The Kentucky Author Forum

Philippe de Montebello is the longest-serving director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His retirement in 2008 wasn’t only the end of his 31-year tenure, it was seen as an end of an era at the venerable institution, too. His new book, “Rendez-vous With Art,” co-written with art critic Martin Gayford, is a series of conversations between the curator and the critic inside museums around the world—part travel memoir, part art history reflection, part personal response. 

I spoke with de Montebello today. He will speak about his book tonight at the Kentucky Author Forum, where he’ll be interviewed by New York Times art and architecture critic Michael Kimmelman.

In your book, you say that one characteristic of great works of art is that “they persistently catch our attention and beckon us … one never exhausts what a great work has to give.” 

In the same way with a great piece of music, we continually return to it and we reinvent them each time. Our mood is different, the performance is different, our approach to the work of art is different—we’re tired one day, we’re not another, we’ve seen something else, they’ve moved it, it’s in conversation with a different work of art on its left or right.

The other thing is that the eye apprehends a work very quickly, instantaneously. You can look at something you can turn around and you can pretty much describe it, but that is barely scratching the surface. One of the points we make in the book is we have to give time to looking at a work of art, to penetrate into its world. Peel the onion, and any number of visits, in a great work of art, obviously, reveal so many more things, both about us and about the work itself.

Another point you make in the book is that the live experience of taking in a work of art really can’t be replicated in an online or digital gallery. 

You can’t for two reasons. First is you have scale. Your PC or your iPad or whatever you’re going to look at the work of art on is small. Some works of art are huge. Eight, 10, 12 feet—the Sistine ceiling, the Ghent Altarpiece. So one has absolutely no idea of that. And the physical reaction that one has with one’s whole body, not just the eyes, to works of great scale. There are also works that have enormous monumentality in their conception and end up being very small, and surprise you in museums.

The other thing that is critical is when you’re in front of a work of art you are in front of the object itself that was made by its maker and survived God knows how many centuries. Whereas in the pixelated world of reproductions, you’re in front of a simulacrum. You’re in front of something that’s one of multiple identical versions, and it has no surface, except the surface of a screen or the page of a book.

Some of my favorite chapters of the book are set in the Prado in Madrid. I especially love the care and detail both of you go into in talking about Velazquez’s work. “Las Meninas,” especially, is a painting that speaks very closely to me. When I visited the galleries and was able to see his court jesters and dwarves as well—

And the scale, the figures are life-sized. Your ability to approach the picture, which is hung very low, as it probably was in the king’s bedroom once. Velazquez is just one of the great, great painters of all time. He’s a magician. He turns paint into truth, into life, that in my mind has never been duplicated.

It’s such an immersive, wonderful experience to visit and see so much of his body of work in one place. You can really get a sense of the depth and the breadth of it. As a museum director and curator, is that preferable to dispersing an artist’s body of work around the globe? 

The thing about museums is they create, whether they wish to or not, narratives. The moment you hang more than one work of art, or picture, or put several sculptures together, you are creating a conversation. You are creating a narrative. If you change the order in which the pictures or the sculptures are shown, you change the storyline. You can hang one El Greco, one Murillo, one Velazquez, and you’ve basically given a kind of a short art history course on 17th century Spanish painting. You hang a room, as in the Prado, full of the works of Velazquez, and you’ve created a monographic exhibition of the works of Velazquez. You hang Velazquez next to Rubens, and you’ve created a different kind of dialog of two painters who knew each other, who were involved with Philip IV in the court. The role of the museum, in fact, is to frequently change that context.