The Legacy of Philippe de Montebello

by James F. Cooper

The late-nineteenth-century Mangaaka Power Figure (Nkisi N’Kondi) leans forward menacingly into the center of the gallery. Although it lacks some of the feral power of earlier works retrieved from the Congo (as European colonialists called it then), its ferocious mien and metalwork are startling, particularly when installed alongside the classical and Renaissance objects in the handsome interiors of the Special Exhibition Galleries, on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. Nkisi stands alone, totally out of context, defiant, its arms akimbo, hundreds of nail-studded spikes bristling from its resin-caked wooden chest, arms, legs and feet. Its “stomach,” an abdominal concave hole shaped by an inverted ceramic bowl, appears to be the focal center of some internalized energy which is partially expelled between the sharpened teeth of its open mouth. Transferred from the Met’s Africa, Oceania and Americas galleries, the Mangaaka Power Figure here confronts Peter Paul Rubens’s masterpiece Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment and Their Son Peter Paul (c. 1639).
This startling juxtaposition compels the visitor to stop and really look closely at both objects in a new way, apart from their usual settings, in European Paintings and the Rockefeller Wing. Clearly, the familial portrait by the great Flemish artist is an aesthetic masterpiece. If we lack sensory certitude, there are numerous scholarly references to confirm this. The retiring museum director, Philippe de Montebello, has pronounced the Rubens painting among his favorite acquisitions. Confronted with such dramatic contrasts in style, content and aesthetic, some visitors might be provoked to ask what makes both of them art? How different are these two works? Are there values they have in common? Should Nkisi N’Kondi be classified as a work of art, or is it a religious or anthropological artifact we, in our secular short-sightedness, have chosen to label “art”? If such thoughts stir visitors at “The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions,” this exhilarating exhibition will have captured the infectious passion for art that has characterized his thirty-one-year tenure as director of one of the greatest art institutions in the world.

Ritual figure, Egyptian, fourth century, b.c., The Metropoilitan Museum of Art, New York CityTo acknowledge Montebello’s achievement, the Met’s curators organized a collaborative tribute, selecting 300 works from the more than 84,000 acquired during his remarkable tenure. Montebello is the eighth and longest-serving director in the museum’s history. Supervising the installation of this special honorary exhibition, Helen C. Evans (Curator of Byzantine Art) explained: “the breadth and greatness of the works on display tell multiple stories of Montebello’s stellar leadership…of the excellence of the collections in representing 5,000 years of human artistic achievement around the world; and of the Museum’s vital evolution in terms of renovating, expanding, and reinstalling galleries…enhancing understanding and experiencing of art.” Curatorial heads from seventeen departments devised the unique strategy of arranging the exhibition chronologically according to date of acquisition. This collaborative interdepartmental display is a brilliantly coordinated museum-within-a-museum experience that reflects the high standards of Montebello’s stewardship. The emphasis on excellence reconfirms his view that, while each object has profound, unique characteristics, they are bound together by universal qualities shared by humankind across civilizations and time periods. 

The final process—selection, lighting and arrangement—was choreographed by Helen Evans and Jeff Daly, Senior Design Advisor for Special Projects. The exhibition presents many interesting juxtapositions of centuries and cultures. The Triumph of Fame (1504), a beautifully composed Flemish tapestry inspired by the poetry of the fourteenth-century scholar Petrarch, confronts a brutish Naked Man, Back View (1992), a phlegmatic modernist portrait of the notorious English celebrity Leigh Bowrey, by Lucian Freud. What could be more different in values? The Triumph of Fameis one of a series of silk tapestries, including the triumphs of Love, Chastity and Religion, once owned by Isabel, Queen of Castile and Aragon. Freud’s almost monochromatic painting is a refutation of traditional style, subject matter, aesthetics, standards and philosophy. The unflattering rear view of an obese naked man purposely challenges older concepts of virtue, order, beauty, even art itself. It is perhaps the only work in the entire exhibition one can tag as “postmodern,” but it retains enough formal aesthetic qualities to carry on an educated conversation with the old masters.

The exhibition demonstrates the truth of the vision that guided Montebello from the beginning: “art is about excellence.” Montebello, a man some have called “imperious” and the “sun king,” carried the torch of excellence during the forty-five years he worked at the Met, beginning in 1963 as an assistant curator. His tenure coincided with a controversial and, in many ways, bleak period in American civilization. When major institutions, universities, scholars, foundations and government agencies stumbled and faltered, seduced by ideology and politics, financial speculation and greed, Montebello remained true to his star. The whole point of this special exhibition is to underscore the raison d’être of Montebello’s entire career: to seek excellence, to seek the best possible works by a particular artist or arts movement and not settle for second best, if he could help it. Hierarchy, quality, excellence and beauty are words that appear frequently in Montebello’s vocabulary, spoken in the elegant, sonorous tones that have delighted visitors over the years, in his recorded guides. At the same time, Montebello refers to the “paradox” of acquiring more modest works of art, some in the form of a brief notation on paper, which contribute to a better understanding of historical context and, thus, an appreciation of the masterpieces. A good example in this exhibition is an early representational painting by Willem de Kooning, The Glazier (1940), which reveals little of the phlegmatic brushwork of his demonic Women series ten years later, but does show the heavy influence of Arshile Gorky.
Montebello has more than doubled the Met’s physical size during his tenure and tripled attendance, making the museum New York City’s greatest single attraction. Interspersed among this special exhibition are several ancient Greek and Hellenistic works, whose classical beauty offers a small taste of the vastly expanded Greek and Roman Galleries, reopened in 2007, possibly the most celebrated achievement of Montebello’s tenure.
Vincent van Gogh’s hauntingly expressive Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889) reminds the visitor not only of three of the biggest blockbuster exhibitions in the Met’s history—devoted entirely to this artist’s oeuvre, the last surprisingly rich in quality drawings—but also of the recently expanded Galleries for Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture. Under Montebello’s leadership, several new galleries were added, which required moving the Met’s outer façade deeper into Central Park. His objective was to create room to address the imbalance between the Met’s great modernist collection—Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Fauve works by Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse—and masterpieces from the nineteenth-century Academy. Many works by David, Ingres, Géricault, Meissonier, Cabanel, Couture, Bouguereau and others had long been stored away from public view in the Met’s cavernous vaults. These conservative works, and the beautiful neoclassical galleries designed by architect Alvin Holm, offer a truer perspective of the cultural revolution that, for better or worse, has shaped our twenty-first-century civilization.

Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Even an exhibition as magnificently representative as this will inevitably omit something. There are fine landscapes by French, English, Dutch, German and Scandinavian artists but no examples from the golden age of American landscape painting (1825_1900). There are, however, two striking works by the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774_1840). Montebello was the first Met director to acquire works by the co-founder of German Romanticism. The purchase was heavily criticized in some circles, although the museum already owned Arnold Böcklin’s mythic Island of the Dead (1880). Both paintings were featured in the monumental 1981 landmark retrospective “German Masters of the Nineteenth Century,” which reconfirmed the ideological and aesthetic bonds between American and German landscape artists. The theme of Friedrich’s Two Men Contemplating the Moon (c. 1830) echoes the communal theme of Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849), which depicts the American painter Thomas Cole and poet William Cullen Bryant contemplating the sublime scenery of the Hudson River Highlands. Kindred Spirits, regarded as one of the defining works of the Hudson River School, was prominently displayed—alongside works by Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Frederic Church, Jasper Cropsey, Sanford Gifford, John Kensett, Albert Bierstadt and George Inness—in the 1987 exhibition “American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School,” an early Montebello blockbuster. The museum is currently reorganizing its American Wing, a project scheduled for completion in 2010. 

Among the other blockbuster exhibitions presented at the Met under his leadership were displays of Leonardo’s notebooks, modern works from Russia’s Hermitage, the Vatican collection, Caravaggio, Manet/ Velázquez and Degas, all drawing dense crowds. Montebello has some misgivings about this tremendous success. He fears that many people who show up for the blockbusters will not return for the permanent collections, that museum leaders of the future will be led astray by the lure of huge revenues to engage in gimmicks to score box office records.
Montebello emphasizes the importance of excellence in great works of art. At the same time, he underscores the necessity of providing sufficient space to allow the visitor to contemplate, to commune with the work of art. “I look forward to the day when we are told,” he says, “not how exciting we are, but how magical we are.” Museums fulfill their mission by setting the right tone, a high tone, that doesn’t confuse accessibility with familiarity. “The greatest threat to the well-being and the integrity of museums,” he warns, “can be their phenomenal success.” The challenge for Montebello, for the last thirty years, has been to balance the Met’s popularity and rising attendance, with the necessity of maintaining high standards among his curators. This impressive exhibition reflects the quality of both the art and the accompanying scholarship over the last three decades.

Mangaaka Power Figure (Nkisi N’Kondi), Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola, Chiloango River Region; Kongo, second half of nineteenth century; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York CitySometimes, even apparently “successful” achievements can cause concerns. On view is an imposing granite 5,000-year-old Recumbent Lion, which once guarded the entrance to a royal sanctuary in the Nile Valley, part of the collection of the refurbished Egyptian Galleries in the Sackler Wing, with its Temple of Dendur. Montebello likes to tell a story about taking his family to Egypt. The Met, he points out, has the greatest collection of Egyptian art outside Cairo itself. Installed in brilliantly lit, streamlined galleries, it opened some twenty years ago to great acclaim. Yet, as he admits wryly, his entire family preferred the experience of the dilapidated Cairo museum, with its dirty, dimly lit galleries, to the Met’s sterile, spotlighted, ultra-modern approach. Somewhere, the magic of Egypt had been lost, he explains. I can remember my own experiences in the Met’s old Egyptian wing, with its dim lighting and obsidian sarcophagi and statues. It was awe-inspiring, even a little frightening. Over the years, Montebello has given a lot of thought to what happens when installation threatens to strip away the original purpose and context of a work of art. He believes that the object carries an aesthetic message of its own, which can be discerned by the enlightened eye. The museum should do its best to preserve this quality. He has spoken about the museum as a temple, which must not allow the desacralization of art with mediocrity.

The problem, Montebello explains, lies in the very nature of our society. The museum is a democratic institution in the service of the aristocratic nature of artistic experience. How Montebello was able to balance these two forces so successfully over a thirty-year period is a testament to his remarkable genius for getting things done. Once, the great leaders and princes of American industry built and labored in such a just cause. Now, it is left to public institutions such as museums to maintain standards of excellence and beauty. In 2004, he persuaded the Met to purchase an eleven-inch tempera painting on wood for the astounding price of $45,000,000. Madonna and Child (c. 1300) by the Sienese artist Duccio di Buoninsegna, he explains, defines a transforming moment in Western art. This exquisite painting is one of the first Christian works to depart from the Byzantine notion of painting as a symbolic image of a divine being. Duccio, the founder of Sienese painting, endowed his figures with a new humanity, exploring the psychological relationship between mother and child. Having studied the style of his contemporary Giotto, Duccio created a pictorial device that relates the fictive space of the picture to the real space of the viewer. The beginning of perspective would initiate developments that led to the Renaissance.
Montebello is well suited to such tasks. Born in Paris in 1936 and educated in French schools through the baccalaureate, he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1958. After receiving a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, he went on to earn an M.A. in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. After beginning his Metropolitan Museum career in 1963 in the Department of European Paintings, Montebello rose steadily through the curatorial ranks. Except for four-and-a-half years as Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, he has spent his entire career at the Met. He became the Museum’s Director in 1977, eventually employing a professional staff of more than 300 curators, 2,300 full- and part-time employees, and more than 1,000 volunteers.
So, what is the legacy of Philippe de Montebello? Why do staff and public alike speak so highly of his administration? I feel he has created a perfect city for millions of awestruck temporary citizens, to roam its streets and walks, to speak in whispers, enraptured with its beautiful architectural points and furnishings, to contemplate rare objects in galleries where silence envelops the solitary figure of a medieval Christian saint or an Assyrian god. This exhibition is much more than the sum total of its individual parts, but its individual parts are dazzling.
Montebello has doubled the physical size of the museum, vastly increasing its gallery space with the construction of new wings. In addition, beginning in the 1990s, he initiated a new master program of “building from within.” Notable building projects include the light-filled Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court, with its magnificent centerpiece, Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais. In addition, he increased attendance by almost two million visitors, despite several increases in admission. He promoted exhibitions and scholarship in formerly inadequately covered periods, such as Oceanic, Islamic and nineteenth-century European Academic art, nineteenth-century American painting and European tapestries. In April 2007, the Met opened its new and widely acclaimed 57,000-square-foot Greek and Roman Galleries. More recently, the new 25,000-square-foot Ruth and Harold D. Uris Center for Education opened. There are so many other major building programs initiated by Montebello that only a few can be listed: the new Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography, the installation of the intarsia Renaissance studiolo from the palace of Duke Federico da Montefeltro, the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries for Byzantine Art, new crypt-like galleries for Coptic art carved out of rock beneath the Great Hall staircase, new galleries for Asian art and Korean art. A major renovation and reinstallation of the Islamic collection, with its magnificent Assyrian human-headed winged lion Iamassu (883-859 B.C.), is scheduled to open in 2011. In 2006, he launched one of his greatest projects, expanding and redesigning the museum’s entire American Wing, including the Charles Engelhard Court, now underway with a design team led by classical architect Thomas Gordon Smith, former dean of the School of Architecture of Notre Dame. Other refinements include lowering the stone wall that previously blocked much of the view of the Temple of Dendur and removing the lunette over the entrance to the European Painting Galleries, making its monumental works visible from the Great Hall below, and a $12,000,000 restoration of the museum’s neoclassical limestone façade on Fifth Avenue.
All these changes and many more signal the essence of Montebello’s legacy: his taste is impeccable. From the smallest object to the largest gallery, he has sought to make us aware of excellence. In a period when relativists challenged traditional values, it took enormous confidence and courage for Montebello to uphold standards. Time and again, he was pressured to join others in abandoning what is timeless for what is politically correct. He defied The New York Times when it denounced the Met’s presentation of classical Greek sculpture from the age of Pericles as “racist,” “empiricist” and “misogynous.” He never succumbed to the pressures of political and cultural correctness, from the left or right. His north star has always been excellence. Vermeer’s Portrait of a Young Woman (c. 1667) is indicative of his connoisseurship. This particular Vermeer was part of the Wrightsman collection, acquired soon after Montebello became director. If any artist could symbolize the quality of Montebello’s achievements, it would be Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch master who created exquisitely modulated interior scenes of ordinary life. With this acquisition, the Met now owns one-seventh of all Vermeers extant.
Montebello greatly expanded the educational programs of the Met, servicing more than 250,000 school children, interns and professional educators each year. He devoted considerable effort to providing Internet accessibility to the Met’s scholarship and collection. One online resource, called the Timeline of Art History, features works of art reflecting more than 5,000 years, from prehistory to the present day. This learning tool, which is accessible to the smallest towns and communities across the face of the earth, is consulted by some twenty-four million visitors annually to the website. The entire catalogue for “The Phillipe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions”—photographs, text, provenance, scholarship—is available on one of a hundred links that comprise the museum’s vast Internet website. Thomas P. Campbell, a scholar of European tapestries, now inherits Montebello’s ormolu-encrusted French antique desk at the Met. We hope he will also inherit the drive and vision to maintain this great institution’s vital leadership role in the cultural life of the nation and the world.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2009, Volume 26, Number 1