The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

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MAR 2020 Issue
Art In Conversation

PIERRE ROSENBERG with Joachim Pisarro and David Carrier

Visitors in front of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. © 2017 musée du Louvre. Photo: Olivier Ouadah.

In 1793, during the French Revolution, the French kings’ art collection housed in the Louvre became the property of the French Nation, and was opened to the public. Although there had been earlier European museums prior to the Louvre, this was a most decisive beginning in the history of public art museums as we know it, which is found now in almost every country. In 2018, the Louvre had more than ten million visitors. It is the most visited museum anywhere. And so, when, some years ago, we inaugurated this series of interviews with museum directors, naturally we wanted to interview all three living former Presidents of the Louvre: Michel Laclotte (1987–95), Pierre Rosenberg (1994–2001), and Henri Loyrette (2001–13). In February of 2019 Pissarro talked with all three men in Paris, in French separately, in interviews. Carrier did the preliminary editing and provided this introduction.

Here, then, we present the 15th museum director we have had the pleasure of interviewing. The interview of Henri Loyrette will appear in a forthcoming issue. Our consistent discovery has been that museums everywhere share some concerns, and that, in some important ways, national differences matter enormously. Almost all museums have to expand and add to the collection previously unrepresented visual traditions. All of them have to contend with increasing numbers of visitors. But how these expansions of the buildings and the collections are supported financially considerably varies from one country to another. As will be made clear here, some of the differences in American and French funding systems are dramatic and important.

We have consulted with profit Michel Laclotte’s A Key to the Louvre: Memoirs of a Curator, trans. Mark Polizzotti (New York: Abbeville, 2004).

Pierre Rosenberg: Do you know the Dictionnaire amoureux du Louvre that I wrote?

Joachim Pissaro (Rail): No, no, I’m embarrassed. I don’t want to lie to you. We will share it with our readers at the Louvre.

Rosenberg: Well, I’m glad, you can tell them that it also exists in Chinese. Do you want to see it? It’s a very useful book, 30 or 40 million copies have been sold, maybe more. It has never been translated into any language, except to Chinese.

Rail: That’s a very high print run for a French book, for any book!

Rosenberg: Yes, it’s very helpful. Visitors make use of it because it’s organized in alphabetical sections with small anecdotes, and with many little personal stories.

Rail: I will find it and we will mention it to our readers. To retrace a little bit the reasons that have led me to contact the three of you, if I may, and please don’t hesitate to correct me and to tell me how you see things. There’s a whole plethora of literature on the Louvre. We often think about the Louvre as a—it’s a strong word and it might enrage you—as a shrine of history, as a monument of history, if you will, which celebrates eternity and remains almost timeless. And yet the premises that brought us to speak to Laclotte, to you, and to Loyrette, are precisely that you are three individuals who, in very different ways, brought the Louvre, so to speak, to its modernity.

Rosenberg: The old Louvre, sure, it was a pleasant museum, the entrance wasn’t through the pyramid, of course, it was on the side, you remember. It was a Louvre that still had many rooms without electricity, without restrooms. A rather dusty old Louvre, but it was quite pleasant too, in its own ways, it was understandable, and accessible, and in my opinion that’s crucial. But all the curators, who had traveled a little bit at the time, understood that something had to be done to modernize this museum, to refresh it. I think that if they went out of their way, with so much enthusiasm, it’s because they felt that they really had to meet the challenge in comparison to other large museums in the world. I think that’s what explains the project of the Grand Louvre, which turned the Louvre from a museum that was slightly dormant, let’s admit it, into a museum that is today very much admired.

Rail: And the most popular, or the most visited museum in the world.

Rosenberg: Yes, with all the problems it engenders. The Louvre is very popular, there are many visitors, there are many foreigners, we know all of that, but those visitors are badly spread out in the museum. They’re all in the Grande Galerie. Some wander through to the Egyptians. But the rest of the museum remains absolutely accessible, if not almost empty at times. So, when people tell you that they don’t go to the Louvre because there are too many people, I actually think that once they’ve overcome the public lines at the entrance, if I may say, they could find themselves in very pleasant visiting conditions.

Rail: You’re giving me a wonderful transition opportunity, so we will pass right away to the Louvre of today, for which Laclotte, you, and Loyrette have prodigiously worked. The issues you raise are there. I think all three of you are in agreement about the paradoxical figures of attendance. I think you also put forth a similar opinion, which is, I can’t remember the exact numbers, but it’s something like 80% or 90% of the public come to see two works: the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, and pay almost no attention to the rest of the collection.

Rosenberg: There was always a trend, which I absolutely disagree with, that consisted in creating charts of the museum’s stars, the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Slave by Michelangelo. The idea was to have these three or four works displayed separately from the rest of the collections, in one space. But that’s not the Louvre! That wouldn’t be the Louvre! The Louvre is a vast and complex assemblage of masterpieces that people owe themselves to have seen once in their lives. I believe that by seeing the great number of masterpieces they find, on their trajectory between one museum star and the other, visitors may actually want to see more, to know more, and to discover what museums are, what works of art are. If so, that’s just wonderful. We hoped, we still hope, that thanks to these big masterpieces, the larger public, who doesn’t go to museums every day, who doesn’t know what museums are, might discover museums a little bit and spend a little more time at the Louvre than usual. Hopefully, when they return home they would visit their own local museum, if there is one. That’s undoubtedly the ambition, too. Right now, one cannot come to Paris without going to the Louvre. And of course, for the greater majority of visitors, once they have visited, they leave and will never return. But one must think about the Conversion of Saint Paul, [ed.: remarkable masterpiece by Hans Speckaert, a little known artist] if someone who has never been to a museum comes in contact with this astounding work they will suddenly discover what works of art are. They exist, they do. We must say it.

The Louvre is a museum that is very open to everyone, of course, and we may hope that through this experience of this museum, others will come. But let there be no illusions, we very well know who visits the Louvre, and sadly we know that for the moment, museum lovers, wherever they may be, in whichever country, remain a phenomenon that only affects a small elite, a small proportion of people. Museums have an educational role that is absolutely essential, there is no doubt, however if we want the public to discover works of art, if we want the museums to expand their missions to a growing number of visitors, or simply to have more people just enjoy museums, because that’s really the core of the problem, it has to go through an education system. The education of young kids is what will bring a new public to the museum.

Rail: Are you saying that we need to rethink how education departments function in museums? Should there be a stronger education system or department, with different parameters?

Rosenberg: Education departments exist in almost all museums of the world. It exists at the Louvre, too, of course. It’s very developed, very sophisticated. It touches a million kids every year. I think it’s great and obviously needs to be maintained. In fact, to develop this system of educational services, we based ourselves on what was previously done in America. America stood as somewhat of a pioneer in this field, but we know quite well now that more is needed. The role of educational services is to show the works in the museum. We learn to read at school, but we don’t learn to see, and least of all, to see works of art. Why? In my opinion, that’s the underlying problem. What would be needed is for the schools themselves, whatever the school, to teach kids how to see. To my knowledge, this is the case in only one country in the world: Italy.

Rail: So, Art History should be taught in the youngest grades?

Rosenberg: Yes, exactly, and in Italy, it’s mandatory. In all grades. And it makes a huge difference. Italian visitors of the Louvre are immediately recognizable. They’re often a little louder than other visitors, but they’re much, much more comfortable in museums than visitors from most other countries. You often spot them, feeling much more at ease with the works they may be discovering for the first time, and they have a familiarity with works of art, which is something that I envy. They speak about works of art with the same ease as most of us speak about the latest TV series.

Rail: I have an Italian aunt from Naples. I don’t think I spend as much time in Italy as you do, but I do go there quite often, and I completely see what you mean, although I hadn’t realized they started so early.

Rosenberg: I regret that the example of Italy is not followed by the other countries…

Rail: The Louvre—

Rosenberg: is a symbol. As we saw, the new president of the Republic, when he was elected, wanted to celebrate his victory in front of the Pyramid: this is huge. Of course, we can wish to do even better. A museum, despite what we think, is not a mausoleum: a museum must always remain alive. And I think it needs to remain this way and I think that each generation, each director of the Louvre, should mark his presence by his/her own initiatives. There’s still a lot to do at the Louvre. Entire sections haven’t been redeveloped. Taste evolves. The works that are displayed now are not those that we displayed 50 years ago. A museum is extremely alive, it’s a living organism and I think that the initiatives, all the efforts to make it even more alive, are good. The auditorium is key, the educational service is key, each director has some ideas on what needs to be done and it’s great that it is this way. In this respect, the Louvre isn’t very different from other large museums of the world where directors, good or bad, all try to make their institution as alive as can be. Some questions arise: should contemporary art be introduced into museums specialized in older art: questions of this type—there are many questions that need to be asked in order to ensure that visitors are not only numerous, but also happy, because that’s what we need and hope for: for them going to the Louvre should be a moment of happiness, that’s the goal we need to reach. Not for it to be a chore imposed by the fact that one cannot visit Paris without going to the Louvre. That’s the difficulty, the challenge.

Titian, Man With a Glove, c.1520. Oil on canvas, 39 x 35 inches. Collection of the Louvre, Paris.

Rail: Let’s come to the Mona Lisa, the Joconde, as she’s known in France. I remember seeing it when I was a child, maybe with my grandfather or my father, and there was this sublime portrait, Man with a glove, by Titian, that was next to it, on the right, you remember? I loved that painting, the Titian, too: an astounding portrait. But what was striking was that this hyper visible icon, the Mona Lisa, was making the Titian invisible: nobody paid any attention to this painting by Titian at all.

Rosenberg: The Mona Lisa is a very beautiful painting. I think in some time there will be a curator who will have the courage to get it cleaned, because as you know, it is very dirty! It has a very thick yellow varnish, but of course it takes a lot of courage to do that! It would be a simple restoration, but if it hasn’t been done till now it’s due to the fear of media. As soon as we touch the Mona Lisa, it becomes an international event, but one day she will need to be cleaned because we actually don’t see her very well any more. She became brown and blue, and now she’s actually turned green. That’s not her color. The colors have been completely distorted by the aged varnish. I held this painting in my hands: It’s painted on a single panel, a large oak panel, and every year she is removed from its box and examined to check if the natural curve of the panel increased or not. It’s always a very moving moment and I think I will see, I don’t know, maybe not, the restoration of the Mona Lisa. The painting is absolutely fascinating, as you know: we don’t know who the model is, everything has been said on her identity, there are a lot of mysteries that remain, but one thing needs to be pointed out: that is that this painting, despite what we still often read, in particular in Italy, was not stolen by Napoleon in Italy, but it was actually acquired by King Francis I from the artist in the early 16th century.

Rail: Who had more or less put Leonardo under house arrest in one of his own castles, if I am correct?

Rosenberg: Having said that, the glory of the Mona Lisa is relatively recent. In the 19th century, she was obviously very famous, but she didn’t have this kind of unique glory or aura that she developed. Her theft from the Louvre in 1911 probably had an influence, but I don’t think that’s it. I think the fact that no matter from which angle you look at her she follows you with her gaze, and however often I have experienced it, this is always the case, I believe that simply goes beyond logic, and has a lot to do with her power of fascination. But I think the real analysis of its glory, of the reasons of its glory, remains the irrational domain. She is by herself on a large wall, and it’s true that the paintings surrounding her, very few visitors look at them. In fact now, there is nothing else. They decided to remove any painting next to her.

Rail: You know that the first time the Metropolitan Museum of Art broke one million visitors, (the absolute record number of visitors for decades) was when Mona Lisa was lent. The exhibition was officially opened by Jackie Kennedy in 1963.

Rosenberg: Would you believe it, I was there! I got the Focillon Fellowship and was calmly spending time at Yale and doing little trips in America to discover American museums, and I was asked by Malraux to come to Washington and to go see the Mona Lisa every day. I had nothing else to do in Washington and I had nothing better to do at the time than to go check every morning if the Mona Lisa was doing well. I stayed with the Mona Lisa during the length of the exhibition, but I didn’t attend the opening. I was very young at the time, as you can imagine. But I went to see the Mona Lisa every day to make sure that it hadn’t been stolen at night.

Every morning I would go before the opening, I can’t remember if it was at 9:00 or 10:00, I would do my little round. I can’t remember where I was living. I used the time to visit Washington, including the Smithsonian that no one really visited at the time, and where there was a collection of Spanish drawings, that I think I was the first to study. But this collection of Spanish drawings that is now published is a large collection. It’s not one of the wonders of the world, but when I went to the Smithsonian it was there. I had nothing else to do. Once I checked on the Mona Lisa, I was free. And I returned to Paris from Washington, not from Yale. I was very young. I was 25.

Rail: I would like to speak about your knowledge of both regional American and regional French museums because you are somewhat of a pioneer in that respect. I might be entering something a little sensitive. I remember that when you were President-Director of the Louvre, (I was a mere chief curator in Texas). That’s when I got to know you with Pillsbury at the Kimbell. I was speaking with Jean-Pierre Cuzin at the time, but I had come to borrow the superb wood panel by Boilly at the Louvre. The Boilly exhibition project was initiated by Colin Bailey and I inherited it from him. Cuzin, your director of the Paintings Department at the Louvre, told me that it cannot be lent. You know, it was that large beautiful painting by Boilly, which is on a wood panel I think, I think it’s the only wood one you have.

Rosenberg: What does it depict?

Rail: a crowd, a street scene … And Cuzin told me, and I cite …

Rosenberg: That must have been when I was director.

Rail: Yes, yes, absolutely, that’s why I am telling you the story now (I would have never dared then!) [Laughter] He tells me, “You know, I will be honest with you, but this shouldn’t be repeated. The reason the Louvre doesn’t lend wood panels has nothing to do with the state of conservation, because the painting you want to borrow by Boilly is actually in very stable condition. But it’s simply because we have thousands, and thousands of loan requests for the Mona Lisa and we made an executive decision on behalf of the president of the Louvre, stating that we simply NEVER lend wood panels, whether Mona Lisa, or anything else…” So I couldn’t appeal, that was it.

Rosenberg: The Louvre didn’t lend any paintings on wood because they are fragile. Period. At the time, you must remember that there were no climate controlled crates, so climate changes were very dangerous for paintings on wood.

Rail: Do you think that someday, since you’re speaking of the state of conservation—

Rosenberg: That the Mona Lisa will travel again? I hope not! You know why? There’s a very simple reason. It’s not just the fact that it’s a painting on wood and that it’s very fragile. There’s another reason. People come to the Louvre for the Mona Lisa. If you offer them the Louvre without the Mona Lisa, they will have the impression that they were thwarted or frustrated. It’s as simple as that. If you display her anywhere else, of course people will come see her, but I really prefer for people who want to see her to see her at the Louvre than to ship her away.

Rail: Yes, of course. So in terms of public distribution, since I believe this is a problem that concerns all President-Directors of the Louvre….

Rosenberg: The heads of the Louvre are president-directors, which means that they are both presidents and directors. President—planning the future, think about what the museum will become tomorrow, taking into account the evolution of taste. Director—daily management of the museum. In France, and in many other countries, there is typically a president and a director. And the Louvre has this particularity, which is important, to have someone who is both on the field and someone who at the same time has a more general, more global vision.

Rail: I believe this goes back to Laclotte and to the transformation of the Louvre into an Etablissement d’Etat public.

Rosenberg: Until Laclotte, the Louvre was under the Direction des Musées de France. In fact, this didn’t really play itself out for the first few years of Laclotte’s direction. With the president-director of the Louvre, the museum didn’t become independent, but it became autonomous, with the very important idea that the Louvre can manage itself. I was also among those who tried, with Loyrette, by the way, to move away as much as possible from the ministry, that is, to become an independent museum.

Rail: Did that idea cling on?

Rosenberg: Yes, if you will, the Louvre had reached a point where it was almost able to self-finance itself. I really believe in the independence of the Louvre, which obviously isn’t something that is shared by our ministers. When the Minister of Culture of Czechoslovakia or Hungary comes to France, he prefers to be photographed by his country’s television in front of the Mona Lisa, rather than with our current Minister. But I believe the Louvre will indeed become autonomous. The financial resources of the Louvre are considerable, the government will always be present, but basically, this autonomy, this independence of the Louvre, which is in fact the case of the Metropolitan Museum, by the way, or MoMA—that’s what we need to move towards—it’s unquestionable.

We need to also consider something that hasn’t been taken into account until now, and that is that the neighborhood of the Louvre, lives off of the Louvre. All the shops around the Louvre, the restaurants around the Louvre, all of this, a considerable number of small businesses, a whole population in this part of Paris, they all live off from the Louvre. People come and spend. And I think it would be normal for a portion of this business to benefit the Louvre in return. I think the independence of the museum, not a total independence but a very strong autonomy, is indispensable for another important reason. If we want to make the curators accountable to their job, if we want them to feel that they are making decisions, it’s only if they are masters of their collection, that they can do it. I really believe in the idea of the accountability of the curators, of the accountability with regards to their collection, to their acquisitions, to their exhibitions, to their publications—I think it’s essential. For a president-director to manage this a little bit, to lead it, is normal, but for this accountability from top to bottom of the museum hierarchy to be developed is, I believe, one of the conditions of success of museums.

Rail: You told me that you were very concerned, that your colleagues Henri and Monsieur Laclotte also supported the autonomy of curators. I also remember, these are memories that are coming back to me, I think it was Cuzin who told me that “When we do an acquisition at the Louvre, unlike you in the United States, the president-director does not object, doesn’t obstruct.” I was very surprised. But what if the president-director doesn’t agree with the acquisition proposed by a chief curator? Is that true?

Rosenberg: It’s true and false. Naturally, the president-director manages a budget. The curators share that budget. I’m talking about the acquisition budget. Someone must be the referee, though. That’s the role of the president-director, it’s an arbitration role and it’s true that it’s a little more, when you are the former head of paintings and that you become president-director, you have a tendency to look at your department a little more closely. This might interfere with the curator in question. Nowadays, since the president-director of the Louvre is an archaeologist, (ed.: Daniel Martinez) I am sure that the paintings department must be much more at ease. It’s quite simple. And that’s in fact the issue of distribution of power between the department chiefs and the president-director and it’s a problem that existed and that always will. Everyone wants a piece of the pie, it’s normal. I always tried to argue for and defend the idea that a museum works only if there is a great complicity among everyone and an agreeable climate between the curators and the president-director. It’s not always easy to achieve because some curators are more unwilling than others, but that’s the case in all the museums of the world.

Rail: Yes, it’s interesting to note that there’s a parallel, I believe, between Monsieur Laclotte and you. I’m sorry, I always called him Monsieur Laclotte. I call you Pierre and I use the familiar “tu” with Henri, that’s just a habit. Like Monsieur Laclotte, you also went from the paintings department to being president-director. When he became president-director, did he look at your acquisitions with a closer eye?

Rosenberg: I was his successor as the head of the paintings department. The last few years before he became president-director, Laclotte was busy with Orsay. So I’ve known and headed the paintings department for quite a while. For the acquisitions, I also felt like it went very well, both when I was in the paintings department, under him, and when I started as head of that department, but also when I became head of the museum as a whole. We were successful with some of the acquisitions. Laclotte and I had the plan to do an exhibition one day of the paintings that we had not been able to acquire. Our failures! That was a chief subject of interest to us. [Laughter]

Rail: It’s so humble and beautiful. As you know, in the United States, curators tend to look at their own acquisitions as trophies.

Rosenberg: I remember, for instance, when I went to London, to the sale of the Pareja by Velázquez, (which the Metropolitan purchased) and we were calmly sitting there with all the money that we could assemble, and of course it wasn’t enough! Our failures, that would be a great exhibition. A great exhibition. Our regrets, our failures. There are different kinds of failures. There are paintings that we didn’t understand, where we didn’t understand the importance of the work. For example, we should have woken up earlier and started buying English paintings. We bought some English painters, Wright of Derby, these kinds of artists, when I was a young curator, these paintings were very cheap.

Rail: When I arrived to the Kimbell, I had become friends with one of your curators, a very young curator at the time, he was in charge of the department of English paintings, and of something else, Olivier Meslay [ed.: now director of the Clark Institute, Williamstown] It was 1992–1993 and I asked him about his department. And he told me that he had approximately 12 paintings under his purview.

Rosenberg: Well, now the department of English paintings, the English paintings collection of the Louvre—outside of England and of the Commonwealth countries—is certainly the most important one among large museums. Entire departments have been created in the past decades. I remember very well, the beautiful Friedrich, The Tree of Crows, one of the masterpieces of Friedrich, had belonged to a Jewish family from Arnstadt. During the war, the painting was seized and the family recovered it. I’m saying Arnstadt, but it may have been Stuttgart. When the owner passed away, his heirs decided to sell it and they put as a condition that the painting could not be purchased by a German museum. I remember very well that I saw the painting in a hotel room in New York. It was in the hands of Peter Nathan, I think, I’m not sure, it was him. And that’s where we saw it, where I saw it, in this hotel room, and we decided to purchase it. Here it’s the contrary, it’s a fortunate situation because we didn’t have to compete with German museums, and we didn’t have any competition, in fact. I don’t know why the painting was offered to us first. That’s also what’s important, in an acquisition, being in the position where a work is offered to you first. Why is a work offered to the Louvre first—a painting, a drawing, a sculpture—it’s simply because dealers are proud to sell to the Louvre and it’s this pride of having sold to the Louvre, it’s something that matters. That’s the role of the curators, of the president-director, to ensure that this prestige that the Louvre has, benefits the museum collections. It was very clear, for a number of years, for the paintings, for the Danish paintings, everything that we were able to acquire at that moment.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Tree of Crows, c. 1822. Oil on canvas, 23 1/4 x 28 3/4 inches. Collection of the Louvre, Paris.

Rail: Everyone has their strengths, but you have, and I’m not the only one to say so, you have a legendary eye, you know what I mean. Let’s look around you (ed.: All the walls in all the rooms of Rosenberg’s big house are covered with paintings he personally acquired) and precisely what I would like to ask you is that one day you told me that you went to the flea market every week, and acquired a painting almost every week.

Rosenberg: Yes, for a very long time, I would go to the flea market every Saturday morning.

Rail: And you would often buy …

Rosenberg: Yes, I found some paintings for the Louvre at the flea market, that’s true.

Rail: But you also sometimes acquired for yourself?

Rosenberg: Yes, for myself. I am also a collector of drawings and paintings. You are asking me a question that is very relevant, because I want my collection of drawings and paintings, my archives, my library, to go to Les Andelys. Les Andelys, because it was the home town of Nicolas Poussin. There are other reasons as well. There’s an 18th century hospital, a beautiful building from an architectural perspective, which is being vacated, and I would like this building to become the Musée Nicolas Poussin. For things to be simpler, I decided to give my collection to that museum. For the moment, it’s not advancing quickly enough because it’s a pretty expensive venture. I am looking for sponsors to carry out this task. I am very well supported by one of the actual ministers in the government, who is also the political leader of the region. This is my big project, my last project, a Nicolas Poussin museum to which I will give all of my collections, drawing, paintings, everything included.

The reason I am so attached to this project, is first of all because I consider Poussin to be the greatest French painter, with Cézanne, or before Cézanne. He’s certainly the one who is most written about. A difficult painter, who set the bar high. A very difficult painter. But also because Poussin lived in Rome at a time when the France of Louis XIV became Europe’s leading power. France has great writers, great musicians, great architects, really great painters, and with this Musée Nicolas Poussin at Andelys, the hometown of Poussin, I would like to make the museum visitors feel the passing of the torch of arts from Italy to France. It would make me happy. The biggest asset of the project is obviously the building, a beautiful building.

Rail: You are one of the champions of the 17th century, without a doubt, and I remember when we met, I think I was at Yale at the time because one of my jobs, as I was one of the few people speaking French in my department, was to greet and welcome every new Focillon Fellow every year as they arrived from Paris. It was then a wonderful way for me to keep up with the most current research at the time in France. You know that Focillon was the one who created the Art History department at Yale?

Rosenberg: Of course! You know, when he died in 1942 or 1943, because he was a Gaulliste, the General de Gaulle sent a few French soldiers from London to attend his funeral? And, remind me, from Yale you went to Fort Worth?

Rail: No, from Fort Worth I went to Yale. So, I went from the last museum designed by Louis Kahn, to the first museum by Louis Kahn.

Rosenberg: For my Andelys project, which I just told you about, I was assigned a curator from the Louvre. You might know him, his name is Guillaume Kientz. He is a specialist of Spanish paintings and he was just appointed at Fort Worth.

Rail: Yes, I recently heard about his appointment. I had a great student, Jeffrey Fraiman, who collaborated on the great Michelangelo show at the Met, and who was also shortlisted for that job. So, shortly after you and I met, there was this 17th century curator from the Palace of the Legion of Honor, I can’t remember her name.

Rosenberg: Her name was Marion Stewart.

Rail: Yes, that’s right, and Lynn Orr, as well, who adores you.

Rosenberg: A long time ago, we prepared together the catalogue of French paintings of—

Rail: That’s right! And she told me “you know, no one else, even in America, knows the collections of 17th century French painting in American museums better than Pierre!”

Rosenberg: Well, I did this exhibition, I don’t remember exactly what year it was, it was at the Metropolitan, in Chicago and at the Grand Palais. The exhibition was called 17th Century French Paintings in American Collections and it had a great success here, too. It’s funny, it was an unexpected kind of success. And yet I made the same exhibition with the same title on painting in German museums, but it didn’t work at all.

Rail: I didn’t know about the German exhibition, this is such an interesting paradox. Please tell me how, if you will, how did you manage to enter the storage rooms/warehouses? Lynn Orr was telling, she explained that you went to see them all, you practically saw every existing storage room of every museum in America! How did you do this?

Rosenberg: When I was Focillon Fellow at Yale, I did some traveling within the United States by Greyhound bus. Museum after museum. When I was taking care of the Mona Lisa in Washington, and didn’t have much to do other than taking care of her, I discovered all the catalogues of American museums, all the catalogues that I had access to. And then when I did my advanced studies, I continued to uncover catalogues and traveled bit by bit throughout America. I had two goals: view as much as I could of the collections of 17th and 18th century paintings, especially French, but also a little Italian, and then, discover the drawings collections, which are, as you know, extraordinary. I first made an exhibition of French drawings from American collections. It was an exhibition requested by Vitzthum. [ed.: Walter Vitzthum (1928–1971), a very prolific German scholar] He had a great eye for drawings. The best of the postwar period. A German who hated Germany.

Rail: Where was he?

Rosenberg: Toronto. He is the one who built the Toronto collections. I actually have a small list of American museums that I didn’t have a chance to visit. I never went to Buffalo.

Rail: There probably aren’t a lot of museums on that list—of museums you didn’t go to! [Laughter]

Rosenberg: No, not a lot. On the other hand, I think I was one of the first Europeans to have written on the Ringling Museum in Sarasota. Have you been to Sarasota?

Rail: Yes, I love that museum. My assistant from Yale became a curator there.

Rosenberg: Now, of course, it’s a well-known museum. There are some great catalogues. I remember that when I went—

Rail: Earlier on, I imagine there was nothing, except that great and odd Baroque collection?

Rosenberg: At the time, I made an article in L'Oeil with a few photos, like the Dujardin, which is the most beautiful painting by Dutch painter Dujardin in the world! I don’t think anyone knows that article in L'Oeil. [Laughter]

This museum had a very bad reputation because of Ringling himself. Did you know that Ringling was a circus man? It’s often forgotten that it was actually Chick Austin, who made the museum, who continued what Ringling had begun. He is the man who did Hartford … it’s the same person! You see, I went quite far. I took a Greyhound to go to Sarasota. Greyhound buses taught me a lot about America. At the time, traveling by Greyhound was quite special. It was the cheapest way to travel, it probably still is, and there were always shabby motels around the Greyhound bus stations in the cities. I got to know these motels quite well. You had to pay right away, in the evening, not the morning after when you left.

Rail: So you wouldn’t run out without paying in the morning? I remember I think Lynn Orr also telling me that no one, not among European scholars, but not among American scholars, no one even came close to you in terms of knowledge of the 17th century. You accept this compliment?

Rosenberg: You know, one day, I spent Christmas with the old Friedlander when I was a Focillon fellow at Yale. I always remember this Christmas where there was Bobby Rosenblum, Edgar Munhall, and also the somewhat forgotten art historian Bill Crelly, who wrote the first serious book on Vouet. If Americans at the time knew their museums so badly, it’s for a very simple reason: When they took vacation or when they could travel anywhere in the world, they went to Europe. They never would stay home. It’s silly. It’s understandable, they were nostalgic of Europe. But they made it very easy for me. When you are an art historian specializing on Italian Renaissance, you prefer to go spend your vacations in Florence rather than in Memphis. Well, I chose to do both… [Laughter]

Rail: I see, so, you found little enthusiasm among our American colleagues towards their own museums?

Rosenberg: But they’ve now started to travel within their own country. This has changed a lot.

Rail: I must have welcomed a dozen Focillon Fellows. No one had the same curiosity about Americans and American museums as you have.

Rosenberg: Yes, I had a lot of fun.

Rail: There must be something inside you, a curiosity for the United States.

Rosenberg: Yes, a big curiosity. I learned a lot from American museums and I must say that what I was able to achieve at the Louvre, it’s often because of American examples. Earlier, I was speaking about education services. Europe is really late when it comes to education services. Precisely, I remember very well the museums that I was visiting, where there was always someone with kids sitting on the floor, who explained to them the paintings and who did it in a very intelligent manner. Speaking to kids is not the same thing as speaking to adults. I remember that I often listened to these speakers. They had a way of speaking about paintings that I was incapable of. I also discovered something else that I repeated at the Louvre. I am somewhat responsible for this. It’s the information desk under the pyramid. Now it functions quite well.

Rail: You were mostly responsible for this?

Rosenberg: Yes, yes, a little bit. I was very inspired by the Metropolitan, you know the circular station in the middle. It really inspired me because when you visited the Metropolitan museum during those years, you had in front of you people who knew who you were. That is, they knew that the tourist … I remember very well, if you lost your passport, at the information desk they knew how to help you. Or all kinds of things. We didn’t have this in Europe. I hope that’s still the case now at the Louvre, but I imagine so. The information desk is very important. It’s important for people to know not only the location of the Mona Lisa, but also to know the schedule of other museums, like Orsay, to understand that the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, but the Orsay is open on Tuesdays, etc. You have to help the first time visitors to navigate through this extremely complex cultural labyrinth. I put a lot of effort to ensure that the people who work at the information desk would have the right type of training.

Rail: I often accompany foreigners through our museums in New York City. There are sometimes general questions, I can’t remember exactly which ones, but I too am often surprised by the people working at the information desk, how open they are, and friendly and knowledgeable.

Rosenberg: Of course they must also speak the languages. I don’t know how they manage now because in my days there weren’t a lot of Chinese tourists.

Rail: Today, how many visitors are Chinese at the Louvre?

Rosenberg: I don’t know, but it’s an important number.

Rail: I would like to discuss two points, if you don’t mind. First, you, Henri Loyrette, and Michel Laclotte are all art historians: does this say something about the President-Director of the Louvre?

Rosenberg: Yes, but we are each very different. I really admire Laclotte. I always admired his modesty and his efficiency. I think he was a great director, a great creator. We are close friends. But we are very different from each other. For many years, I played the bad guy and he played the good guy. Loyrette, of course I know him well. I’m sort of the one who wanted him to be my successor. It was in fact an obvious succession. When I was leaving, he had established himself, so at the time, it was the decision of the president of the Republic but it was a very simple decision, a no-brainer.

Rail: To be honest, with Henri [Loyrette] we became friends because I worked with him while I was a curator at MoMA on a Cézanne project, first with Françoise (Cachin) and then with him.

Rosenberg: Is he very happy right now?

Rail: I don’t know.

Rosenberg: Because what saves me, I don’t need to be saved, but it’s the fact that I publish. You see those two volumes there? There are four of those coming out in January. It’s a huge endeavor. It’s the catalogue of Italian drawings in the Mariette collection. Six million characters, 2900 photos. I signed the BAT, you know what BAT stands for?

Rail: Bon à tirer, in English, “final proof.”

Rosenberg: Yes, these days. Once the final proof has been signed, all that is left is to wait for the critique … So, your questions?

Rail: You are all three art historians, because you continue to work in your own fields of research. The 17th century for you, the 14th and 15th centuries early Italian and French for Laclotte and the 19th century for Loyrette.

Rosenberg: Degas. You are right to ask the question, and I will answer in a different way. I believe it is absolutely inevitable, and I’m saying this as I think about the United States, it is absolutely indispensable for the directors to also be scholars. I am very hostile towards directors who are purely administrators, bankers, fundraisers, or whatever. Of course, all of that is also necessary. But it’s easier to learn to become a fundraiser than it is to learn to become an art historian. I, for instance, knew very little about budgeting. I learned. I developed something that I am very proud of at the Louvre: philanthropy/patronage.

Rail: You are the one who created philanthropy/patronage?

Rosenberg: Yes, absolutely. 100 percent. There was no philanthropy/patronage at the Louvre before me. Laclotte had very simple ideas when it came to that. Very simple and justifiable ideas. For him, the Louvre was a national museum. And it was for the nation to pay the museum. It was the nation’s job. The service of philanthropy, I’m the one who created it, there’s no doubt. At first, it was modest. It was obviously developed to its fullest extent by Loyrette, but the first philanthropy transactions were, I don’t know if it rings a bell, Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière who is well known in France right now for many reasons, and he was the patron of the restoration of Agasias’s Borghese Gladiator. But after, it developed further. To come back to the United States, the idea of patronage is an American idea. I’m also a little bit at the source of the current laws on national treasures, I worked on all of that. The fact that we can deduct purchases of national treasures from our taxes, that’s also partially me.

Rail: Also a very American concept.

Rosenberg: Except that the system is more generous in France than it is in America. If you’re clever, you can deduct up to 80%–90%. By the way, there’s now a whole movement that claims it’s too advantageous for patrons. Without tax deductions, the Louvre would never have been able to buy several masterpieces that were threatened to be exported. My last purchase, if I may say, it’s very recent, it’s the Rembrandts, or at least one of the two Rothschild Rembrandts, which were on the verge of leaving.

Rail: From Eric de Rothschild.

Rosenberg: My brother-in-law.

Rail: Now we’re going to change topics a little bit, if you don’t mind. I would like to return to art history but since we’re speaking about this, Ray Nasher, do you remember him? He was the one who started developing huge malls in Dallas. I think he was invited by the Louvre. He started to design plans for stores at the Louvre.

Rosenberg: You know, we have no “stores” at the Louvre. There is what we call the “other side of the museum,” the inverted pyramid, where there are all kinds of what you call “stores.” When the pyramid project was completed, we had to find some financial solutions, and so there’s a part of the Louvre that has no stores (now there are quite a few) other than bookshops, of course, places selling guides, things like that, objects of the Louvre, and there’s the other part, the inverted pyramids, where there are restaurants and many other services. But I am glad that you’re bringing this up. All of this has meant a big progress in mentalities, a very great progress. I knew the Louvre at the time when the idea of a restaurant at the Louvre, or of restrooms at the Louvre, was considered anathema… There were no restrooms at the Louvre, or very few, can you believe it?

My first memory of the Louvre, curiously enough, not my first memory because my parents took me there first, when they were able to bring me to the Louvre, and thankfully it’s my parents who brought me because the school did nothing at the time if we wanted to go to museums. But anyway, one of my first memories, there were men standing outside of the Louvre. They were wearing very large coats and they had pockets on each side of their coats. On the right, there were naked ladies, and on the left, there were naked men. The tourists were thrilled … I remember this. I was young, I wasn’t even a teenager, it was a long time ago. Now, when you’re around the Louvre, things haven’t changed. I was passing by the other day to see an exhibition on chiaroscuro that just opened. Now it’s ticket trafficking. Outside of the Louvre, there are people who are trying to sell you tickets so that you don’t stand in the queue. I think they’re real tickets. Visitors leave and since the tickets aren’t stamped … so, if you will, the Louvre always had some kind of trafficking around it. All of that little side history, unwritten history of the Louvre is amusing.

Rail: If I may, I would like to ask you the same question I asked the other two directors. With what success and with which obstacles, have you been able to combine this career of an administrator while remaining a true, committed art historian, a specialist of the 17th century. I remember when you came to talk about La Tour at the Kimbell, you and I spoke to Thuillier, these were extraordinary conversations. I learned so much thanks to you, as thousands of people did. But the paradox is this: how can you continue to look at objects so thoroughly with a magnifying glass, and yet still have this macrocosm under your wing, running the Louvre?

Rosenberg: It’s not easy, I admit. It has meant sacrificing a little bit of my vacation, maybe even a lot of my vacation. But I always took very little vacation in my life anyway. And besides, you know, I don’t like vacations. But the real difficulty is the following. To manage a museum or to work in a museum requires quick decision-making all the time, at all times. There’s a phone call and you’re told that the minister of Bulgaria is there, that he wants to see the Mona Lisa, so you have to be there. Writing requires the exact opposite. Writing requires chunks of uninterrupted time: the museum is constant interruptions. Time, slowness, time, that’s what you need when you write. And the true difficulty is to go from one to another. To go from the first gear to the fourth gear (I don’t drive). That’s difficult.

Rail: And that’s the main reason why most museum directors don’t publish anything.

Rosenberg: That’s right. They’re too tired. There are still a few exceptions in America. Keith Christiansen is publishing and managing a department, a difficult department. But it’s not so easy, and that’s why I insisted earlier on the fact that I think it is essential for curators and directors to also be scholars. They must be for other reasons as well. To be respected in your own museum you need to know what you have in your museum. This said, I know very little about what is at the Louvre, other than the paintings, but I still know a little bit.

Rail: I’m having trouble believing that.

Rosenberg: No, no, of course. When you’re speaking to an archaeologist, who is leading a department, if you don’t have the bare minimum of knowledge, he won’t be taken seriously. You must obviously be in the know. Of course, I am not an Egyptologist, of course not. But I still know enough about the department of Egyptology at the Louvre to be able to discuss it with its director. I now forgot, but I used to know what were the Egyptian periods that needed some reinforcement at the Louvre. And when he came to see me to tell me that he wanted to acquire something, I could not talk—not equal to equal, that would be pretentious to say—but I could still understand, and that’s something that directors of many museums are not able to do, and so they are looked down upon by their curators.

Rail: You remind me of Philippe de Montebello.

Rosenberg: Yes, he was very good for that. You know that we’re exactly the same age by the way? He’s either four days older or four days younger than me. About a week apart.

Rail: Can we say something more about the American collections?

Rosenberg: It’s really Henri [Loyrette]who wanted to do it. There were very few American paintings at the Louvre, aside from Whistler’s mother, which is at Orsay anyway. I had purchased a very pretty painting by Thomas Cole, which became famous, it’s a Native American praying under a cross, it’s a circular painting. I was the one who purchased it. But there was nothing in terms of American paintings in the real collections. Forbes was the one who handled this.

Rail: So, among other things, you really gave a launch, an impetus, to the department of English paintings and Henri [Loyrette] to the department of American paintings?

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Le Verrou, 1777. Oil on canvas, 23 2/4 x 36 1/2 inches. Collection of the Louvre, Paris.

Rosenberg: Yes, you could say that. The Louvre will always lack a Bingham. The luck of France was that there was this amazing painting by Winslow Homer which was purchased in 1887, Danseuse au bord de la place, which is a masterpiece. And, there was the mother of Whistler, of course. So at the beginning, there were a few American paintings, but it’s mostly paintings that are more at Orsay, of course, than at the Louvre. I would have liked to have a Bingham. I handled American painting a little. There was a big exhibition of American paintings at the Petit Palais or at the Grand Palais, a few years ago, which was made to profit a museum I was vaguely responsible for at the time, the Musée Franco-Américain in Blérancourt. It’s a museum that was made by Anne Morgan, who helped a lot. She created an ambulance service during World War I. When I was put in charge of this museum by Hubert Landais, at the time, director of the French museums, the museum was sinking. Since then the museum was restored, inaugurated, and it became a beautiful place. When I was put in charge, I thought that it would be easy, that I would go see the Morgan bank and that they would give me money to help the museum. I had created a matching fund system between America and France for this museum. I went to see them and I understood that I was making a terrible mistake, because if Anne Morgan lived in France all her life and died in France, it’s because she was a lesbian. At the time there was a whole well-known group of lesbians in Paris. She was the black sheep of the bank. They didn’t want to hear about her. Now it all worked out. The bank is helping Blérancourt a little bit, but at the time when I arrived, I was a young curator, I thought it would be easy, that it would be a done deal. I got a very cold reception, without expecting it. It’s funny. These kinds of stories, related to the Louvre, there are many in my book.

Rail: What would be the two, three, five most beautiful acquisitions that you made?

Rosenberg: As you know, there are some gaps at the Louvre. The biggest gap is Velázquez, especially since the Louvre almost got the Rokeby Venus, which is in the National Gallery in London. It wound up in England. It was sold by Rokeby to the National Gallery in 1903, I believe. The Louvre, the Friends of the Louvre, had tried to buy it at the time, but it didn’t work out. No, my biggest purchase is the Le Verrou by Fragonard, which obviously became some kind of icon that is everywhere reproduced, especially with the #MeToo movement. Is she resisting or not, you know what I mean?

Rail: Is she consenting or not?

Antonello da Messina, Christ at the Column, c. 1476-78. Oil on panel, 10 1/4 x 8 1/4 inches. Collection of the Louvre, Paris.

Rosenberg: Exactly, her head is turned. Besides, the answer, you’re the one who’s supposed to give it. Fragonard obviously left the door open to any interpretation. This was a difficult purchase, which was highly contested at the time because the idea of a more neoclassical Fragonard wasn’t accepted, people liked a Fragonard that was more…it was a very difficult purchase. It caused me a lot of trouble at the time. Now it has become an absolute classic, especially since we were able to establish, you know, that there was a pendant on the right, the Adoration des Bergers [by El Greco] and we were able to get it as a donation by Roberto Polo. So I’m very proud of the Fragonard. I am also very proud of the Christ [at the Column] by Antonello da Messina, which is in the Grande Galerie and which comes from the Cook collection in England. It was a very difficult negotiation because England didn’t really want to let it out. I had to negotiate for the reviewing committee to accept the export.

Rail: Did you have to discuss an exchange?

Rosenberg: On, no, it went well. Were you ever in front of the reviewing committee?

Rail: Yes, but only from the outside.

Georges de la Tour, Saint Thomas è la pique, c.1635. Oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 24 1/2 inches. Collection of the Louvre, Paris.

Rosenberg: It’s very difficult. On one hand, you must tell them that they don’t really need the painting, that it’s a bad work, and on the other hand, if it’s a bad painting, why are you buying it? But since members of the reviewing committee know quite well that everyone has the same problem, they are jaded. Those are two purchases that I am quite proud of. There were others, but I am very keen on these two. I obviously bought a lot in the field of the 17th century. The other purchase I am very proud of is the St Thomas by Georges de La Tour, because on that occasion I had made a public funding campaign, which was a first in France. It worked very well because on the very first day, Michel David-Weill came and said that he would give 10% of the sum. That was encouraging.

Rail: Absolutely. I remember it in the exhibition that we did with Philip Conisbee.

Rosenberg: I think so, yes. It’s a painting that is signed, but all of this is in my book. It is amusing because since then we have done a lot of public funding campaigns. At the time, we didn’t have the money. This was well before the new laws, which would have allowed this purchase quite easily. I don’t remember exactly how much it cost; the price is in my book. It was expensive. It was an expensive painting, because it was bequeathed to the Ordre de Malte but they had no particular reason to keep it. They had inherited it from an older woman, etc. And so, the French people who gave money to the crowd funding campaign had the impression that they were giving to the Louvre … So that put me in a very comfortable position. And that matters. It was very amusing. I had a lot of fun. We had another patron, who also gave us an important portion of the sum, with the condition that we would accept it with the understanding that the painting should be seen in certain provincial towns. He had chosen five or six towns—museums obviously—and we would show the painting in the evening. He would give a cocktail party, costs were fully covered by him of course, shipping, insurance, all of that. For him it was an opportunity to make himself known, because he was a real estate promoter.

Rail: Ingenious system. It’s quite interesting.

Rosenberg: The sum of the public funding campaign ended up being quite high for the time. You know the situation for old master paintings today. When they’re exceptional. In my opinion, I don’t remember the exact amount, but today it would be considered a tiny price, in relation to what it is worth today, which is a considerable amount of money. I found it amusing because I first established this system of public funding campaigns, which the Louvre now regularly uses. For instance, they recently acquired a Cranach with this system. There’s an ongoing one right now for the restoration of the small Arc de Triomphe, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. So it’s now become a fait accompli. But I created the first one.

Rail: You’re touching upon something that I wanted to ask you. Today, everyone speaks of decentralization, in the field of contemporary art, of the fact that Paris shouldn’t be the only center, that France enjoys many fabulous provincial museums that should be treated as among equals. What do you think?

Rosenberg: Much needs to be done. I worked a lot with provincial museums. I tried to do everything. Much still needs to be done. France is a centralized country, whether we like it or not. Yesterday, I spoke on the phone with the only important dealer of old master paintings who wasn’t based in Paris, and now, guess what, he is now moving to Paris. That’s why he called me. He asked me what I thought. The gap between Paris and his city, which is Lyon, to be completely transparent, remains considerable. So we shouldn’t hide the fact that—as opposed to Germany, where there are several capitals, or as opposed to Italy, where decentralization is even more pronounced—France, as England, is a very centralized country. Isn’t America also a centralized country? Despite Los Angeles?

Rail: Richard Brettell made an interesting argument a few decades ago. He curated an exhibition in the 1990s, which eventually led to the creation of FRAME (French Regional American Museum Exchange) that he set up with Elizabeth Rohatyn and Françoise Cachin. The rough idea was, it was quite thought-provoking at the time, you know how Rick is, he was basically saying that if you put together the five top great museums of the Midwest—there was Kansas City, Dallas, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Chicago of course—his claim was that together, these midwestern museum collections would surpass the Metropolitan or the Louvre, or the Musée d’Orsay.

Rosenberg: Yes, of course.

Rail: You think so? I thought it was Rick’s claim was a little ambitious, but—

Rosenberg: I was on the board of FRAME. I wasn’t there at the beginning since it was obviously an anti-New York and Louvre operation; it’s normal, but they eventually poached me. It worked very well in terms of something that I find very useful, it’s that the curators of these great American museums and of the equivalent French museums know each other and they were able to exchange a lot of information on the management methods of these museums, which are so different. I think it worked better on a personal level than on an institutional level. Here, they are meeting this week on Thursday and Friday, at Nantes and at Angers. I should have gone. Helene David-Weill organized a cocktail party for them a few days ago, where I should have been. I should have gone but I couldn’t, because as you know Madame Rohatyn passed away, Françoise Cachin as well. There is a gentleman who takes good care of it, I forget his name, he is the director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond. It’s a beautiful museum, a very beautiful museum, and he took charge from the American side with a lot of enthusiasm. So it’s not dead. Often, good ideas like that don’t last long. The responsibility usually rests on two people.

To tell you the truth, I am extremely worried about the future of museums. I am worried because people are lost in museums, whether they are in France, in Europe, in America, people mostly are lost. Why? They no longer have any biblical education, any mythological education, so they are completely lost in front of religious subject matters, or anything having to do with history, literature, mythology. You can see them. Anywhere. They wander the museums. As a result, if you set aside the Metropolitan, the Vatican, Florence, the Louvre of course, and a few other museums, museums are generally empty. We are surprised to see to what extent museums are empty. There are very few people in museums, whether in America or in Europe. I was recently in Berlin. Wonderful museum. There were seven visitors, and I knew them all. I was shocked. I knew all seven visitors. Of course, there is the huge rivalry of contemporary art, that’s undeniable, and that is all right. I think people are bored in museums. They are lost. Except, of course, a small elite, a small educated portion, who had parents who brought them to museums.

I think that if the new generation of curators, the generation that is taking power right now, people who are 30 years old or so, if this generation doesn’t become keenly committed to the future state of museums, which seems very difficult and complicated to me, museums will, or they might—after an extraordinary moment of bloom that I had the chance of living through, and to which I participated—they might be falling back and finding themselves in a very difficult situation again. I am afraid that unfortunately—and I apologize for ending on such a pessimistic note—but I am really worried, and I think that if there isn’t an awareness of these questions, if we are unable to understand that the only way to save museums comes from education thought up from the very beginning, we will find ourselves in the situation of museums in the 19th century. Dusty and empty museums reserved for a very small, specialized elite. I am very worried, despite the success of temporary exhibitions, and despite the success of a few institutions that will of course remain.

Rail: I am touched by this, as you know, I teach at university—

Rosenberg: Where do you teach?

Rail: I teach at the City University of New York, at Hunter College.

Rosenberg: Are your students good?

Rail: I have amazing students. I used to be at Yale and I thought that the transition, you know, from an Ivy League, from private universities to public universities, but Hunter College might be the crown jewel of CUNY. They are very, very good.

Rosenberg: Are they interested in issues of attribution? Or are they purely theoretical?

Rail: Well, you know, the issues of connoisseurship are—

Rosenberg: So it’s purely theoretical?

Rail: I won’t exactly say that, but—

Rosenberg: So, you, you don’t try to fix it?

Rail: I try to establish a balance. You see, for a few decades, the two notions were radically pitched against each other. I simply don’t think that they are exclusive of each other. On the contrary.

Rosenberg: And now it evolved towards something even more theoretical.

Rail: Yes, less centered on key figures of so-called French poststructuralism, which was popular in the 1980s–1990s.

Rosenberg: Thankfully that’s disappearing. But it’s being replaced by other things, of very personal analysis.

Rail: But how do you know this, if I may ask? I can’t really picture you reading this kind of thing. You keep yourself informed?

Rosenberg: Yes, I do. And you, what do you try to do?

Rail: Listen, I try to make them understand what a museum is. Philippe de Montebello, at New York University’s Institute of the Fine Arts, and me at CUNY, we do somewhat parallel work. He is more focused on what he knows best, starting from archaeology, he ends around the 18th–19th centuries, and I begin around the 18th century, the rise of aesthetics, the dawn of the modern era, and what one of my professors, Alain Renaut, called the Era of the Individual, and I go until—

Rosenberg: How many students do you have?

Rail: 20, 25 maximum. I teach graduate seminars.

Rosenberg: Do they speak languages other than English?

Rail: Absolutely, because we have a great diversity of students, from China, Korea, from Latin American countries, from past Soviet countries.

Rosenberg: What are their theses on?

Rail: It varies a lot. Of course 80 percent of students I know are interested in the post-war decades, with a great emphasis on the 1980s and the present challenges that we see today.

Rosenberg: Duchamp?

Rail: Sure, from Duchamp to today. We have a star faculty at Hunter, a great specialist of Duchamp: Thierry de Duve. When I was a student, there was a huge concentration of interest in the 19th century. Today, no one is interested in the 19th century. I don’t have a single thesis in this era.

Rosenberg: Even the Impressionists? That’s over?

Rail: Especially the Impressionists! I was shocked to hear that my friend Richard Shiff, at the University of Texas, at Austin, gave up teaching his famous seminars on Cézanne, “because his students aren’t interested”!

I have a student who did a graduate thesis on the Commune. That’s about it.

Rosenberg: The Commune is obviously fascinating. It’s part art history, but it’s not just art history.

Rail: Of course.


Joachim Pissarro

Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.

David Carrier

David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

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