Few books of late have pleased me as much as this one. Whether it will interest anyone else is an open question, but it might, and it should. In essence, this book consists of an ongoing dialogue between two very cultured men, Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Martin Gayford, former art critic for the Spectator. The pair meet periodically in the great museums of Europe and America and discuss Old Master paintings. Sometimes, it is true, they range more broadly, with interesting things to say about Greek vases, Assyrian reliefs, and Gothic statuary. But the bulk of their conversation is devoted to Titian, Velázquez, Rubens, and Goya, as well as to many lesser-known masters of ages past.
The most surprising thing about Rendez-vous with Art is that it exists at all. In the past decade, the museum world—reflecting the shifting interests of the public—has become strangely fixated on contemporary art, with an appreciable diminution of interest in most everything else, not least the Old Masters. When these do receive attention, especially from publishers, the focus usually turns to megastars like Leonardo, Vermeer, or Michelangelo, and the results tend to be silly and irrelevant. How welcome, then, that these two men are so unapologetic in their appetite for older art, and that they exhibit such admirable depth and sensitivity on the subject. They speak with as much discernment about the Master of Moulins and Antonello da Messina as about Rubens and Poussin.
Let it also be said that they make for an appealing, if unlikely, pair. In contrast to de Montebello’s imperious prolixity—a quality that will be familiar to all who have had dealings with him at the Met—Gayford is soft-spoken, self-effacing, and economical in his responses. This is true to such a degree that many passages read as though Gayford were interviewing de Montebello; indeed, as though he were James Boswell to de Montebello’s Samuel Johnson. Yet both have valuable things to say, and because Gayford writes the prose that initiates and concludes each dialogue, he has the last word.
The mere act of devoting a book like this to Old Master paintings, or in any case to pre-19th-century art, suggests an almost polemical conservatism. In this context, de Montebello’s outspoken insistence on such superannuated notions as quality and authenticity is almost unheard-of today. Indeed, in the service of these ideas, he expresses himself in a manner so true to himself that, were a playwright to put those same words in his mouth, one might reject them as heavy-handed caricature.
At one point, as the two men are walking around Florence, they come upon Giambologna’s “Perseus.” Uncertain whether it is the original, de Montebello explains, “I not only dislike, but also disapprove of, being unsure.” Elsewhere, in comparing a Boucher and Fragonard in the Wallace Collection, he says, “Well, you know my proclivity for hierarchies, so I’ll say right off that this Fragonard is one step up from a Boucher.” I would conjecture that that is the first and last time in the past half-century that anyone in the art world has used the word “hierarchy” by way of approbation.
Later on, as they stand in front of Rubens’s Three Graces (1630-35) in the Prado, de Montebello exuberates in the language of a glorified docent: “I just love the opalescent flesh tones of these luxuriant nudes, the nacreous reflections on the skin.” At the same time, however, he reveals himself to be a master of blunt Anglo-Saxon, as in this priceless exchange (with which I fully concur) about the Musée du Quai Branly, the museum of primitive art on the Left Bank of the Seine:
Gayford: It’s a labyrinth. So it suggests confusion. We’re lost in the forest of a postmodernist architect’s imagination.
De Montebello: I hate this place.
But beyond such deft character strokes, this is a deeper and far more valuable book than, perhaps, I have suggested. Both men have thought long and hard about art and museums, and their book presents the fruits of such reflection. We learn, for example, that de Montebello has a blind spot for Turner, that he becomes less interested in Dutch landscapes with each day that passes, and that he was initially bored by Greek vases. What is interesting about these admissions is that any critic in the broader sense, whether of art or literature or music, has just these pockets of inattention regarding what he knows he is supposed to admire, and may indeed acknowledge to be admirable, but which he simply cannot find it in himself to enjoy. Yet one rarely hears anyone confessing to such things as candidly as de Montebello does here.