November 22, 2008

Homage to Philippe de Montebello

When Philippe de Montebello announced that he was stepping down as director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, it made front page headlines around the world. It was the end of an era - over 30 years of stewardship of this magnificent institution visited by millions annually. Many of these visitors left with not only increased knowledge and appreciation for art of all kinds, but also a sort of personal connection with the man whose voice guided them through the collections. It was Mr. de Montebello himself who introduced and explained countless exhibitions with a cultivated, charmingly accented delivery that seemed to speak only to you, the audio-guide renter!

How to honor a man who did so much for the Metropolitan and the City of New York? Whose tireless efforts expanded the museum's art holdings, building space, educational programs, research facilities, accessibility to the public, and world wide reputation as a major repository of artistic treasures? In a fitting tribute to this global ambassador of fine art, a forum of curators, conservators and research scientists convened and selected 300 out of the more than 84,000 objects acquired during his tenure, that best represented the ideology and character of the museum. The result is "The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions" on view until February 1, 2009.

This is a labor of love and respect on the part of the staff and a chance for museum goers to say goodbye to someone who has gifted them with innumerable fabulous art experiences over the years. The exhibition is arranged by year of acquisition and this is initially confusing. However, one soon stops searching for a common thread of period, method, material or purpose and simply appreciates that each object represents the finest example of its kind, no matter what the category. The three decades fly by as one travels, figuratively, from ancient Egypt and the tiny lapis lazuli sculpture of The Creator of God Ptah, 945-600 B.C., to a Paul Poiret evening coat and gown, circa 1912. From a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci to a bronze Cambodian Buddha, from a 17th Century German "Cittern" a stringed instrument inlaid with ivory and ebony, to an American 1865 Colt Third Model Dragoon Revolver in its case, from a complete set of 52 decorated playing cards made in Burgundy in 1475 to a 19th Century Congolese Mangaaka Power Figure carved of wood with nails and other metal ornamentation, this show has everything you can imagine, and then some. Furniture, porcelain, ivory carvings, armor, carpets, jewelry and scrolls - the variety is amazing. Even within a field the span is enormous. Take paintings for example. How many museums can boast the finest works by Duccio de Buoninsegna (see above left), Vermeer (lower right), Rubens, Van Gogh, Balthus, Rothko and Jackson Pollock - all in the same suite of rooms?

Many will visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art this holiday season to see the world famous Christmas tree with its magnificent Neapolitan angels and crèche. Take a few minutes to go upstairs and get a taste of the worldly treasures that have been collected by this incomparable director and his team over the past 30 years. Mr. de Montebello, we salute you, we thank you, we will miss you and we wish you well.

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