Magazine article The Spectator

A Rich Legacy

Magazine article The Spectator

A Rich Legacy

Article excerpt

The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions Metropolitan Museum, until 1 February 2009

Philippe de Montebello retires from the position of Director at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, after 31 years of service, at the end of this year. A forum of curators has organised an exhibition of around 300 great works of art and artefacts (chosen from over 84,000) acquired under his watch, to honour his contribution.

The Philippe de Montebello Years is the result. It is an exhilarating and eclectic display that crosses the centuries from ancient prehistory to the present. Spanning the globe from Europe to Asia, Africa and Latin America, it includes artefacts, art and costume, from ancient Egypt to Weimer Germany. On show are Gothic sculptures, paintings from the Tang dynasty in China, a 14th-century Gospel from Ethiopia, Classical Greek sculpture and a poignant self-portrait of Peter Paul Rubens with his second wife. The artist, nearing the end of his life, gazes at her with tenderness and regret. It is said to be one of Montebello's favourites.

This is not a greatest-hits show. The execution is more thoughtful than such a spectacle. Instead, it is a considered take on how an art museum collection is assembled, by exploring why objects are chosen, by whom and what they contribute to the whole.

The essential audio guide begins the introduction to selected work, with Montebello explaining why he wanted each one. He muses on the reasons and the stages of acquisition with the curator who either brought the piece to him originally, or the current head of the relevant department.

We begin to understand the series of judgments that need to be made by the director, and the trustees, which are informed by the expertise of the curators who have to identify the value of the works and campaign for them in the first place.

Certain selections are simply the best, or remarkable breakthroughs, such as Duccio di Buoninsegna's 'Madonna and Child'. This Italian painting from 1278 is special because it brushed aside Byzantine impersonal, hierarchic forms, and replaced them with a more intimate and seemingly real interaction between mother and child. …

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