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Critic & museum director on encounters with art

September 30, 2014 GMT

“Rendez-Vous With Art” (Thames & Hudson), by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford

Stendhal wrote about feeling faint in the presence of great art. Goethe said that merely knowing that a sculpture he admired could be created made him “twice the person” he was. Proust, in an episode of “In Search of Lost Time,” has a writer swoon and die in front of Vermeer’s “View of Delft.”

Talk about the sublime effects of art! And yet looking isn’t easy; it requires time, effort, stamina, the resources to travel and, most of all, the willingness to gaze at a picture or sculpture for longer than it takes to snap a cellphone photo.

Even as discerning a connoisseur as former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello struggled to appreciate Greek vases, eventually turning to one of his own curators to teach him how to look. Even then, he acknowledges, it was a slog.

In “Rendez-Vous With Art,” de Montebello and British art critic Martin Gayford conduct a series of lively conversations, notable for their wit and erudition, about their encounters with great art (mostly European, pre-1800) in a half-dozen countries over two years.

Early on, de Montebello lets us know he has no use for the trendy notion of museum-as-entertainment. “The appreciation of art requires an engagement that is wholly different from the instant gratification provided by most forms of popular culture,” he declares, “and museums have a responsibility to help visitors achieve this.”

He decries the showmanship and marketing surrounding so much art, deploring the Quai Branly museum in Paris for its Disneyfied design and the Mauritshuis in The Hague for shamelessly hyping Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” with giant banners when visitors can simply go inside and take a look. “They’ve ruined it for me,” he exclaims.

Although de Montebello dominates the conversations, Gayford, author of well-regarded books on British painters Lucian Freud and David Hockney, holds his own. Both are worth listening to, although it would have been interesting to hear their thoughts on more non-Western and contemporary works.

Here, for instance, is de Montebello on the psychology that drove his decision at the Met to spend $45 million for an 8-by-11-inch oil painting, “Madonna and Child,” by the Italian artist Duccio. It was “a quasi-libidinal charge,” he says, “the irrepressible need to win ... (to take) possession of the object of desire.” Stendhal, Goethe, Proust — they would have understood.