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A Fond Farewell to Philippe: Exhibiting the de Montebello Years at the MMA

by Beth S. Gersh-Nesic

The farewell exhibition The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisition feels like a three-dimensional valentine addressed to the recently-retired Director (and Chief Executive Officer since 1998) of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. About 300 out of the approximately 84,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, tapestries, musical instruments, costumes, objects, jewelry and textiles acquired during de Montebello's thirty year tenure made the final cut. It's a bit of a jumble--to say the least--but a lovable jumble that yielded memories of more successful exhibitions brought to you by the PDM administration.

Count Guy Philippe Henri Lannes de Montebello took over the Met's Number One spot after Thomas Hoving's flamboyant reign ended in June 1977. Hoving, Inventor of the Blockbuster (e.g., The Treasures of King Tutankhamun), took over a musty Met in 1966 and transformed this rather gloomy mummy mausoleum into Bloomingdale's on Fifth--hip, high-class and "happening." But just like hemlines, all things that get a bit too high must eventually fall. After the razzle-dazzle years of Hoving à go-go, a more sober de Montebello pledged to focus on the building and the collection. In these respects he was highly successful--refurbishing, reinstalling, and rethinking the MMA as a whole.

© The Metropolitan Museum of Art; used with permission
Support for an Oblong Water Basin
Roman, 2nd century A.D.
L. 58 1/2 in. (148.6 cm)
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1992 (1992.11.70)
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

One outstanding example is the revisionist approach to the spacious New Galleries for Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth Century European Painting and Sculpture, opened at the end of 2007. Here, works by erstwhile academic celebrities (Jacques-Louis David followers) now hang among their famous avant-garde cousins--the Realists, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists--instead of in the storerooms. In addition, the medieval rooms recently received a face-lift, and the American Wing's Charles Engelhard Court and Period Rooms will reopen later this year.

Not only did the de Montebello Doctrine revive the MMA galleries, it also improved the museum's amenities by adding cafés, relocating the cafeteria (have you found it yet? It's near the Lehman Wing), and switching the evening hours from Tuesdays to Fridays and Saturdays--turning this museum into one of the hottest pick-up spots in the city. (Just love those weekend evenings when the crowds wane and music wafts out of the second floor balcony.)

© The Metropolitan Museum of Art; used with permission
The Triumph of Fame,
from a Set of The Triumphs of Petrarch, ca. 1502-04
Flemish (probably Brussels)
Wool and silk tapestry
11 ft. 7 in. x 11 ft. (3.5 x 3.4 m)
Purchase, The Annenberg Foundation Gift, 1998 (1998.205)
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

De Montebello also leaves behind an almost fully renovated building. From the 1978 opening of the Sackler Wing with its spectacular Temple of Dendur to the 2007 unveiling of the MMA's substantial ancient Roman collection (where the cafeteria used to be), this director supported a complex enterprise teeming with fertile ideas and new projects, symbolized (I suspect) by the first object we see in the show: an ancient Roman support for an oblong water basin (second century A.D.). The second object we notice, way behind the basin, is a Flemish tapestry entitled The Triumph of Fame, from a set of The Triumphs of Petrarch (ca. 1502-04.) Indeed, an appropriate allusion to de Montebello's formidable reputation.

However, despite all the curators' hard work and thoughtful commentary, the choice of a chronological installation (by year of acquisition) tended to be harder on the mind than the eye--too much "cross-referencing" of styles and objects for my taste. Perhaps an easier approach to The de Montebello Years would have been to cross-reference objects with beloved exhibitions, pairing these important acquisitions with slide shows of the special exhibitions to which they once belonged.

© The Metropolitan Museum of Art; used with permission
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675)
Study of a Young Woman, probably ca. 1665-67
Oil on canvas
17 1/2 x 15 3/4 in. (44.5 x 40 cm)
Signed (upper left): IVMeer. [IVM in monogram]
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, in memory of
Theodore Rousseau Jr., 1979 (1979.396.1)
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

I would start with Johannes Vermeer's Study of a Young Girl, 1665-67 (in the first room). This beautifully rendered tronie brings back memories of the magnificent exhibition Vermeer and the Delft School, on view in Spring 2001. The Dutch word tronie means "face" or "expression." It is a genre that tries to capture an unusual face, an exaggerated expression or a costumed character. Vermeer's young lady may have had a fashionably high forehead, but its effect on such an adolescent and delicate face seems a bit out of proportion, striking the artist as a physiognomic curiosity.

In the second room, Charles Rennie MacIntosh's washstand of 1904 harks back to the superb survey of MacIntosh objects, interiors and architectural designs from the Art Nouveau era exhibited only twelve years ago (it feels like yesterday). I can still remember a complete installation of a tearoom. The washstand was designed for the Blue Bedroom in Hous'Hill, the residence of Catherine (Kate) Cranston, who owned several tearooms in Glasgow, some designed by MacIntosh. Willow TeaRooms still operates in Glasgow.

© Thomas Struth; used with permission
Thomas Struth (German, b. 1954)
San Zaccaria, 1995
Chromogenic print
71 5/8 x 90 3/4 in. (181.9 x 230.5 cm)
Purchase, The Howard Gilman Foundation Gift, 1996 (1996.297)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© Thomas Struth

It was no secret that contemporary art was not de Montebello's strong suit. Therefore, Thomas Struth's chromogenic photograph San Zaccaria, Venice, 1995, testifies to the fact that despite this rumor, PDM's curators acquired a considerable number of important contemporary works. Plus, in one instance the director made the supreme gesture of altering the Great Hall for an extensive Thomas Struth retrospective during Spring 2003. Not only did this show feature Struth's signature touristic interiors of visitors, artworks and all, but also included for the first (and perhaps last) time gigantic video projections on the walls above the coat-check rooms. These "video portraits" of non-celebrity faces seemed to stare at the usual flurry of bodies milling around the MMA's elegant Beaux-Arts central space. The effect was quite eerie and certainly unexpected--judging from the expressions on most visitors' faces. An A+ for effort, if not for the total effect.

The MMA also expended its collection in non-Western areas. Han Gan's Tang Dynasty (618-907) masterpiece, an ink on paper handscroll featuring a horse, entitled Night-Shining, ca. 750, reminds us that de Montebello oversaw the ambitious installation of the Chinese Garden Court in 1981 (a gift from Brooke Astor). The project required imported materials, artists and artisans. (Please view video below.)

© The Metropolitan Museum of Art; used with permission
Paul Poiret (French, 1879-1944)
"Paris" Coat, 1919
Silk, wool, metallic thread
L. at center back 90 in. (228.6 cm)
Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Gifts, 2005 (2005.207)
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

And no review of the de Montebello years would be satisfactory without a mention of the MMA's incomparable Costume Institute, whipped into shape by the famous fashion diva Diana Vreeland (1972-1989). Here, the Madame Grès evening gown, ca. 1965 conjures up visions of the exhibition Goddess: The Classical Mode (Spring 2003), while the Paul Poiret "Paris" coat, ca. 1919, generates mental flashbacks of the fabulous Poiret exhibition in 2007. (Recently, the Brooklyn Museum agreed to add its extensive costume collection, which will enhance the Costume Institute's significantly.)

The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisition closed on February 1, 2009. The objects will return to their rightful places in the permanent collection but remain on view together in digital form on the MMA website, which offers an online catalogue of the show. This catalogue also features videos of the curators, Philippe de Montebello's biography and the famous PDM voice that narrated dozens of audioguided tours--perhaps the greatest loss of all.

Post Script: Philippe de Montebello has already launched his next career, as the Fiske Kimball Professor in the History and Culture of Museum at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University--just about four city blocks from his former office. He will also serve as a special advisor for NYU's Abu Dhabi campus, scheduled to open in 2010. The sequel to The de Montebello Years has already begun.


Related Viewing:

The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisition - Online exhibition catalogue, with audio and video extra features

The New Galleries for Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Century European Paintings and Sculpture with the Henry J. Heinz II Galleries

Temple of Dendur installed in the Sackler Wing, 1978.

Vermeer and the Deft School (March 8 to May 27, 2001).
Johannes Vermeer Bio

Charles Rennie MacIntosh (November 21, 1996 to February 16, 1997).
Charles Rennie MacIntosh Bio
The Willow Tea Room (Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow)

"The Chinese Garden Court at The Metropolitan Museum of Art" - Video

Goddess: The Classical Mode (May 1 to August 3, 2003).

Poiret: King of Fashion (May 1 to August 5, 2007).

Brooklyn Museum's Costume Treasures Going to the Met

Press release from NYU on the appointment of Philippe de Montebello


The Metropolitan Museum of Art is located at 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82 Street, New York, NY 10028 (Telephone: 212-535-7710; Website). The museum is open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Suggested admission is $20.00 for adults, $15.00 for Seniors (65 and older), $10.00 for students; free for members and children (under 12 with adult). Admission includes Museum galleries, all special exhibitions, guided tours, gallery talks, family programs, and same-day visit to The Cloisters.


From your Guide: Beth Gersh-Nesic is an art history professor, author, art critic and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service which offers tours, lectures and workshops in various venues, including museums, galleries, artists' studios and arts organizations.

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