Magazine article The Spectator

'Rendez-Vous with Art', by Philippe De Montebello and Martin Gayford - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Rendez-Vous with Art', by Philippe De Montebello and Martin Gayford - Review

Article excerpt

Rendez-vous with Art Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford

Thames & Hudson, pp.248, £19.95, ISBN: 9780500239247

Surely only a double-act of the stature of Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1977 to 2008 but also a colossus of the art world more generally, and Martin Gayford, the eminent critic who has doubled as the recording angel of the pensées of Lucian Freud and David Hockney, could have sold the idea of producing a record of conversations about looking at works of art to a publisher. As Gayford succinctly puts it:

Philippe and I had embarked on a joint project: to meet in various places as opportunities presented themselves in the course of our travels. Our idea was to make a book that was neither art history nor art criticism but an experiment in shared appreciation. It is, in other words, an attempt to get at not history or theory but the actual experience of looking at art: what it feels like on a particular occasion, which is of course the only way any of us can ever look at anything.

On the face of it, and even allowing for the heroic wielding of the blue pencil that must have taken place, the potential for such an enterprise to lapse into self-indulgent meandering is almost limitless. It is a minor miracle, therefore, that this is such an absorbing read, which should prove to be of just as much interest to the general reader as to the insider.

At times, one may be forgiven for feeling that there is too much scene-setting and too much about Mr de Montebello's aching back. Similarly, the art history is occasionally unreliable, and the pre-restoration illustration of one of the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel is unforgivable -- but these disappointments are trivial when set against the book's unique merits.

The attempt to capture the experience of looking is intriguing, but in truth it could have been undertaken by all sorts of people. Conversely, what makes these conversations so valuable is the fact that they give us something we will never otherwise have -- a kind of covert autobiography of Philippe de Montebello, combined with his response to art. The reminiscences of his various mentors in New York such as Charles Sterling and Ted Rousseau, of Harold Acton descending from the Villa La Pietra in his chauffeur-driven car during the Florentine flood of 1966 and then bursting into tears in front of Donatello's 'Magdalene', 'black with mud up to about the level of her hands', are compelling. …

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