw the three shows that I had to see, and then I wandered through the picture galleries and I incidentally stopped at three paintings, which gave me a huge pleasure, at least one of which I’d never seen properly, the wonderful Moroni of the Old Nun [Giovanni Battista Moroni, Abbess Lucrezia Agliardi Vertova]. Do you know which one I am talking about? It is fantastically beautiful! A memorable picture that I had never properly taken in before, so now it is stuck in my mind. So, you could go to the museum as an individual, in order to discover your own fiction from what you see on the wall!

Montebello: The difficult thing with the visual arts is the trap, and it is a trap of the eye in the blink of itself, taking in a whole work. You can walk past a sculpture or a painting in five seconds, and you can describe it, you have seen it. But if I was here, sitting through a “Rasumovsky” quartet of Beethoven in the audience, and I am sitting through movement one, movement two and it takes 40 minutes, I have no choice: I am sitting in that chair and I have to hear. And so, the great trap of museums is how to tell people, “Stop and watch!”

Rosenthal: I stopped at this painting for 10 or 15 minutes. If I could have, I would have taken a chair and looked at the painting for the entire day, and then I could have gone away and still not feel that I’d seen it enough.

Montebello: Of course!

Rosenthal: Just one painting.

Montebello: We should reverse Goethe’s sentence at the end of Faust, “Verweile doch! du bist so schon!” (“Ah, linger on, thou art so fair!”) The work of art should say to the visitor: linger.

Rosenthal: Just linger. Yes, that’s the great thing about going to a museum, that you can choose your own works of art! And when you go to the Wallace Collection or the Met, you don’t have to see it all in one day, or even one department in one day. Somehow, if you are sensitive, the work of art is like a magnet and it chooses you as well as you choose it. So, this particular painting happened to choose me yesterday. Why not?

Pissarro: We are a group of people here, unanimously, who have spent thousands of hours, and large chunks of our lives within these institutions—the museums—but that is not clearly the case with most of the public, whatever the word “public” means, which is also a very big question.

Rosenthal: But you can watch them, you can watch people. You can actually see people doing what I did yesterday. Suddenly they will stop, and they will decide, “This work of art is interesting to me.” I don’t quite know what is going on in their heads, but nobody else knew what was going on in my head yesterday when, accidently or for whatever reason I decided, “This is the painting I want to look at.”

Pissarro: Watching is a good term here, because how do you watch what the public does? There are all kinds of departments today in museums specialized in taking statistics and watching where people stop.

Montebello: This is a new thing. There is even a name for it now. But I did it all the time, I watched people. And in fact, curators install their galleries a little bit in function of what they observe. If they observe that every time in X Gallery people always turn right and stop or walk by in front of a particular thing, the curator is going to move that work, to get more space. We are receptive to that, we don’t need experts to do it. Curators wander through the collection, they look at the public, and they are interested in the reaction of the public.

Pissarro: Then there is the question of the education departments, and how they fit in.

Montebello: I hate this word.

Rosenthal: I think Philippe and I are on the same page.

Montebello: Let’s move on. [Laughs.]

Pissarro: We are interested in what you, Philippe, think today looking at the museum world, from let’s say an “exotopic” vantage point, and looking back at it through a certain distance.

Montebello: The rhetorical question I pose to my students in the course of teaching this term is the following: The entire contents of the Met has been moved to Jersey City and your job is now to reinstall the Met from scratch. What will you make it look like? And so, one of the questions, to go back to Les Magiciens de la Terre and all of that is about “primitive art.” In a single department you find works of art from such diverse areas as Sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and Pre-Columbian America! Tell me what a Mayan stele with writing from a major stone monument has in common with a bark painting from 20th-century Oceania! Why are they in the same department? Aren’t the Mayans closer, actually, in what they did, to the Egyptians, to Oceania, or to Sub-Saharan Africa? I know why these are where they are in museums: it is because these are three cultures that were once collected by ethnographic museums and they came later into art museums at much the same time, and so they were bunched together.

Rosenthal: The museum is cracked.

Montebello: The result also is that they don’t know what to call it. They can’t say tribal art, indigenous art. So you have that stupid name at the Met, “The Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.” Where is Gilbert Stuart in the art of the Americas? These are all—what’s the term when you’re trying not to offend someone?—euphemisms. All these names are euphemisms.

In your exhibition, Norman, I took umbrage a little bit, in the exhibition you did on Africa [Africa: The Art of a Continent, Royal Academy, 1995], because what is the relationship between Pharaonic Africa and South Africa? The accident of geography—

Rosenthal: But everything is an accident. It was a fiction. The fiction is what actually produced the oldest known artifacts, if you don’t want to call them art, but they were made by human beings. That was the agenda of this exhibition. Every exhibition has a kind of an agenda, even a political agenda, and it did have an agenda. The catalogue was a very useful document. Every fiction can be re-fictionalized, as it were.

Carrier: Part of the lesson here, if I understand, is that these institutions really can’t escape their histories, when you talk about the fiction. In a way, one name of this fiction is a history of collecting objects.

Pissarro: Yes, especially an institution inheriting another institution’s nomenclature. That’s fascinating to me. Everybody is talking about the end of history, about re-categorization, and reinventing new definitions. It should have been, in theory at least, obvious that the problems you are posing—what to do with the amount of objects that have almost nothing to do with each other, but were under the same roof—have undergone new categorization, new definition. But why isn’t the institution more flexible to the flow of ideas that we are undergoing today?

Montebello: Because of the physical constraints. When I said it’s not a PowerPoint, I meant that you don’t make those vast oceanic changes very easily. Institutions now, for example, are trying to create conversations between old and new. The latest rage is to introduce contemporary art into galleries generally by artists born or with passports from those countries. So you have a Cambodian artist in the Buddhist galleries where Khmer art is shown. The Met now has the ink paintings in the traditional Chinese galleries: Jeff Koons was shown in Versailles. The British Museum did a series of similar shows, inserting contemporary works into traditional galleries.

Rosenthal: It was very good, I have to say—Jeff Koons in Versailles was wonderfully explored!

Montebello: No it wasn’t! Jeff Koons in Versailles is my example of the wrong conversation. Because it was not a conversation, it was an imposed conversation. Jeff Koons did not create those works in function of them being shown in Versailles. They were just plopped there. There are good conversations. For example, the following exhibition at Versailles was with Murakami, the Japanese artist. He did one or two works in function of this context, knowing that they were going to be shown in Versailles—that was already part of a proper conversation.

Phong Bui: He was conscious of it.

Montebello: Yes.

Rosenthal: Well I disagree. I don’t usually disagree with Philippe.

Montebello: Sure you do! But I thought the Koons thing was absolutely—well, you’ve never disagreed with me, Norman, because you wanted loans from me. [Laughter.]

Rosenthal: What I’m beginning to really hate more and more are these museum labels that tell you what to see, these overly didactic labels. What are your feelings about this, Philippe?

Montebello: You need a certain amount of information. If people know absolutely nothing of what they’re looking at, they are actually going to look less. The label helps people to look more, it’s the opposite of what people think. And the best way to judge it is by your own experience. You, Norman, probably don’t need a label in the European paintings gallery, but a young Chinese immigrant probably does need to know the difference between Florence and Siena, or Venice and Prague. In my first visits into galleries of Tibetan art, I was very happy there were labels telling me a little bit about what was going on in these pictures so full of things that obviously carried a meaning, but what was it? So I actually looked longer at the Tibetan thangkas because I was reading a label telling me a little bit about where it came from, and why it was made. So, yes, you can write bad labels and good labels. Labels are very critical things, but now, with new technologies and phones, you can have tremendous depth of information. And good museum websites, and smart visitors will often acquire their knowledge before they visit.

Carrier: Perhaps even in the museum, because the Met is now completely wired, right? So in principle you can walk along with an app, and if you needed a lot of information, you could get a couple of paragraphs.

Bui: There are over 100 audio tours today. Philippe, you’re known as the inventor of the audio tour.

Montebello: People liked them. You know, in my day—they were not digital. I had to constantly say, now turn right, and move forward, and so on and so forth. And now, you dial a number and you can go in any order in the gallery. You had to follow me, with the old tapes. So I think that has improved. It’s better now.

Rosenthal: To what extent do you think you and I, in our different ways, lived through the golden age in our métier? In terms of what we were able to achieve—not just us, but what was able to be achieved in general?

Montebello: I suspect you’re right, we did live in a sort of a golden age. Notwithstanding the Cold War and all of that, from a political point of view it really was a golden age. Just look at the great Byzantine exhibitions in the Met: internationally-known exhibitions, with loans from everywhere. But now, with so many countries refusing to lend to each other, it’s almost—well, it simply would be impossible today, I think, to do such a great show.

Carrier: It was a golden age of collecting as well, right? 

Montebello: It was a golden age of collecting, which archeologists might argue with, as to ethical methods and so forth.

Rosenthal: But there was enough money around to do things.

Montebello: Now is the golden age of modern and contemporary art: it has shifted. 

Pissarro: I was thinking of the Byzantine exhibitions. They’re not—

Carrier: I remember looking at all those labels and wondering how you talked all those people into lending. It’s amazing.

Pissarro: Yes, but why do you say that today, this would be impossible to achieve?

Montebello: It would be impossible, not for museological reasons, but for political reasons. I mean, Russia doesn’t lend to the U.S. anymore, and it has nothing to do with the Ukraine; it has to do with that Jewish group in Brooklyn that won a case in court that anything lent by Russia can be seized because the Russians refused to give them back the torahs from WWII or whatever—I’ve forgotten the details. You cannot borrow—obviously—from most of the countries in the Middle East: they’re at war and so on and so forth. Uruguay will no longer lend for political reasons, because England, France, and the U.S. are not returning their patrimony.

Rosenthal: That whole issue, that whole patrimony thing is absurd, because all these countries have so much of their own: what they don’t have is access to other things. We, in the central Western world, are so privileged to have access to everything. But even the Greeks—if you go to Greece, basically all you can see is classic Greek art. I mean, you won’t see a Turner in Greece or a Monet in Greece—forget it. It’s just not there.

Carrier: There’s one question that I think is in the background of a lot of this discussion, which is about the contemporary art world. I know this is a subject that you’ve talked about: the history of the museum and the changing tastes in collecting, and the ways visitors attend exhibitions. Is there some way to relate all those changes to the fact that collecting has moved so drastically toward the contemporary. Is there some way to historicize this kind of larger structure of the museum?

View of the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court, with marble statue of the youthful Hercules. Roman, Flavian period, A.D. 69-98. Adaptation of a Greek statue type of the 4th century B.C. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Frederick F. Thompson, 1903 (03.12.13) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Montebello: But to some degree collecting has always been a function of availability. You can almost no longer collect antiquities today because the issue of provenance makes it almost impossible. First you have a decline in availability, and then you have the impossibility of doing it ethically. Old Master paintings and so forth are clearly in diminishing supply, whereas contemporary art is a constantly growing supply. And yet, the world is always full of surprises.

In 1870 when the Met was created, the early founders of the Met created the great casts collections, the way you have them at Oxford, and in so many other places, but they did it at the Met with the understanding that it was too late, that they could never create a great collection of antiquities. Well, they were proven wrong. There are so few Old Masters today, and yet with every sale, with every issue of the newspaper, there are still discoveries, there are still large numbers of private collections, so up to a certain degree you can still collect, and you can shift, you can collect Old Master drawings.

Rosenthal: Who knows, who knows what’s going to happen? I mean who is still going to sell?  

Montebello: The bulk of collecting, and the bulk of the media industry today, and of the market is contemporary art, no question.

Bui: Where do you think that shifted? You credited Hoving for having created that monumental—

Montebello: He opened up the museum, quite wisely you see—Hoving has to be judged on what he did, not on what he said.

Bui: Yes.

Montebello: Somebody, when Making the Mummies Dance came out, said this is a man who should sue himself [laughter] because he was a much better man than the way he represented himself. He loved to be provocative and so forth. But he was wonderful to work for and he was a serious medievalist. This a man who studied with Kurt Weitzmann, and he knew things in the late antique world, and had a great eye, and if you looked at the collections he stood by, and the acquisitions he made, he is the one who bought the Velasquez, you know.

Pissarro: And you worked as his chief curator?

Montebello: I was chief curator, yes. And it was exhilarating.

Bui: So he achieved that, and he built the grand staircase, the front, and all the back.

Montebello: And the splayed stairs on the outside, making it more inviting to the public.

Rosenthal: So what was it like before that? I’d not been to America. What was the Met like before that grand staircase?

Montebello: The stairs leading up were very narrow. [Laughter.] In 1969, they were done for the centennial.

Pissarro: That was in a way the opening up, or the beginning of the democratization of the Met.

Montebello: In many ways it was.

Rosenthal: And the front hall, what did that used to be?

Montebello: Oh no, the front hall was pre-World War I.

Pissarro: But when would you situate the real opening up of the Met chronologically? Because another date is the Tut show, which was the first show with over a million visitors, am I correct?

Montebello: No, no, no! That is how it is represented everywhere, but people forget history. The most highly visited exhibitions that included a very strong component of art, were the Manchester exhibition in 1857, the Exposition Universelle in Paris of 1855, the exhibitions after the war, Treasures from Vienna, at the National Gallery.

Rosenthal: The Italian exhibition of the Royal Academy.

Montebello: Well the one in 1930, the Mussolini one, inspired the one in England, so the blockbusters were hardly an invention of Tom Hoving. Think of the exhibitions of the primitifs flamands in 1902, or the primitifs francais in 1904. There have been vast, huge, grand exhibitions long before Hoving!

But what happened was that suddenly, after the Hoving shows, there were many more museums that were doing this kind of show: you had a phenomenon of acceleration.

Bui: But my question is simply the fact that when you took over, when Hoving retired, it coincided with the beginning of Reaganite inflation. You can argue that globalization began with Reagan.

Montebello: You can argue that it began with Kissinger’s trip to China. That was Nixon.

Bui: True. But my point is that that’s when the focus gradually migrated to contemporary art.

Montebello: Well, there was much more of an interest in the contemporary before that. Don’t forget, it was Hoving who hired Henry Geldzahler, the one who did that great show of American paintings and sculpture.

Rosenthal: In 1969.

Pissarro: And in a way you might say that bringing in Geldzahler introduced Contemporary Art to the Met.

Montebello: Into the sacred spaces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bui: Well Tom Hess was invited to succeed Geldzahler.

Montebello: Yes, I hired Tom in 1977. He died at his desk after less than a year and bequeathed dozens of great works by de Kooning. And then I hired Bill Lieberman, who did a great job for a long time, he got a great collection.

Carrier: This in a way, I think, takes us back to the very start today because on one hand we see how there’s an impersonal dimension to all these histories. Phong is mentioning the developments that we may associate with you from slightly earlier than anticipated. On the other hand, an individual has a big effect.

Rosenthal: I said earlier that Philippe was the great vice chancellor of the university, you know the Metropolitan’s vice chancellor affects the institution too but that’s to say it was an amazing institution with an incredible human resource.

Pissarro: So to segue from Norman’s remark from lunch earlier on, I’d like to mention one of your personal characteristics—not frequently shared by many of your colleagues—which is that you’re one of the most adulated, popular museum directors among the body of curators that you’ve hired that I have ever known. I’ve never heard a single curator, (although there must be an exception or two), who has ever said anything remotely critical about you. And that itself is humanly speaking a rare feat, you would agree. What was your secret?

Montebello: I don’t know how to say this.

Pissarro: No, but it’s true.

Montebello: I know. And I know it’s true, and I think the curators at the Met, and curators elsewhere, I think felt instinctively and therefore with conviction, that I really admired them, respected them, liked them, and that anything that would take me out of a finance meeting to see a curator [Bui laughing] and talk in front of a work of art, would always come first. Keith Christiansen would call me up and say, “There’s a picture that’s just been sent over by a dealer, he’s going to pick it up this afternoon. It’s a wonderful thing! When can you pass by and look at it?” I would drop everything and rush to go and see it. There was an engagement.

Pissarro: That was the priority: curatorial matters.

Montebello: Absolutely, the works of art and the curators. And I’ve said in many interviews that the things I loved most were my lunches and my meetings with curators, the dialogue I had with curators. I didn’t go into museums because I was interested in museology, I went into museums because I wanted to get closer to works of art, and the way to get closer to works of art is to be with your curators.

Rosenthal: How did you fall into it yourself?

Bui: Let’s begin with Charles Sterling.

Montebello: Charles Sterling was a great influence on me. Charles Sterling, who was teaching at the Institute of Fine Arts when I went to the Institute of Fine Arts, was that ideal combination of a great academic, but he had also been curator of paintings at the Louvre for 20 years so he loved works of art, and he was a fabulous teacher and I’ve always liked Northern painting and early Flemish painting and early French painting. I don’t know why, I just did, and that’s what he taught and so there was a tremendous rapport. We became good friends. We used to go to dealers and exhibitions together. Sterling was a great influence and when I was at Harvard Sydney Freedberg was also a great influence. I talked with him a great deal. He was my advisor as an undergraduate in art history. I’ve always done art history.

Carrier: I’m interested in what you’ve said, your specialty was Netherlandish painting, 15th and 16th century.

Montebello: I was hired by Ted Rousseau in 1963 to be the curator of early Netherlandish painting. He asked Sterling, who I studied with if he knew anybody, because they were looking for a curator.

Rosenthal: A young curator?

Montebello: A young, promising curator. [Smiles.]

Carrier: It’s interesting, because you said the scholarly expertise was rapidly being extinguished, once you got to move.

Montebello: Well you become a generalist very quickly, especially when you move up in the administration. In a place like the Met, from one moment to the next I was doing Egypt, Greece, Netherlandish.

Rosenthal: You liked that.

Montebello: I did because I like everything. I like objects.

Rosenthal: This was my job too.

Carrier: You both had a sensibility that allowed you to look at lots of things.

Montebello: You, Norman, as secretary of the Royal Academy, you were able to do exhibitions of all sorts. You weren’t stuck with one decade of a single artist.

Rosenthal: And Gombrich said to me when I got the job at the Royal Academy, like I told you at lunch, [imitates voice] “Norman I’m so happy for you. You will learn so much.” [Laughter.]

Montebello: John Pope-Hennessy once said to me, [imitates voice] “People would say we need great scholars to produce catalogues,” but he said, “Yes. Many a catalogue has produced a great scholar.” [Laughter.]

Montebello: For me, it was the greatest part of my 30 years as director: it was like a continuing seminar by a hundred brilliant curators. Every time they wanted to make an acquisition, they would come to my office and I would get a 15-minute discourse on a Xian bronze sculpture, a Chinese painting of the early Ming dynasty, a sculpture from god knows where. So in a way, I probably know a little bit about more things than most people in this world, but not anything in great depth. But I can look at almost anything and I can tell you where it comes from, more or less the date of it, and, I’m very happy. 

Pissarro: And so I’d like to ask you a question, having been in a similar position, although on a mini scale, at the Kimbell, I can understand what you are talking about. I came in as a 19th century, European curator and very quickly I was the chief curator and so, we arranged an exhibition of Assyrian bas-reliefs from the British Museum, and then, I was looking at African art, when we bought a gorgeous Ife head with Ted Pillsbury.

Montebello: Yes, the Met still doesn’t have one.

Rosenthal: Is it kosher?

Pissarro: It is kosher, and with an export document approved by the Nigerian government, which is not saying little.

Montebello: They wouldn’t today.

Pissarro: No, they wouldn’t. So I see what you’re saying but at the same time, and that’s a paradox, the magic of which you found a solution for: a great director enables the acquisitive efforts of their curators. When you were at the Met, and as you began to say, you were being offered not one or ten great objects, but hundreds, I suppose, how did you manage to be such a perfect director, respond to the needs of the Chinese art curators, at the same time fulfill the needs of the Italian Renaissance curators together with those of so many competing departments?

Montebello: I don’t know because you’re asking for a kind of a self-examination: that’s very difficult to do. I do know I have a tremendous capacity for multitasking. I can go from one subject to another very quickly, turn the page and I was able to do any number of things. I could go straight from a finance meeting to an acquisitions meeting to an exhibitions meeting, writing the introduction to a catalogue. That’s an ability I had and that was very useful to me because you end up having to do a lot of things. I just can do it.

Bui: It’s a perfect fox, not a hedgehog.

Carrier: You were perfectly suited to the computer age. Now people have to multitask all the time.

Pissarro: We could close on this with a note on a book I know you read. He’s too modest to bring this up, but Carrier wrote a book, Museum Skepticism,and one day he sent me an email: “You will never guess what: Philippe de Montebello is reading my book.”

Montebello: I gave it to my students to read.

Pissarro: This is a book, which he has been suffering badly for. As we know, it has not been kindly reviewed by everybody, but I love this book.

Montebello: What he did was put down in a book a very accurate view of the museum. From its very start, even before the Louvre opened, it’s compared to a mausoleum, you’re interring the works of art, embalming them in vitrines. That’s been a view ever since. The term, “museum quality,” this should be in a museum, that’s not a complimentary thing. It has no life left anymore. Museums kill objects.

Rosenthal: And yet they bring things to life, somehow if only momentarily.

Bui: Can you see an end to the museum?

Montebello: No. You’re more likely to have an end to libraries than to museums, because libraries are about things, museums are the things. People are no longer publishing exhibition catalogues, they’re doing them online. The museum still has what Benjamin called “the aura”—the reality of the object. It’s the only institution that exists that is chartered to preserve these things for future generations. Museums and museum visits have been so engrained in society today that if you talk to anyone, a group of American tourists in June going to Paris, London, Berlin, or Florence, the first thing that’s ticked off to see is the National Gallery, the Louvre.

Carrier: If I can go back to what you said about museums offering direct visual lessons, when I interviewed Gombrich, very near the end of his life, he remarked that people talk about Benjamin, but his account of the aura’s all wrong, the aura has not disappeared. Just empirically, people still want to see the “Mona Lisa” even under the most difficult viewing conditions.

Montebello: We have proof of it. When Microsoft, 15 or 20 years ago was creating Corbis, a library of all of the works, Bill Gates was trying to create an archive for the world, then the Leicester Codex came up for sale. For $20 he could have made an image of it, but he paid $20 million to acquire the object itself. So he knew the difference between art and the image.

Rosenthal: With all due respect, it’s not the greatest work of art; it’s a sort of souvenir. If that was all that survived of Leonardo, we wouldn’t be that interested in him.

Montebello: Well, fragments of fragments.

Carrier: People want the objects, that’s why you’re in business. Those objects are so powerful.

Montebello: But it’s becoming a problematic issue, there is a Google problem where you get fantastic close-ups, zooming in on great pictures of the world. One, for example, is a of a Rogier van der Weyden in the Prado, I get a pleasure looking at this close-up on my screen that’s not that dissimilar from standing in front of the original. Because in reality, since the eye isn’t equipped with a zoom lens, you couldn’t do this in reality.

Rosenthal: The Prado is seriously advanced compared with other museums.

Bui: This is a question for both of you. The globalization seemed to emerge in the early 1980s and explode more or less in the mid-’80s, before the crash. But in that period visual culture became increasingly accessible, and that became a major attraction by the 1990s. That’s a speculation from my own experience.

Montebello: It’s a question of accessibility. I remember my first trips to China in 1979, Deng Xiaoping was just coming to power, I knew Mao’s China. You would go to the Soviet Union where I went in the early 1970s to do the Scythian gold exhibition, and the curators would ask you to bring them a copy of Apollo, of anything with contemporary art. In Spain too, in Franco’s day. Suddenly the accessibility of it all became—

Rosenthal: Is the knowledge increasing?

Montebello: What’s happening I think is a homogenization where you can no longer make prior distinctions: are you a Chinese contemporary artist or a contemporary Chinese artist? Are you a painter in the Western style? Are you working in a traditional style? Lines are blurring now in all of the media.

Pissarro: At the same time, new identities are also emerging, mushrooming out.

Montebello: You have the paradox, as everyone is getting closer and more similar, there’s far greater emphasis upon my identity versus your identity, “I’m Ukrainian, and not Russian.”


Joachim Pissarro

Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.

David Carrier

David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

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